The Most Dangerous Thing in America—a Brother With a Passport

The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #5
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Over at the American Conservative, Rod Dreher has been kind enough to respond to my writings about Paris. He did the same thing last spring, and I've been meaning to say how much I appreciate it. My experiences here are necessarily a neophyte's view, so any context from folks with a little more experience than me is appreciated. Rod, having done this trip before, is one of those people. But we come at this from different places, though perhaps not the different places he might suspect.

Before I get into that, I want to clarify something, because it comes up later in Rod's piece. To claim the game is rigged--as I do--is not to relieve people of responsibility to act, nor to strip credit from people who actually achieve something. Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl. John Elway won two. I think luck has something to do with that. But it does not follow that John Elway didn't work hard or that he didn't actually do anything himself. And it also doesn't follow that John Elway worked harder than Dan Marino. Life is complicated. Being born rich has advantages but it does not then follow that it's impossible to ever achieve anything of your own.

Moreover, I was privileged. You can't really buy the kind of parenting I had. My pops had seven kids. Some of them were born to friends. Some of them were born in the same year. All of them, except me, graduated from college. Some of them are engineers. Some of them are computer programmers. Some of them are lawyers. Some of them are in the family trade. And some of them are writers. All of them are alive and healthy. And if you asked my dad about this (as I did only weeks ago) the first word that would come from his lips is this--lucky.

What you must get is that we were privileged and we were lucky and we worked hard and were black in America. All at the same time. There's no contradiction there. The game is rigged--and it can be won. One doesn't cancel out the other. Jackie Robinson's greatness doesn't make the MLB of his era any less racist.

That aside, there's something else in Rod's post that I find really fascinating. Here is a portion where he discusses how someone very close to him (his sister) reacted to his excursion:

It's not that I was born wealthy, or from people who traveled (except my great-great aunts, who died when I was small). I did not, and my sister, to her dying day, resented me for becoming the sort of person who liked to go to France...

I can't account for Ruthie's views, which she never shared with me (but did share with others), but I believe it comes from her instinctive resentment of anything to do with wealth and privilege. Wanting to go to Paris is something only rich people do, in her worldview. That I wanted this, and repeatedly satisfied that desire, offended her, I learned after her death. It did not matter that I always stayed in modest hotels (sometimes very modest hotels), or traveled on cut-rate fares, sometimes in the dead of winter, to make it affordable. The desire itself was a moral offense, a betrayal of my class.

For many years I have generally doubted the import of the "acting white" thesis, mostly because I never experienced or saw anything like it. I was a pretty weird kid in my Baltimore days. I played D&D, collected comics, and read a lot of obscure books. My family ate strange foods, and clearly had ambitions beyond the hood. I got called a lot of things. White wasn't among them. But I've heard from enough black people who did have this happen to them to understand that it is real, and I suspect it is a sub-specimen of what Rod is talking about here--a kind of tribal border-patrolling.

I felt really, really sad reading this. By the time I graduated from high school I was writing poetry and I was really beginning to blossom as a thinking person. I can't really imagine how I would have taken it if someone had accused me of "getting above my raising." A number of you here have said you had that very experience and I am amazed that many of you moved on despite it.

I think, in some ways, the quasi-black nationalism of my childhood shielded me. You have to remember that Malcolm X read everything in jail--not just black stuff--and traveled to London and Paris. There's some portion of the nationalist tradition that holds that the acquisition of knowledge--any kind of knowledge--is self-improvement, and thus improvement of black people. You can hear this in the lyrics of Public Enemy. Or in the old nationalist saw that the best place to hide anything from a black person is in a book. Or in Brother Muzone's quip about a "nigger with a library card." It's actually older than the nationalist, and goes back to the slave narratives. The idea is that knowledge was transgressive, something that "they" don't want you to do and thus cool. I could turn half of 125th francophone just by saying, "The white man don't want you parlez-vous françaising, brother. He got a plan." OK, so maybe not. Plus half of 125th is already francophone. But you get my point.

And to the extent that I am still a quasi-nationalist, this is the portion of the tradition that I cling strongest to: There's nothing "white" about reading Rousseau or Tocqueville or visiting Paris. This isn't getting above your raising. It's burning down the Big House, the caveat being that you can bring some of this back and flip it to relate to the nature of your people. And you always can. Because your people are human.

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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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