Making the Ordinary Extraordinary: George Nesbitt’s Powerful Memoir Details the Personal Struggle for a Better World

Nesbitt recounts his experiences of Black life in the United States with humor, wit, sadness, irony, and occasionally anger.

By Paul Harvey

Being Somebody and Black Besides: An Untold Memoir of Midcentury Black Life, by George B. Nesbitt, ed. by Prexy Nesbit and Zeb Larson. Chicago, 2021. 360p, 9780226783123 $27.50, 9780226716831 $26.99

Book cover of "Being Somebody and Black Besides"

“One ever feels his twoness,” wrote the eminent Black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois in his classic The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois was the hero, the inspiration, and the muse for George B. Nesbitt (1912–2002), a lawyer, a civil rights activist, and the author of this newly released autobiography, written decades ago but just recently published. The book opens with an unexpected surprise: an introduction by the great Black sociologist, and a contemporary of Nesbitt’s, John Gibbs St. Clair Drake. St. Clair Drake was the author of Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945), which focused on Chicago, the city where the two men knew each other, having met after Nesbitt acquired his law degree from the University of Illinois. St. Clair Drake’s introduction alone is worth the price of admission.

In this poignant memoir it becomes clear that Nesbitt felt keenly the entirety of Du Bois’s quotation about “twoness,” as “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Nesbitt was not given to writing poetically, as Du Bois was in his great classic, but one sees immediately why Nesbitt took Du Bois as his touchstone and guiding light. Both men were proud of their achievements, well educated, talented, dogged, and yet constantly subject to the vicissitudes of living as well-educated and self-respecting professional Black men in a white supremacist nation.

Although Nesbitt’s life was ordinary in many ways—he is at pains to point this out—it becomes extraordinary in its recounting here, the plain-spoken prosaic nature of the narrative ironically giving the story a heroic lift.

These early passages hint at the book’s great quality: its straightforward prose often produces beautiful passages of insight, ironic contrast, and sometimes well-earned anger.

Nesbitt’s family came North in the early twentieth century as part of the Great Migration: the movement of more than six million Black Americans out of the South, seeking to flee the shadow of slavery and Jim Crow. His parents made the trek northward but, for reasons unknown to Nesbitt, they never made it to Chicago, instead settling in the small university town of Champaign, Illinois, “with their hopes and fears, two mules, a cow, and a flock of chickens” (p. 2). The young George got to know the town by distributing the well-known African American newspaper The Chicago Defender. The town was not rife with as much racial discrimination as in the South, but it was no paradise either. “It denied [him],” Nesbitt writes, “but it whetted [his] aspirations too” (p. 14), teaching him “not to expect too much nor to settle for too little” (p. 15). These early passages hint at the book’s great quality: its straightforward prose often produces beautiful passages of insight, ironic contrast, and sometimes well-earned anger. 

Reflecting on his childhood, Nesbitt notes that his mother, who died young in 1947, was a devout Methodist; his father was a member of the Church of God and Saints of Christ, “a [B]lack Hebrew Israelite denomination” (p. xxxvii). Nesbitt’s training in Jewish passages shows up in numerous quotations throughout the book, though as a boy he was none too happy about being stuck attending religious services on both Sundays and Saturdays. Between these two different religious communities, however, and along with the wide array of people he knew by delivering copies of the Defender, Nesbitt felt encompassed by a “chain of watchfulness” throughout his boyhood, recognizing the virtues of being watched over by people both “strict and restraining” but also at times “warm and friendly” (p. 32).

As a teenager Nesbitt discovered Du Bois and never looked back. He prefaces the chapter “The Comfort of my Negroness” with another quotation from the renowned scholar’s The Souls of Black Folk: “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face” (p. 41). Nesbitt lived out that creed, making his way through university and then law school, before working as a porter on Pullman cars and later serving in various federal agencies. 

