Monday, October 9, 2017, I attended the Ta-Nehisi Coates book release event in Washington, DC for his newest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. As predicted, the event was amazing. It was intellectually charged and soul-fulfilling. Per usual, Coates was well poised, honest, thought-provoking, and critical. However, while departing, I made an inquisitive intellectual’s error of not putting on my headphones; instead, opting to eavesdrop on conversations around me.
Immediately behind me was a professional aged white couple discussing a point that Coates made during the discussion, stating, “white people are not required to know Black culture for their survival but Black people are required to know white culture for their survival.” Instead of unpacking why Coates would make such a sweeping claim, the couple attempted to theorize, minimize, and dismiss it. The woman stated, “isn’t it always the case when a group is a minority? It isn’t a slight against white people it’s really just that we’re the majority and they’re the minority and that’s just how it goes.”
Everything inside of me screamed ‘WHAT?!’ In that moment I began to grapple with competing desires, to either: (1) turn around and explain why her logic was faulty, or (2) not waste my divine energy. Instead, I began to guffaw at the insanity of the statement and the conundrum it was being a woman of color in such instances.
Frankly, the undue burden of having to explain why white privilege, even when coated in the armor of historical dominance and routine, is still oppressive, to white people, is exhausting. Therefore, in an attempt to enjoy my evening and the remnants of intellectual velocity I felt from hearing Coates speak, I chose not to engage in yet another battle. However, the statement haunted me all the way home.
As has become custom, a friend recently asked me for a book recommendation. Based on the nature of his work and area of research, I readily suggested James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Since one can never revisit Baldwin too many times, I decided to take the book off my shelf and read it again. As always, his commentary on race in America proved to be timely and appropriate as a means of addressing current, seemingly new, but truly cyclical, racial conundrums.
As Baldwin states, “…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
My frustration with the woman’s statement is not simply that it was shrouded in the desire to rest comfortably in a history of destructive patterns and wicked traditions, but that it overlooks the fact that the dismissal and denial of a portion of the population is a disregard for their very humanity. The act of believing that these humans are simply the minority group and therefore unworthy of study, except as a means of exposure and subjugation, removes accountability and paints the majority class as innocents in a crime of cultural discrimination, exclusion, and erasure.
This point is eloquently demonstrated when Baldwin states, “Your grandmother was also there…I suggest that the innocents check with her. She isn’t hard to find. Your countrymen don’t know that she exists, either, though she has been working for them all their lives.” From the moment Africans were enslaved and brought to this country as property the professional lives of Blacks and Whites have intertwined, overlapped, and in essence been codependent. Blacks were originally brought to this country as a means of generating income and revenue. We were enslaved and forced to work the land as a means of building America and making poor whites wealthy. It is for this reason that it is impossible to view the current situation and dialogue a-historically. In the book, American Slavery, American Freedom, it is not only explained what enslavement does to the enslaved, but what it does to the psyche of the enslaver. Over many generations, we have created a hierarchy that continues to create biases and an illusion of order, justice and equality. It is this rose-colored vision of the world that keeps the cycle of abuse and white privilege in play.
Again, Baldwin clarifies this when he proclaims “…whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”
Saul Williams exemplifies this when he states, “stealing us was the smartest thing they ever did; too bad they don’t teach the truth to their kids.”
This is made successful in many ways, but one of the most prevalent is a lack of inclusion in school curricula and either exclusion from, or “alternative facts”, better known as lies, written into history books. One primary goal of our educational system, as a public good, is to help create the next generation of patriotic citizens. This cannot be done effectively if we continue to equip them with partial truths and historic myths that paint the past as we wish, not as it actually occurred. In the words of Jay-Z, “you can’t heal what you never reveal.” Hiding the truth doesn’t erase the error, it only makes it more painful once discovered and delays the healing process.
In short, as Baldwin exclaims, “They [white people] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they can not be released from it.” None of us can, and we all continue to pay the consequence.
-Ms. Malcolm Hughes