The Magical Negro Extended

An interesting comment from CPR:

I can't speak for all white people, but i think white people want the Magic Negro because they want forgiveness.  Obama's election and some of the incredibly weird things I heard some white people say about it made me realize that there is a fundamental injury that all americans carry with them (slavery and its aftermath) that has never been addressed adequately, and on the white side of the street, there is more unexplored/unexpressed guilt (which morphs into defensiveness or fear pretty easily) than I ever would have guessed.  So in an archetypal way, the "unconditional gentle love of a maternal black figure" to a white person is about forgiveness, I think.  Of course, it is on the cheap, as the one being forgiven hasn't faced what they need forgiveness for.

I don't have much experience with "white guilt," and really haven't spent much time examining it. But I like this point about absolution on the cheap. One problem with the debate around reparations, when it was hot, was that it allowed us to go where we are all most comfortable--our respective corners--and yell at each other. The focus on money, or on some form of direct payback, obscured a potentially deeper discussion in which white folks acknowledge some of the distressing roots of this country, and black folks acknowledge that some debts can not be repaid. Instead we got this cheap, cartoonish debate about cash. It's like everything else.

And yet it can't afford to be like everything else. The Black-White divide, to steal a phrase, this country's birth defect. (More accurately, it's one of two birth defects.) Some of it's greatest patriots--Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass--were consumed by it. You can't understand presidential politics in the second half of the 20th century, without understanding the ghost of Jim Crow. You can't understand the American Revolution until you understand that a black man was one of the first people to die for America, and yet slavery is enshrined in the constitution. This is a rather banal statement. Consider, in some detail, what that enshrinement meant:

By 1860 there were approximately 4,000,000 slaves in the United States, the second largest slave society--slave population--in the world. The only one larger was Russian serfdom. Brazil was close.  But in 1860 American slaves, as a financial asset, were worth approximately three and a half billion dollars--that's just as property. Three and a half billion dollars was the net worth, roughly, of slaves in 1860. In today's dollars that would be approximately seventy-five billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself, and no one can really put a dollar value on all of the land of North America.

I don't think we get it. The bloodiest war in this country's history was fought over slavery. Two percent of the population died. There were four million blacks in the country at the time of the war, 200,000 of them fought in the Civil War. The mind reels at the price.

And then following that, government--at every level--spent a century going to incredible lengths to engineer a black peasant class. When we ask questions like "Why are we still talking about race?" or "Why are black people still lagging?" or "Why am I responsible for what my grandparents did?" When we use cheap phraseology like "Achievement Gap" or "No Excuses," terms that reassure our most basic convictions about this country, it's worth considering that African-Americans spent roughly 350 years in bondage--literal and then virtual. This new thing, this experiment, is only 50 years in the making,

History is the monster. And there is no escape. You can't talk your way out of it--at every step we're confronted by our own laziness. It warps our stories, reduces beautiful and complicated narratives about race, sports, agency into cartoonish fairy tales. It's sad. I always thought that what we needed in this country wasn't so much cash payments, but some respect for history. Not history as an excuse for hamburgers, hot dogs and chips, but history as a way of understanding who we--despite ourselves-- really are.

And for African-Americans, history really is the balm in Gilead. I think a lot of us can come to some peace, can come to understand that whatever happened to us, there are limits on what anyone can do to make it right, and while those limits have to be pushed, some of this we're going to have to carry ourselves. And then with a even broader sense we can understand that our suffering is not singular, that it isn't the only suffering. And finally--and most important to me--we can understand ourselves as Zora Hurston did, as more then a litany of abuses, as more than a walking protest, as something apart and distinct from what someone else did to us.

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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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