Altogether, this is the story of a fairly ordinary man who, by virtue of being an ambitious middle-class Black man in the mid-century United States, ended up living an extraordinary life. Nesbitt often recounts that life with humor and wit, sometimes with sadness, frequently with sarcasm and irony, and occasionally with anger at the sheer absurdities of simply going about one’s business while having Black skin.

As one example of his humor, Nesbitt recounts leading a group of Boy Scouts out to the countryside where they met a local farm owner who also happened to be a Klansman. Wanting to show “that the Klansmen were against Karl Marx, the Pope, and the Jews, except for Jesus, but not [Black people]” (p. 102), he initiated a playful conversation that ended with the Klansman rollicking in laughter, and the trip continuing on after a comfortable night spent on the Klansman’s farm.

Nesbitt’s sadness comes through when he recalls law clerking on the south side of Chicago and seeing the constant roundups—what is today known as stop-and-frisk—of poor Southsiders: “something awful had somehow happened to them. I knew, of course, that they were in immediate trouble, for drunkenness, disorderly conduct, assault and battery. But the trouble seemed deeper, and the people looked bewildered and lost, mean and bitter” (p. 126).

In chapter 8, “The Army and Its Apartheid,” Nesbitt pulls no punches in detailing the irony of Black men fighting for the quintessential freedoms, none of which were actually afforded to them. Having been drafted and sent to train in Savannah, Georgia, he narrates his constant experiences of racial harassment in a military he thoroughly detested. In one memorable passage, he details a particular Army document meant to indoctrinate personnel into respecting the “hallowed” system of segregation. Eventually, on a ship crossing the Pacific, the color line was broken only when the white soldiers decided to share the bathrooms designated for Black soldiers out of convenience.

Also during his time in the army, Nesbitt was labeled an “agitator” after a contretemps with a particularly racist colonel, prompting an investigation by an FBI agent, which turned up evidence that he sympathized with labor unions. Eventually, a psychiatrist declared Nesbitt unfit, and he was shipped home from the war “bearing a shipping tag around my neck on which [were] scrawled two words, ‘Adult Maladjusted’” (p. 183). Here the anger comes through.

Nesbitt tells of how, while Jesus was denied three times by Simon Peter, “[Black people] are denied daily, not by their followers, but by those whites who profess to practice integration with them, especially on the job.”

(p. 227)

Nesbitt’s later years intersected with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s frustratingly unsuccessful 1966 campaign in Chicago, where the civil rights leader met his match in Mayor Richard Daley. The mayor used symbolic gestures to defuse the movement without actually addressing segregation in Chicago housing, schooling, and access to public services. Nesbitt continued fighting the good fight, acknowledging that his service in President John F. Kennedy’s administration resulted mostly in minor gains. Even the federal government, ostensibly an integrated employer, could not really walk the walk. Nesbitt tells of how, while Jesus was denied three times by Simon Peter, “[Black people] are denied daily, not by their followers, but by those whites who profess to practice integration with them, especially on the job” (p. 227). 

Given these circumstances, Nesbitt ever feels his “twoness,” seeing the doors of “Opportunity,” as Du Bois called it, closed by those in charge of opening them. The latter part of the book describes countless daily encounters—with workmates, government officials, landlords, ordinary people, and most especially with the police—in which Black humanity confronted white supremacy; one had justice on its side, the other power.

Being Somebody and Black Besides is a treasure trove for understanding twentieth-century Black American life, told in direct prose that will appeal to a wide audience. Nesbitt is not a well-known historical figure; rather, he is a member of the rank and file, but his nearly unerring ability to capture the everyday experiences of living while Black is extraordinary, and makes this a must-read book for all readers, both within and beyond academia. In Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man (1952), the protagonist ends up living underground; Nesbitt refused that route, defying his very invisibility by leaving readers the great gift of this autobiography.

Summing Up: Highly Recommended. General readers through faculty.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America

Paul Harvey is Distinguished Professor of History and Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is the author/editor of fourteen books and numerous articles.