Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ta-Nehisi Coates: On Being Black in America

Between the World and Me is sweeping across America. When both Time magazine and Christianity Today urged me to read it, I figured I should listen! Coates frames his incisive prose as an extended letter to his teenage son on growing up black in America. Though much has changed since his own childhood, still the black body seems fragile -- dispensable to those who think they are white

Coates is a gifted writer, and his vision is clear. 

He writes, "And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us [as blacks] but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us [i.e., whites], intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do. In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after." (120)

He describes the effect of Black History month, and the emphasis on non-violent resistance as model black behavior — a behavior that to him ensures that white power continues unabated. The only authorized black heroes are the meek: "All those old photographs from the 1960s, all those films I beheld of black people prostrate before clubs and dogs, were not simply shameful, indeed were not shameful at all—they were just true. We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world." (146, emphasis added)

He leaves readers with this call to action: "And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. . . . Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all." (151, emphasis added)

Perhaps you think this is overstated. That we really are white, and that whiteness matters. 

I'll admit that until I read Coates' book, it had never occurred to me that I was anything but white. Now I find it strange that I didn't see before what a misleading term it is, a label that has drawn a line between us and them and has ushered me into privilege while others wait outside. I'm ready to move on. Ready to go full color.

Let's be clear. Humanity matters. Every one of us, no matter our skin color, our country of origin, or our religion. And as long as this doesn't translate into equitable treatment, then we must raise our voices and work for a better world.

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