The false nobility of victimhood

When I was a young man seeking some measure of maturity, I came upon something which I found hard to reconcile--my progenitors were sold into slavery by other Africans. I was about 16 at the time and fully invested in the arcana of black nationalism as well as the proclamations of Paris and Brother Jay. This was not a pose--I was raised agnostic in a city that was falling apart. You know it all too well--crack, murder, AIDS, teen pregnancy. It's the headlines for late 80s urban America, and perhaps nowhere more so than in my native land of Baltimore.

The worst part of all the chaos was that I had no framework, no religion, no mythology to make sense of the mayhem. That was what black nationalism gave me--a means of understanding how we had all fallen into disgrace. So full were we on that notion, that we called it "Consciousness," for if you did not know that we were Original Man, that we were the descendants of kings and queens and thus royalty ourselves, that our time would soon come again, than you were mentally dead and truly lost. If you're snickering, it's because you aren't thinking hard enough. All of us need some sort of mythology and no group is immune to nationalism, to the need to believe that we are special.

Understanding slavery was, for me, a first step toward understanding humanity. Learning that black Muslims killed Malcolm X was another. Guns, Germs and Steel, still another. I never lost that old pride, because, as Hitchens says of religion, the truth turned out to be mythological enough. Harriet Tubman stealing south--repeatedly--to liberate slaves was a verified miracle. Ida Wells Barnett riding the railroads of the segregated South to investigate a lynchings, a pistol at the ready, was heroic on its face. In other words, the actual story was incredible enough. But more to the point, the deeper understanding that there was no dark and light, that there were no paladins, no orcs marked me for life

I thought about all of this again, last night reading Josh Green's piece on Hillary Clinton, and then the comments in the Wolfson post. Here is the thing--believing that you have fallen because of actions outside of your control, or the collective control of your tribe, rewards you with an unearned sense of the cosmic. It allows you to fashion yourself as heroic--a Hercules robbed by the smallness of Gods. It fills you with an anger which is, at its root, a sort of false power, a weak righteousness that turns your enemies into demons. It was thrilling to believe we'd been kidnapped by white interlopers, as opposed to knowing that, in the words of the great Robert Hayden, we'd been sold off for "tin crowns that shone with paste" for "red calico and German-silver trinkets."

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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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