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Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of hanging out for a bit in my old digs in Harlem. Consequently, I was treated to one of those rare hood moments when someone drunk stumbles up to you and begins reciting the first chapter of their own Key To All Mythologies. Standing in front of a liquor store on Lennox, waiting for a friend to grab a couple bottles, Jelani Cobb and I were entreated into conversation by a young lady who was lifted into the stratosphere:


Her: Who ya'll basketball team?

Jelani: I don't have one:

Her: Yeah. I'm usually a Celtics fan, but these Celtics been losing. Come on man. Now the Knicks they got this kid and he's handling business! And he's CHINESE! You ever seen that? But I like him cause he's humble. So I'm bout to start rooting for the Knicks.

We neglected to correct the lady on the particulars of Jeremy Lin's identity, but again, it was one of those moments where you see how easily we conflate phenotype with some deeper objective reality. (Sometimes it's not even phenotype. When I was young we all wanted to get that "County Girls" who were effectively what white girls are taken to represent in the broader imagination. All the country girls were black, but they weren't from where we were from so somehow they had to be in possession of magical erotic properties.) 

We've seen black people ball for so long, we start to think black people, somehow, invented the game. Or that the present dominance is reflective of some deeper "racial" truth. I remember the first time I heard Eric Burdon. I considered myself enlightened. But I still couldn't believe that a white dude was blowing like that. It's hard to remember that culture is little more than a learned pattern of behaviors and rituals, and the ability to acquire culture doesn't have much to do with phenotype. There was nothing black about Naismith.

This practice of finding patterns which so often betrays is surely some evolutionary tic. It probably served us out on the Savannah. Anyway, thinking of War yesterday, sent me to Burdon today, as he used to front for the group. They got a lot better after he left. Still Burdon can bring it.

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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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