Saturday, January 30, 2016

You Should Be Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me

It's a long-form, electrifying personal essay about being black in America. It's nightmare fuel for the state legislative yokels doing their best to redact public school history until nothing is left but a whitewashed civics lesson. You owe it to your brothers and sisters of color to take pause and give Coates a circumspect consideration. Here's an excerpt:

The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant "government  of  the people" but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the term "people" to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America's problem is not its betrayal of 'government of the people," but the means by which "the people" acquired their names.
This leads us to another equally important ideal, one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim. Americans believe in the reality of "race" as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism--the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them--inevitably follows fro this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores and earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast a as beyond the handiwork of men.
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming the "people" has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible--this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have bee brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.
These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white--Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish--and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I cannot call it. As for now, it must be said the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieve through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs, the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies. 
The book, by the way, is written as a direct address from the author to his son.

from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. New York: Random House / Spiegel & Grau, 2015.