Today’s word-boner: Ta-Nehisi Coates

One of the great tragedies of my life is that while I love language, I can barely find enough time to write as much as I want, let alone read. There are writers out there like Teju Cole, Amanda Marcotte, Jamelle Bouie, Sikivu Hutchinson, Touré, Greta Christina, Tim Wise, and countless others whose ability to work the language makes me feel like a rank amateur, scribbling with my own feces on the wall of a cave*. From time to time though, I manage to get myself organized enough (or, more often, I decide to let another aspect of my life slide enough) to read the latest offering from my favourite writers, but more often I watch yet another masterwork sail past me, like I was a goldfish intently watching Shark Week.

Happily, today was one of those days when I managed to scrape together a few minutes, and I was rewarded handsomely:

But it would be wrong to attribute the burgeoning support for Zimmerman to the blunders of Spike Lee or an NBC producer. Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.) Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. 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.

Finding an appropriate pull-quote from this monster of an essay by The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates was next to impossible – there is no one section that I can abstract from this essay that stands out above the rest. It is masterfully written, researched, and explores so much that it defies parsing. I will, however, do my best to highlight some of the parts that I identified with most strongly:

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” Hence the need for a special “talk” administered to black boys about how to be extra careful when relating to the police. And hence Barack Obama’s insisting that there was no racial component to Katrina’s effects; that name-calling among children somehow has the same import as one of the oldest guiding principles of American policy—white supremacy.

For the record, I got the “twice as good” talk from my father several times growing up. I saw him struggle to be seen as anything other than ‘exotic’ in his personal and professional life. I’ve also felt the sting of what it means to be both ‘too black’ and ‘not black enough’ at various points in my life, and can empathize with the constant pressure of realizing that one’s race is ignored in success and relentlessly spotlighted in failure.

What black people are experiencing right now is a kind of privilege previously withheld—seeing our most sacred cultural practices and tropes validated in the world’s highest office. Throughout the whole of American history, this kind of cultural power was wielded solely by whites, and with such ubiquity that it was not even commented upon. The expansion of this cultural power beyond the private province of whites has been a tremendous advance for black America. Conversely, for those who’ve long treasured white exclusivity, the existence of a President Barack Obama is discombobulating, even terrifying. For as surely as the iconic picture of the young black boy reaching out to touch the president’s curly hair sends one message to black America, it sends another to those who have enjoyed the power of whiteness.

There is a fundamental difference between what I think my liberal white friends think the significance of “a black president” is, and what I think it means. I was repeatedly treated to the joke that Mitt Romney “looks like a president” at the beginning of his latest candidacy – a phrase that I couldn’t hear as anything other than “he’s a really white man”. It goes beyond optics though – to be black in America is to live in two cultural worlds, an experience that leaves an indelible mark that can be hidden but never completely expunged. Obama’s occasional head-fakes toward espousing his personal background have been an expression that to be African-American is to be American, despite the repeated and poorly-masked assertions of the increasingly-nakedly-racist political right.

Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation: these bonded white people into a broad aristocracy united by the salient fact of unblackness. What [US Senator Robert] Byrd saw in an integrated military was the crumbling of the ideal of whiteness, and thus the crumbling of an entire society built around it. Whatever the saintly nonviolent rhetoric used to herald it, racial integration was a brutal assault on whiteness. The American presidency, an unbroken streak of nonblack men, was, until 2008, the greatest symbol of that old order.

The lifeblood of the American tradition runs through veins of white supremacy that simply cannot be unravelled from its nobler elements – the very idea of a country based on the freedom for human beings to choose their own destiny and to govern themselves was immediately put to the lie by the fact that the vaunted architects of freedom were slave-owning white supremacists. A black president doesn’t simply mean a triumph of colour-blind liberalism – it represents America living up to at least one of its own promises.

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness.

Summarize this blog in one sentence.

And yet what are we to make of an integration premised, first, on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxt­ables? An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality—it’s a double standard. That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.

America’s white supremacy is a self-preservation mechanism – one that punishes those with the temerity to try and rise above it and address it directly. The most powerful man in the country is still restrained by the disembodied yet still-living ghost of America’s attitude about whiteness and blackness. Even the commander in chief is rendered powerless by (and becomes complicit to) the myths about what black folks out to be – myths that are never put to words except by those who feel the brunt of their impact.

Like I said – the whole damn thing is quotable (all this is just from the first two pages – his treatise on the political impossibility of “black anger” is a quotable essay in its own right). Find some minutes of your own and read this piece – slowly. There’s so much in there that it’s easy to miss important information. For my part, if I can get the knowledge contained in these 4 pages imparted in a year’s worth of blog posts, I will consider myself wildly successful.

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*Don’t get me wrong - nobody thinks as highly of my writing as I do. I just recognize people who are light years ahead of me – those whose writing makes me physically ache with a deep and resonant agreement.