After reading it myself, I thought that the best thing I could do was link it, tweet it, and share it with my friends. Its a long complex piece and I feared that writing about it would do nothing more than demean the depths to which Coates takes us.
But then I watched the video embedded in the article where Atlantic editor Scott Stossel interviewed Coates. The things Stossel chose to talk about seemed to represent the triviality that tends to become so much the focus for many white progressives. I decided that this white girl - who is still in the process of learning about these kinds of things from people like Coates - needed to throw her take-aways from the article out there as an alternative. So here goes...
Coates starts out by telling the story of the murder of Trayvon Martin and notes the fact that initially it was cause for mourning from all sides...until President Obama said that "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." Then all political hell broke lose.
The moment Obama spoke, the case of Trayvon Martin passed out of its national-mourning phase and lapsed into something darker and more familiar—racialized political fodder...KABOOM! THE POWER WAS BLACK...that's the story. It was one thing for white folks to grant legislative equality to black folks, as in the victories of the Civil Rights movement. Its a whole other thing for black folks to grab the power and run things. That sets off a whole different kind of fear in white people. And its the challenge President Obama has taken on.
For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.
No amount of rhetorical moderation could change this. It did not matter that the president addressed himself to “every parent in America.” His insistence that “everybody [pull] together” was irrelevant. It meant nothing that he declined to cast aspersions on the investigating authorities, or to speculate on events. Even the fact that Obama expressed his own connection to Martin in the quietest way imaginable—“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”—would not mollify his opposition. It is, after all, one thing to hear “I am Trayvon Martin” from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.
So Barack Obama has power. To me, the crux of what Coates is writing about is how he got it and what he's doing with it.
After addressing some of the historical and present-day manifestations of racism, Coates gets to the heart of what I think is his own struggle with President Obama.
Obama offered black America a convenient narrative that could be meshed with the larger American story. It was a narrative premised on Crispus Attucks, not the black slaves who escaped plantations and fought for the British; on the 54th Massachusetts, not Nat Turner; on stoic and saintly Rosa Parks, not young and pregnant Claudette Colvin; on a Christlike Martin Luther King Jr., not an avenging Malcolm X.I've seen this battle in Coates before. Here's how he talked about it shortly after Obama was elected.
Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined -- in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.Coates might not be sucking his teeth anymore, but you can tell that the battle between the non-violent King and avenging Malcolm still rages on.
And why wouldn't it? I talked about this once in an article I wrote about What it means to be the first Black President...getting your buttons pushed. Here's a quote from Daily Kos writer Vyan that I used in that one.
Black People hear these Dog-Whistles. They know what they mean.All of that reminds me of a spoken word performance by Daniel Beaty. I first found this one years ago and hesitate to post it because I know that the language is likely to offend some. So if you would rather not hear a black man use the "n" word, perhaps you should skip past this one. But I think it captures this struggle in an incredibly powerful way.
And they also know that all of these little attacks are intended to Goad them. To make them lose their cool, to make them lose their temper, to make them look irrational and angry.
The Irrational, Paranoid, Screaming Angry Black Man.
That's what they want to turn Obama into. The Angry Black President.
They want him to start Complaining and Whining about the Republicans not treating him nicely. They want him to start "Playing the Race" Card, just so that they throw it right back at him.
And that's also why he resists. It may be infuriating. It may be crazy making. But this is the double-bind that many Black people have had to face all the time when these slights and broadsides come at them with racial undertones, but few clear or logical overtones...
I've lived with that internal, mental battle my entire life - and I very nearly have reached the "Fuck IT/FUCK YOU!" point more than once. Generally speaking, it didn't help much.
That's not the road Obama intends or needs to go down, sorry.
Its not for me or anyone else to suggest how African Americans (and other people of color) should resolve this struggle - but to be aware of its existence and our role in perpetuating it.
In this article, Coates is both admiring and raging against his perception that President Obama has chosen the side of the "nerd" in this struggle. He knows that is the only way America can countenance a black president - and yet the rage, even at that, rages on.
In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.
And yet this is the uncertain foundation of Obama’s historic victory—a victory that I, and my community, hold in the highest esteem. Who would truly deny the possibility of a black presidency in all its power and symbolism? Who would rob that little black boy of the right to feel himself affirmed by touching the kinky black hair of his president.
Yep, I think that's what its all about...Barack Obama has made the calculation that he'll do whatever it is he has to so that maybe one day little black boys and girls have the chance to grow up without all the rage.