Saturday, February 1, 2014

The struggle is both/and, not either/or

Ta-Nehisi Coates has done it again. What I LOVE about him is that he reaches down into the struggle in his soul and lays it all bare - and so beautifully written.
Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don't expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama's on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.) I don't expect to see a black woman exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again. (In the private spaces of black homes, I see it all the time.) And no matter how many times I've seen it in my private life, at Howard, in my home, among my close friends, I don't ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again.

This symbolism has real meaning...And this messenger—who is Barack Obama—becomes something more to black people. He becomes a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities.
But here is where Coates exposes his struggle.
How does a black writer approach The Man when The Man is not just us, but the Champion of our ambitions? More, how do you approach the offices that have so often brutalized black people when those offices are occupied by the Champion? How do you acknowledge the president's many gifts, his actual accomplishments, while still and all outlining the depressing limits of his own imagination?
Those "depressing limits" for Coates most often come when President Obama speaks to the African American community about personal responsibility. That's because Coates knows that the destruction of white supremacy in this country will NOT occur because African Americans embrace personal responsibility.
The young black man, coming out of storied Morehouse, should be personally responsible for the foiling of this new wave of poll taxing. He should be personally responsible for ensuring that the Medicaid expansion comes to Mississippi. He should be personally responsible for the end of this era of mass incarceration. He should be personally responsible for the destruction of the great enemy of his people—white supremacy.
And so (to use a quote from Coates himself), it makes him "suck his teeth" when President Obama talks to African Americans about personal responsibility. I think he struggles with all this from an "either/or" perspective...that the President much chose to either focus on personal responsibility OR communal responsibility for white supremacy.
And I struggle to get my head around all of this. There are moments when I hear the president speak and I am awed. No other resident of the White House, could have better explained to America what the George Zimmerman verdict meant. And I think history will remember that, and remember him for it. But I think history will also remember his unquestioning embrace of "twice as good" in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much.
Sometimes I want to reach out to Coates and suggest that this doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. I believe that in his earlier days, President Obama maneuvered this same dilemma, and it was in recognizing the both/and that he resolved it for himself. To ignore either the toll white supremacy takes on individuals or fail to challenge it on a systemic/communal level would undermine the struggle.

Ultimately I think Coates knows this. For example, he has articulated the culture of the street that affects young African American men better than any other writer I've seen.
The streets are like any other world--we all assume an armor, a garment to suit that world. And indeed, in every world, some people wear the armor better than others, and thus reap considerable social reward. In the main, it's been easy for me to discard the armor of West Baltimore, because I wore it so poorly. I was never, as they say, truly built for the streets. And still, even I struggled to take it off. But I know others who were masters. (My own brother, for instance.) Inducing them, and those in between, to change class, to trade their plate for robes, to trade the broad-sword for a spell-book, is the real work.
What I think Coates is missing is that the symbolism he described so well in that first quote has as much impact (in a different way) on white people as it does for blacks. One of the reasons so many have literally gone nuts during Obama's presidency is that the beauty, humanity and intelligence of this President challenge every fiber of white supremacy that has been hard-wired into our brains for centuries. That wound has festered for so long that it will not be lanced without tremendous pain and fury. And so, in addition to proactively tackling the major civil rights issues of our time, having the strength to maintain that beauty, humanity and intelligence in the face of the pain and fury that has been unleashed on them is perhaps the most powerful blow this President (and his family) can deliver to white supremacy.


  1. the mistake Coates and other black pundits/academics make is what you so eloquetly stated Nancy: One can talk about 'personal responsibility' w/o giving white supremacy a pass. I don't believe TNC really read what Barack was saying when he referred to Martin Luther King and especially Malcolm X and told his black critics to go read them, since they made the point many times w/o giving the collective responsibility of the dominant culture/society a pass. Many have and continue to project their individual hopes/dreams/anxieties, so my wish is that folks like Coates would actually spend some time reading what PBO says instead of just reacting, because the latter part of his arcticle comes close to contradicting the beginning of it.


    1. As I said here, I always love how Coates opens up his struggle and lays it bare. And so I hope he won't mind me diving into it.

      One of the reasons I included that quote from his article about the culture of the street is that I think Coates still struggles a bit with that mentality. He learned early on that - in order to survive - he had to be a fighter, even when it went against his nature. I see him projecting that onto the President...he wants him to fight white supremacy. In that projection, he misses how that beauty, humanity and intelligence the President always shows is the greatest weapon he has.

    2. It is one of his strengths, and at times a liability. People who are always wanting PBO to 'fight' seem to forget he isn't Huey Newton, and TNC should know that better than anyone.


  2. Amen to that. Thank you Nancy.

  3. Interesting essays! A few thoughts:

    1. IMO racism isn't a black problem and racism won't have a black solution. Racism is the problem and responsibility of those who uphold and benefit from the racial caste in this country. President Obama can't end racism, and no matter how his critics say that they're not holding him to this standard, they kinda are. What President Obama can do and has done is try to minimize the rabid backlash which has accompanied every single period of black advancement.

    2. The streets aren't just about fighting. The streets are in pure essence about attempting to survive conditions which were designed to kill you mentally, spiritually, or physically.

