Notes From the Blue Period

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For no particular reason—or for a reason I can not articulate right now—I want to share something with you. 
 
At the end of the Civil War, when the United States was considering selling homesteads to black freedmen, some number of white Southerners decided to turn to fraud. Whites would sell them painted sticks that supposedly gave them possession of particular parcels of land. They'd also sell them "deeds" to the land. 
 
One such deed reads as follows:
Know all men by these presents, that a naught is a naught, and a figure is a figure; all for the white man and none for the nigure. And whereas Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also have I lifted this damned old nigger out of four dollars and six bits. Amen. Selah!
 
Given under my hand and seal at the Corner Grocery in Granby, some time between the birth of Christ and the death of the devil.
The recipient of this deed was a black man who could not read. His money was taken, and then he was mocked. The mockery is almost a show of cause. His illiteracy is a weakness and that weakness makes him worthy of contempt and suitable for plunder.
 
When I was a child in West Baltimore it was a hobby to jump people who'd somehow wandered through your neighborhood. But you could not jump them for the hell of it—even if that's what you were actually doing. You had to make up some fraudulent reason for plunder—"Yo, ain't that the dude that was messing with your cousin?" or some other nakedly false show of cause. We could not accept the fact that we were behaving thuggishly, that we had embraced villainy. Even in total cowardice we had to make ourselves heroic.
 
I learned this. It was not natural to me. I was a tender boy, until I wasn't. And then I learned to despise weakness and to mask that contempt behind narrative and myth. 
 
If you have ever done this—and I suspect if you think about it, you will find you have—you can see how such cowardice could be practiced across a society. The people I was raised around were humans, and so it is not shocking that the same rituals we practiced there, the same feelings of contempt, are all around us—the Germans inventing reasons to invade Poland, the rapist who claims the short dress made him do it, an entire town organizing to back him up. 
 
Weakness, misery, does not always elicit sympathy. Perhaps that is because the weakness reminds of what we we fear for ourselves. Or perhaps it reminds us of our own complicity in some broad crime, and more, our presumed helplessness for it to be any other way.
 
I don't know. There's no good reason to show you this. I think I just want you to know that this happened. 
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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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