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The Blue Period: An Origin Story

 

The secret origins of "the blue period"--if that's what we're calling it--lay in the video embedded above. In it, historian Nell Irvin Painter discusses her book A History Of White People and calmly, and methodically, breaks my heart:

On the other hand, the idea of blackness, that is poor dark-skinned people, I think we will have that with us always, and when we particularly at this moment of economic crisis and this moment in which we have a small number of very rich people and a lot of people who are kind of scraping by and then tremendous differences.  We have a great inequality of wealth and income.  This group of people who are scraping by, there will be a lot of them, but they will probably be largely black and brown and that will tend to reinforce racial ideas.  So on the upper strata, among these few people up here who are doing very well there will be people of various colors and from various backgrounds, but they will probably not be so racialized as the people who are not doing well. 

You can see from my posting at the time I was sort of horrified by Painter's argument. It didn't really mesh with my worldview at the time. At that point I was a progressive in every sense of the word. I believed that you could sketch a narrative of progress in this country from enslavement to civil rights. It seemed logical, to me, that this progress would end--some day--with the complete vanquishing of white supremacy. 

I probably first came across Painter as a young child. My Dad had a ridiculous collection of black books and I'd just swim through them. I certainly knew about her during by my late teenage years at Howard. By then I understood her to be one of the great historians of our era. I also came to understand at Howard that historians are heartbreakers. I have often referred to my history professors destroying all my Afrocentric fantasies, and then telling me that I must, somehow, pick up the pieces and argue for my humanity. The Nubians, for whom I was named, weren't going to cut it. At least not alone. I thought about that for awhile--history and humanity. The history I had been taught had been crafted by humans for political aims. And if these black people truly were human, than it meant that other people likely would also do the same. Even my countrymen. 

Years after Howard, I sat with Painter on a panel at the United Nations. Her poise was ridiculous. There was something modest and grand about how she carried herself. I thought it was the aura of a person in full awareness of their big brain and all that it could do. Once I got over my fear of speaking in her presence, I found her to be one of the sharpest people I'd ever engaged. Her assessment of white supremacy cut to the core of me. I had always considered a vaguely-defined "hope" to be a prerequisite for writing. What kind of intellectual confronts a problem and concludes, "Beats the hell out me."

I had, by then at least, gotten past the idea that history was a pep rally, that if France had walls, Zimbabwe must have walls too. I also knew that Nell Painter knew a good deal more about America than me. If she thought racism would always be with us, then I had better take that notion seriously.

That was four years ago. I knew something about redlining and the New Deal. But not really. I had not heard of Arnold Hirsch. I certainly had never heard of contract lending. I knew about the wealth gap, but not really. I knew that the ghetto was public policy, but I did not know the extent. (I still don't totally. My knowledge about what happened on the South Side, for instance, is still lacking.)

I was grappling with the Civil War. I had some sense of Reconstruction. I had begun to grasp that slavery was not a side practice in America, but big business I still (sort of) believed in "class-based" solutions, for racist problems. I hadn't read Patrick Sharkey's research into neighborhoods. I hadn't grappled with Robert Sampson's work on Chicago and the vast gulf that divides blacks and whites. I hadn't read Walter Johnson's work on the intrastate slave trade. I hadn't thought about Rousseau's sense of slavery as useful killing. I hadn't read Isabel Wilkerson

And I hadn't thought at all about what any of this meant for humanity. I hadn't read about Japanese soldiers practicing beheading techniques on their fallen prisoners.  I hadn't read any of Tony Judt's books. I hadn't grappled, at all, with communism. I didn't know who Timothy Snyder was. I had no sense of a world where morality depends, almost exactly, upon the size of your arsenal and your distance from the conflict. I had not grappled with a Poland pillaged by Nazis, pillaged by Russians, the Nazis turning on the Russians, and then the Russians "liberating" the Poles, and then subjugating them. Again. 

I had not been to Paris. I had not committed to French.  I had not read James Baldwin in almost twenty years. I had forgotten some things:

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this -- which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never -- the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

People more advantageously placed than we in Harlem were, and are, will no doubt find the psychology and the view of human nature sketched above dismal and shocking in the extreme. But the Negro's experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards....

In spite of the Puritan-Yankee equation of virtue with well-being, Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any very striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians. In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. 

They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law -- in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.

And I'm not done. I haven't yet grappled with Israel. I haven't grappled with the experience of Indigineous Peoples since I was a teenager reading Bury My Heart At Wounded KneeMy whole project suffers from a kind of bias. I haven't thought about the black diaspora--Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Venezuela--in years. I haven't even considered India and China--a giant swath of humanity and history. I don't think a human gets to see all of this before dying. But I want to see as much of it as I can. And here is the key thing--it thrills me to see it. I love seeing it. I love knowing. The knowing is its own reward. The ability to frame the question is it's own gift--even if you can't quite name the answer.

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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