They Act Like They Don't Love Their Country

I talk a lot about nationalism on this blog, because it was my first intellectual tradition, and one the one I'm most rooted in. It's weird because nationalism kind of sent me to Howard, but it was at Howard where I was most confronted with it's limits. On a lot of days, when I should have been in class, I'd sit up in Mooreland Spingarn reading through African-American poetry and essays. This piece by Lucille Clifton stopped me cold:

Love rejected
hurts so much more
than Love rejecting;
they act like they don't love their country

No

what it is
is they found out
their country don't love them.

I always read this piece as a kind of interrogation of "black love." I think it was written to critique Black Power in the '60s, but in the '90s at Howard it really seemed appropriate to me. Do we for instance talk "black love" out of sincere affection for ourselves, or as some kind of coping mechanism for a legitimate pain? I don't know that you can exclude one from the other, but the question the poem posed, the weight of discovering that your country doesn't love you, and having to react to that, always stayed with me.

It was the main reason why, frankly after coming to New York, I became deeply suspicious of brothers who liked to publicly proclaim their love of black women, or reveled in "Nubian queen" mythology. You know me--I've spent the past five years of my living in Harlem, but really, I've always lived in one of our Harlems. I was raised in the neighborhood, went to black schools all my life, exclusively dated black women, and loved the whole of it. But the older I get, the more I think that that love is more about the big hands of history, than about any choice I made. I love being black, because it's what I am. I never had a choice, and any proclamations I might make are tempered by my ignorance of India, Russia, Wyoming and Kansas.

Moreover, I find that discussions of black love are often tinted by a rather hateful subtext of black pathology. Mostly the same brothers I see running that Nubian princess game, are the same brothers I see pitching the cartoonish portrait of black men gone crazy over white women. Or the same sisters:

Since the 1960s, marriages between black men and white women have been steadily increasing--14 percent of all black men are now married outside the race. Yet only 4 percent of black women do the same. Why? Black women, for better or worse, have always seemed to maintain a loyalty to the ideal of the black family unit. That's understandable, even noble, but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense when so many black men don't feel the same way. Combined with the disturbing number of black men in prison, that means 47 percent of all African-American women today never marry. With those numbers, I say it's time for many black women to start thinking, and acting, like Tiana.

I'm certainly not suggesting that we all follow in the steps of a fictional character, but I am proposing that we take a good, long look at what the fairy tale is trying to teach the children of the world--and us.

This is Allison Samuels, in Newsweek, advising black women to take marriage advice from a Disney cartoon--and then a sentence later claiming she actually isn't.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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