Refuting the Gaze

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Via Andrew, Toni Morrison explains the problem of explaining racism, and thus explaining yourself:


"In American literature, African American male writers justifiably write books about their oppression," she says. "Confronting the oppressor who is white male or white woman. It's race. And the person who defines you under those circumstances is a white mind - tells you whether you're worthy or what have you. And as long as that's your preoccupation, you're defending yourself against that. Reacting to it. Reacting to the definition - saying it's not true. African American women never do that. They never write about white men. I couldn't care less - I didn't want to spend my energy refuting that gaze."

I don't know if this generalization holds up--I just haven't read enough fiction. I'm generally skeptical about these kinds of statements. But then I don't make it a habit to second guess intelligent people who are twice my age and speaking about their field of expertise. 

At any rate the core of it is so true. Consider this: what if you were a medievalist and the majority of your public simply refused to accept that Charlemagne ever existed. Indeed, what if they felt their prosperity was contingent on not acknowledging it. And thus all your medievalist friends spent a great deal of time proving that Charlemagne did exist. 

Think about all the other interesting questions you might never get to ask, because you were spending all your energy in refutation of myth. And this would be frustrating because surely you had true questions, questions which you actually didn't have answers for. But every time you presented your work before an audience you felt called back to 800 AD all over again.

I think about how the climate scientist, or the evolutionary biologist living in Tennessee must feel, and I find some sympathy. So much of black intellectual life is wasted in disabuse, in explaining yourself to other people, as opposed to yourself.

Above all, I think this is the case for HBCUs. It wasn't like we didn't talk about racism at Howard -- where Toni Morrison attended -- but we never had to explain. And we were free to consider the geography of ourselves, to understand ourselves as another country. I remember going to the CSA (Caribbean Students Association) parties. It was like some other parallel world. Or watching the fraternities and sororities come out in the Spring, something I had no understanding of at all. 

Then it's over, and it will never happen again. Instead you find yourself for the umpteenth explaining that there were no black Confederates. This actually happened to me last week. I couldn't even speak. I told them "Go see Kevin."
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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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