Shame

One of the reasons I've been blogging so much about obesity, class, and race, is that these are the questions I live with. To set down the road of food consciousness, to endeavor to understand what you're putting in the only body you'll ever have, is to phase-shift into a parallel world. You become acquainted with ritual of unwrapping aluminum foil on long plane rides. You cut elaborate deals with your partner over child-care and cleaning. You go hurtling through the internet in search of a decent pizza stone. It angers your son, because his simple request for Pop-Tarts turns into a pop-quiz referencing the ingredients on the box.

But more than that, it's the world I live in. The buses in Harlem heave under the weight of wrecked bodies. New York will not super-size itself, so you'll see whole rows in which one person is taking up two seats and aisles in which people strain to squeeze past each other. And then there are the middle-age amputees in wheelchairs who've lost a leg or two way before their time. When I lived in Brooklyn, the most depressing aspect of my day was the commute back home. The deeper the five train wended into Brooklyn, the blacker it became, and the blacker it became, the fatter it got.

I was there among them--the blacker and fatter--and filled with a sort of shameful self-loathing at myself and my greater selves around me. One of the hardest thing about being black is coming up dead last in almost anything that matters. As a child, and a young adult, I was lucky. Segregation was a cocoon brimming with all the lovely variety of black life. But out in the world you come to see, in the words of Peggy Olson, that they have it all--and so much of it. Working on the richest island in the world, then training through Brooklyn, or watching the buses slog down 125th has become a kind of corporeal metaphor--the achievement gap of our failing bodies, a slow sickness as the racial chasm.

The metaphor is, of course, deceptive--more about how it feels, than how it is. For one thing, because of where we live, some of the most afflicted areas of black America are five minutes away from major media. Unless someone kills a census worker, media generally avoids Clay County, Kentucky. Moreover, you can't really hide in your car in New York. On the train, it's all right there. And then there's the absurd illusion of WhiteLand--this mythical place where there are no problems, because white people don't actually have problems.

But intellectually understanding something doesn't change your religion. In every black person, there's a desire to, as a buddy once put it, "show these motherfuckers." I keep going back to Bill Cosby, not as a leader, but as a marker of how we feel. "My problem," he once told a crowd of black men. "Is that I'm sick of losing to white people." When I heard him say that, I heard my mother and father. I heard my older brother. I heard the Babas from my old Rights of Passage program. I heard my professors at Howard. I heard one of my good friends--and his wife is white.

I heard them all. And I heard me. And I know that it is small of me. And I know that it is wrong of me. And I live for the day when I am right. But this is what I think about sometimes on the 2 train uptown. This is what I think about sometimes while cleaning the kitchen. And this is what I think about, almost always,before I write. I think about showing them. I think about showing myself.

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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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