    3. President Obama's not perfect: I've long disagreed with his and other black leaders' likening of the black struggle to that of majority white groups who quite frankly have gone through absolutely nothing equivalent. With these comparisons, our experience and legacy have become co-opted and watered down. But I think that the criticisms he gets from some in the black press are truly not deserved.

    4. I also think that strategically, Coates and others choosing to spread the idea that Pres O is iffy about black people or thinks that our problems can be solved with personal responsibility----it's unhelpful. Because it's insinuating that one of the most respected people in the country has a regressive view of African Americans. Poor message to send, especially because it isn't true.

    I think that the President's legacy will endure on race, especially if more black writers choose to inform readership of his many good works in this regard. Most black judicial appointments of any POTUS in US history. I wish items like that would get more airtime, blogtime, column space. Hope everyone is having a great weekend.


  4. I think you're right on point that the answer to the problem is not "either or" but "and". Also, what I think people forget is what's at the heart of "personal responsibility". It's holding on to the believe in free agency and the hope that you can change your life beyond the set of circumstances you were born into. It's the dichotomy of pushing forward in the face of harsh systemic realities. As my mama would, "it will happen, not in my lifetime, but it will happen." Belief in personal responsibility, the hope, is what gets Black Americans out of bed in the morning. We've been in American before it was America and are not naive to its realities. This leaves us in awe how Harriet and Martin did it everyday and Barack does it before our eyes.


  5. Coates is engaging in dialogue about racism. We all need to do this. Obviously, there is nothing Obama can do to end racism; but just by being President, he's bringing the topic to the fore. The U.S. population is falling down on the job over all, but I see a whole lot of black and minority faces in crowds behind President Obama. I'm also seeing that there are a lot of powerful blacks and black women, and other minorities writing serious blogs about racism and the poisons of white supremacy. Melissa Harris Perry is also fantastic and her guests often include whites who are on board to challenge white supremacy. Recently, a white woman on her show said that 'there is nothing that can't be made better for blacks by ending white supremacy' (paraphrased). She said flatly with no qualifications at all. I said, "Wow". I've never seen it put so bluntly on television. I'm going to watch MHP every weekend from now on.

    Obama is busy being POTUS. I've never heard him telling blacks to work hard and stay in school as being a denial of racism, but I think it's important to take the feelings of blacks and other minorities seriously. when they say these words hurt or offend them. As a white woman, I have no right to judge their responses. I do, however, believe that it is my responsibility to listen (deeply) to blacks and minorities.

    Regardless of how I feel about Obama, there is a myth of respectability--- and it is understandable that people of color blanch when hearing that they should go to school and work hard, because so many of them have and are still treated like worthless miscreants. Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing a warning shot into her ceiling with her registered gun in the face of the threat of violence from a man who admitted to being violent toward her and other women, has a master's degree. It's important to acknowledge how our justice system and our society hates black people and to voice opposition to this.

  6. Here's my feeling: I wish many people in the public sphere, whether President Obama or Ta-Nehisi Coates, would talk about how far African-Americans have come. I think we can all focus on the problems too much, be it racism or white supremacy or black on black violence. But there is another reality: that the African-American poverty rate has declined by half (from about 50% to 25% of AA's) since the Civil Rights Act was passed; the black high school graduation rate has more than tripled during that time, from about 25% to about 85%; and the black college graduation rate has increased more than 950%.

    By wanting us to highlight information like this more often, I'm not saying we should ignore the problems. But I feel like this becomes an argument between those who point out the problems and say it's due to racism, and those who point out the problems and say it's due to some inherent pathology in the black community. The focus remains, "problems in the black community." Meanwhile, few are pointing out that the African-American community is incredibly resilient and has still managed to accomplish significant things despite racism and white supremacy.

    How this sometimes plays out: in one online discussion I was in recently, someone wrote that because of racism and denied opportunities, black kids are more likely to strive to be professional athletes than PhD's and if we find a way to change that, maybe someday there would be more black PhDs than pro athletes. I wrote in response that there are *already* multi-fold more black PhDs in the US than pro-athletes - something like 115,000 of them in 2010 (and the % of black US-ians holding PhD's had doubled since 1990).

    Again, this is not an easy point to make, because I don't want the rightwing to use statistics like this to deny that racism is a problem, when it clearly still is. But I equally hate the idea that seems to be conveyed too often that the black community is characterized by its problems, not its successes.

  7. You say that white supremacy has been hard-wired into our brains for centuries. By what? Satan?

    Superstition won't solve anything.

  8. Oh Lord, here we go again. Another thought piece about how Obama is talking down to Black folks. Ta-nehisi Coates' criticisms are nothing new. For many a Black pundit and public intellectual (and liberal thought leaders in general), Obama doesn't fit neatly into their RPG version of a ' Liberal Black President'. It's another "Obama Ain't Black Enough Piece" from the so-called Professional Left. A simple graduation speech is just another pellet in their BB gun.

    Obama telling young Black men to do for self and their community because the majority either doesn't care about your problems or is actively working to make your life worse isn't letting White Supremacy off the hook. If anything, Obama's message was not dissimilar to that of the Minister Louis Farakkhan. And nobody in their right mind is going to argue that Farakkhan is sucking up to Whitey.


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