How To Represent

Andrew is grappling with what Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen Degeneres say about America. This part, for autobiographical reasons, caught my eye:

It isn't easy always being out. You don't want to deny something but you also don't want to be entirely defined by it. It was a lot harder in 1991 when I was suddenly turned into a poster-gay for a few minutes. Suddenly I had to be a spokesman; suddenly I was the gay pundit; suddenly my own writing on these issues seemed to be political acts requiring political resistance (mainly from fellow gays), simply because I was out and in public - and so few others were. People project all sorts of stuff onto you, good and bad, when that happens; and the handful of us in the public eye had to just carry on, hoping that the full scope of our work would eventually overshadow one aspect of our lives, but that our gayness could be celebrated as well. Anything but lies. And as more and more people are openly gay, and as more and more of them seem completely like your next door neighbor, it becomes easier.

I think anyone who's ever been in an "Only" can understand that sentiment. Back at Howard, I'd say a portion of the students were kids who came from prosperous black families, another portion were kids who (like me) came from the decaying cities but whose family was more or less in tact.

But the portion that always amazed were the black kids (a significant number of them biracial) who hailed from these nice suburbs (River Forest, Walnut Creek etc.), excelled in school, but came to Howard, almost out of a kind of fatigue. The fatigue is exactly what Andrew describes here--the pressure to be a representative, to explain your groups "position," the stifling inability to, say, be an asshole and not have it say something about your folks.

They came to Howard to disappear, to not have to represent anything more than themselves,. I've often wondered (and I guess I'll ask) whether this is why Andrew goes to Provincetown, whether it allows him to disappear.  Anyway, after Howard, I swore I'd never end up like those kids, that I'd never put myself in position where I was interpreting anything for white people.

Oh, wait...

All kidding aside, I think this is where the gay/black metaphor breaks down. Gays live around straight people in the most intimate ways. Their parents are likely straight. They likely have straight brothers and sisters. They go to school with straight kids. It's true that black people are forced to know more about white people than the reverse, but at least in my case, there's a lot we don't know, because of proximity.

I say this to say, in being one of those kids, as an adult, it's an incredible learning experience. After spending all of my education in a sea of black folks, I've spent almost my entire journalism career as an "Only" or one of, literally, a couple. You learn things as an "Only." I mean, white people give things to each other.

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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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