Rihanna

You know I just watched her on GMA, and she came off really well. I don't mean like she "made you feel sorry for her" well, just sharp and really honest about why she went back.

I've talked some about this case, and the broader issues it raised. I feel a little stupid about doing that now. In one post I used nationalism to explain why I tended to focus on agency and responsibility. But what I missed is how community works in the notion of responsibility. Abuse, from what I know, often works in concert with isolation and shame. The slave may be ashamed. The oppressed black person may be ashamed--but he isn't isolated from other slaves or other oppressed black people. Moreover he isn't surrounded by other apparently free and unsegregated black people. In other words there's a community of oppressed people.

How do you have responsibility without community? Perhaps, you can, but I can't really imagine it for myself. What so often keeps me in line, and has kept me in line over the years, is not my own expectations, but the expectations of family and friends. These are people who are, for all intents and purposes, like me. In some cases they're carrying burdens that I didn't.

My Dad grew up dirt poor in West Philly. My Mom grew up in the projects of West Baltimore. Out of my father's seven kids, five of them grew up in single parent homes. Out of those five, three of them grew up, for some period, in the projects. But six out of seven of them graduated from college. (I'm the seventh. I'll tell you about shame.) The point is that I've been surrounded by people who were "like me" or, in the eyes of society, "worse off then me" and they achieved. That community empowered me and allowed me to exercise what I so now arrogantly claim to be "individual agency." If my Mom, raised in the projects can do it, if my Pops, who lived on a pick-up truck after his father was evicted, can do it, then I better make it happen. But what am I without those expectations? Without that community?

Watching Rihanna actually talk about being ashamed and going back, it became clear to me that for the abused, women, as a whole, are probably not the empowering community, other abuse victims are. And through shame, abused women are cut off from that community, and often from any community, and sucked into a world orchestrated by the abuser. Put differently, it's very hard to be a nationalist when you are isolated from other co-nationals. Individual agency isn't very individual at all. It depends on the village.

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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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