This Is My Post on Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Burden of Living among Dreamers”

Under President Barack Obama, instead of hope and change, the U.S. has been offered ample and disturbing evidence that we are not a post-racial country.

As the 2016 presidential race heats up, the U.S. is now forced to confront an inevitable reality: a post-Obama U.S.

From the Sandy Hook school shooting to the racist massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama stood before the country and the world in a way that those holding the office before him and those now seeking the office after him surely could not have matched, will not be able to match.

Obama under the weight of Nobel Peace Prize winner and “first black president” was destined to fall short—personifying the racial dilemma exposed by Ta-Nehisi Coates in March 2014:

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

In 2015, while popular and critical opinions of Obama have risen in many ways, it is now fashionable to praise Coates, who has released a book-length letter to his his son, Between the World and Me.

Like Obama, Coates has been tossed immediately into rarified air, comparisons that virtually no one could survive. Herself a Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morrison, in fact, has joined the chorus anointing Coates the next James Baldwin.

Between has also proven to be an irresistible land mine for black male public intellectuals as well as pontificating and tragically un-self-aware white-mansplainers.

Conversely, several black women scholars and journalists have found Between a powerful entry point for encouraging a much needed conversation about race, class, and gender.

The array of responses presents lessons in grace and the absence of grace that Obama spoke to while eulogizing South Carolina state Senator Clementa Pinckney.

My status as privileged (white, male) former redneck and current academic is not intended here to justify, explain, qualify, or endorse Coates or his book. In fact, if you haven’t been reading Coates, if you haven’t read his book, you should be doing those and not reading yet another post about Coates and his book.

If nothing else, this is about that paradox grounded in the racism of the U.S. that produced Coates as well as the book he has written; the racism of the U.S. that is producing the son to whom Coates writes for everyone else to witness.

“Of course we chose nothing,” Coates writes:

We did not design the streets. We do not fund them. We do not preserve them. But I was there, nevertheless, charged like all the others with the protection of my body….

The black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are white. “White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons. (pp. 22, 42)

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From his candidacy and through Obama’s tenure as president, I have drifted from skepticism to cynicism about the promise of a black president to change policy or the hearts and minds of privileged Americans.

I harbor no delusion that the people who should read Coates slowly and carefully, with hearts and minds open to hard truths, will do so.

Despite overwhelming evidence of systemic racism, whites in the U.S. remain resistant, if not incapable of admitting their own culpability in racism. In fact, research shows “Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.”

Coates lived what research details:

But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic—an orc, troll, or gorgon….There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally. (p. 97)

For those who believe themselves white, everything is about “me”—except for racism, of course.

And since the connection has been made, let’s admit that James Baldwin was too often ignored while he lived and has nearly disappeared since his death. If Baldwin was one of the, if not the, greatest witnesses among writers and public intellectuals—and I believe that to be the case—how can we expect Coates to achieve what Baldwin could not?

Ours, then, among the privileged is to resist raising a bar so high that Coates is doomed to fail.

Ours, then, among the privileged is to refuse the “yes, but” trivialization of a black man’s interrogation of this racist world.

Ours, then, among the privileged is to listen, to stand with in order to build a more perfect union that, ironically, will never again create a Baldwin or a Coates-as-Baldwin in the way those men have been formed.

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Coates creates a powerful refrain throughout his book, the Dream.

That refrain is an unmasking of people who think they are white, a denunciation of a world that forces black males to define themselves against that whiteness.

As an educator, I am compelled to highlight a central message from Coates about formal schooling: “I had been reading and writing beyond the purview of the schools all my life” (p. 37).

Ultimately, Coates left college—and we must hear Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” in the background:

I wanted to pursue things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of professors. The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. (p. 48)

Formal schooling is a mechanism of the Dream, Coates discovered:

The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing. And it became clear that this was not just for the dreams concocted by Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that I had conjured to replace them. I had thought that I must mirror the outside world, create a carbon copy of white claims to civilization. (p. 50)

The world Coates interrogates failed him and fails his son in the streets and the classroom; this we must admit is an inexcusable consequence of both enduring racism and the recalcitrance of the privileged to acknowledge systemic racism.

“And still you are called to struggle,” Coates tells his son and his readers, “not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life” (p. 97).

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“As I learn from you,” concludes the speaker of “Theme for English B”:

I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

Hughes was Hughes, Baldwin was Baldwin, and Coates is Coates.

The themes are too often the same, however, and it is well past time that the somewhat more free who believe themselves white set themselves aside and learn without qualification from those who have been declared black.

See Also

“I look at the world,” Langston Hughes

remnant 57: “forced on me from above” [Haruki Murakami on school]

4 comments

  1. Stephanie

    Thank you for this. Thank you for being such an important and needed voice. Thank you for being so committed to learning from those who have been declared black. I have yet to finish the book. I’ve had to put it down and step away from it several times. My recent journey into parenthood has made it especially difficult to read. But I do look forward to discussing it with you after I finish and recover.

  2. Lloyd Lofthouse

    “I guess you learn from me—
    although you’re older—and white—
    and somewhat more free.”

    That last line resonated with me—“somewhat more free”.

    What is freedom and why do so many ignorant people toss that word around as if they are really free? Do they even know what being “free” means?

    What is freedom—the safety to say just about anything you want in a public arena and not worry about being arrested and sent to a concentration camp while what you said is ignored by those who were elected to lead who control 90% of the media?

    What is freedom—the privilege of making a choice to belong to a religion or not when there are literally thousands of different religions and sects to select from and most of them disagree with all the others to the point that they are willing to fight wars and destroy mankind/civilization to prove their god is on their side?

    What is freedom?

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