Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Please Don’t Kill Yourself

Everglade's picture

What does a middle-class white kid need to go to college? GPA, SAT, and extracurricular activities. What else does a poorer kid need? Financial aid. What more does a poor, marginalized, minority kid need? Incentive, a convincing reason to “waste” four years, and parents’ consent. For middle-class white kids, going to college is unquestionable, predestined, and natural as eating and drinking; for minority kids, it’s out of the question, an option of life that never crossed their minds—why waste money and time? Just find a trivial job, get married, have kids and live on government aid. When a minority kid meets all these prerequisites and goes to college, there’s still one essential thing that he needs to deal with: his background.

Tierney concludes two sorts of scholar opinions on regard of minority background. Some claims cultural suicide, indicating that minority students must abandon their cultural/family/neighborhood/economic backgrounds and accept the college notion, because their uneducated families, violent neighborhoods, and different cultures do them no good in academics or future success. Others advocate cultural integrity, holding that backgrounds are not harmful hindrance but to be valued and respected, and if made good use of, can help those students excel.

In NW, Natalie/Keisha committed a cultural suicide. Keisha was the 4-year-old kid who dragged Leah’s red pigtail out of the swimming pool to save her from drowning(201-202); who held Leah’s hand and ran away from Nathan Bogle in that ”dramatic event”(203); who pretended to be sick so she could use a dildo at home while her family went to church(219); who felt isolated without Leah, belonging to neither sides, and discovered that she had no personality. She wanted to belong—definitely not to her black, religious, stagnant family side—and she forced herself to have a personality. So she changed her name to Natalie, a name that sounded intelligent and successful to her, that she believed forged her personality. After that, Natalie kept climbing up to become a barrister and entered a loveless marriage with a rich husband. She killed her former self and fully assimilated into the dominant culture: to have dinner 12 times every year with other barristers and judges and bankers, to marry money, to buy a big house, to have boring conversations instead of fun and casual chats. But her cultural suicide was unsuccessful and badly carried-out. Her old-time best friend hated the robot and the fraud that she had become, and her old self kept haunting her. There’s no way that denying her true self would do her any good—it’s like ripping her vital organs out and stuffing the hole with business and money.

She doesn’t have to do this, really. If she accepts and embrace her identity, she can still be a successful black woman. Being black, she can focus on law cases involving black people or minority rights and be an authority in that area. Her poor family might be her motivation and reminder, rather than a negative energy to even think about. And all the embarrassing and funny things she did as a child can keep her human. Why can’t a barrister be human? Who doesn’t have silly past? She tried too hard to get rid of anything unprofessional. A real professional who’s confident in his ability doesn’t care.

In Zadie Smith’s essay, “Speaking in Tongues”, she talks about identity and the influence of one’s background, too. She’s multi-racial, and her language and accent changed when she left Willesden for college in Cambridge. She felt that she didn’t belong to either group, yet she tried to preserve both voices. She doesn’t reject her background, but admits that they shaped her. That’s why she can write this book NW, understand the personality of this place, depict vivid conversations for each character, old and young, men and women, black and white, and evoke strong feelings from NW people. Her culture integrity—her birth, her childhood, every tiny experience—makes her who she is. She loves her race and her black appearance, so she puts on a headband to emphasize that and add unusual charm. She doesn’t run away from her diversity but learns from every side, so she’s humorous and amiable. Her background is not her burden, but her treasure.

If Natalie/Keisha can face her true self, she will be a successful barrister who has a happy marriage and a dear old friend, a respectable and special female, and a happy person.


Works cited:

  1. Tierney, William G., Journal of Negro Education, Vol.68, No.1
  2. Smith, Zadie, NW
  3. Smith, Zadie, The New York Review of Books, 2009, 3 Nov 2013, <>