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.
Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.
Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito, who called his teammate Jonathan Martin a "half-nigger." (AP)
The effort to ban the word "nigger" from the NFL is not just, as Richard Sherman smartly points out, borderline racist but actually racist. Any effort to raise a standard for African-American humans that does not exist for non-African-American humans is racist.
As I've explained before, the meaning of human language changes with context. That is why you may call your wife honey, but I probably should not. That is why Toby Keith referring to himself as "White Trash With Money" will never be the same as me accusing Toby of being "white trash with money." That is why Dan Savage proposing a column entitled "Hey Faggot!" will never be the same as me seeing Dan Savage on the street and yelling "Hey Faggot!" This is how humans use language, and it is wholly consistent with how black humans use language. The effort to punish this use, like all respectability politics, is an effort to punish black humanity, is racism.
It does not matter that black people of a certain persuasion are making this charge. Black people of a certain persuasion also supported the kind of laws that now find one third of all black men under state supervision. This is not an appeal to a crowd, it is an appeal to the basic rules of language, without which we would all be soon reduced to babble. When people claim that the word "nigger" must necessarily mean the same thing, at all times, spoken by all people, one wonders whether they understand how the very words coming out of their mouth actually work.
The great Harry Carson illustrates the point here:
I find it very disheartening that in our society today we're having a debate about the n-words being used as a term of endearment. If that's a term of endearment, go up to your grandfather, or an elderly black person, and use it on them. See how they react. For those who use it, I say they have no sense of history.
This is deep ignorance masquerading as expertise. As anyone who's spent time with African-American history, and specifically with the literature, testimonials, and music of enslaved black people, knows the use of "nigger" by black people to describe themselves is ancient. And as anyone with any familiarity with human beings knows, there are great many things you would not say to your grandfather that you would say to your friends, your wife, or your brother. And as anyone familiar with black people knows, many of our grandfathers certainly used "nigger" themselves.
In a particularly sad portion of the Wells Report, Jonathan Martin laments being derided as a nigger to his face by Richie Incognito. Martin's father's response is, "They think nigger is okay because black people use it." I read these words as the testimonial of someone coping with the trauma of rape. I am not sure that this is far off. Black America was birthed in a spectacular act of rape—literal and symbolic and our oppression has often been born as such. They enslave us because we are heathen. They spit on us because our hair is too nappy. They beat us because we are too dark. They hate us because we are too loud. They oppress us because we are too rude. They kill us because we are too human.
It is difficult to be born in a place where you are despised and also promised that with endeavor – with this, with that, you know – you can accomplish the impossible. You’re trying to deal with the man, the woman, the child – the child of whichever sex – and he or she and your man or your woman has got to deal with the 24-hour-a-day facts of life in this country. We’re not going to fly off someplace else, you know, we’d better get through whatever that day is and still have each other and still raise children – somehow manage all of that. And this is 24 hours of every day, and you’re surrounded by all of the paraphernalia of safety: If you can strike this bargain here. If you can make sure your armpits are odorless. Curl your hair. Be impeccable. Be all the things that the American public says you should do, right? And you do all those things – and nothing happens really. And what is much worse than that, nothing happens to your child either.
The religion of nigger-cleansing is desperation, a mythology adopted in the shadow of seemingly unerring inequality. It awards a sense of power, a belief that the parishioner might be rendered Christ-like and impeccable. But the actual record of nigger-cleansing is dubious.
Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman knew:
I am just as much opposed to Booker T. Washington as a voter as I am to the cocoanut-headed, chocolate-colored typical little coon who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither is fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship.
Booker T. Washington could not stop the Red Summers. That is because racism neither needs, nor seeks, black people's permission. That is because the wolf does not care if the sheep is respectable.
Here's a fairly great piece from Amanda Hess on how we judge actresses in their youth, and how we expect them to disappear when they age:
...81-year-old Vertigo star Kim Novak—who was roundly mocked for turning up onstage, two decades after her last movie, exhibiting extensive plastic surgery—might as well be dead. As comedian Rob Delaney cruelly joked: “Will they have time to edit Kim Novak into the In Memoriam section?” Even Matthew McConaughey’s mother, who last night aspired only to the role of proud parent, was eviscerated for rocking a keyhole-neck gown that gave the world a peek at her cleavage, which apparently only young women are allowed to possess. Twitter commentators deemed the view “leathery,” “ancient,” “inappropriate,” and “terrifying.”
So how ought an actress age? Throughout the evening, 67-year-old Sally Field (who appeared as a presenter) and 64-year-old Meryl Streep (nominated for August: Osage County) were compared favorably to Minnelli and Novak for daring to age “gracefully” and “naturally.” But we don’t know what Streep and Field do to maintain their looks—all we know is that they have successfully navigated Hollywood’s dual requirement to look amazing post-60 while never signaling that they’ve worked at it. That means avoiding obvious plastic surgery, but it can also mean spending your life investing in the habits, trainers, diets, creams, and treatments that add up to a “natural” look in old age. (Dodging illness and disability—Novak survived breast cancer in 2010—surely doesn’t hurt.)
I've spent the past couple of years thinking about the "twice as good" notion in the black community, and the bindings that we put on young black boys so that their country will not kill them. Of course "twice as good" ultimately means half as many arrive, and those who do receive half as much. Let us dispense with self-congratulation and great men. The question is not, "What did Jackie Robinson achieve in spite of racism?" It is, "How much more would he have achieved without it?" An ethic of "twice as good" divorced from any complaint, divorced from history is "Go for self" and can have no effect whatsoever upon a justice system, upon voter ID laws, upon asset forfeiture, upon Wells Fargo. The masses of the plundered will never be respectable to those who plunder them. The essence of plunder is disrespect. They can never respect you. They hate you, sir.
And I think these ideas only incidentally relate to who we call "black" and who we do not. Black people are older than white supremacy. And plunder is broad. The female body, always marked as a field for plunder, illustrates the point. The double standard that demands that black boys play classical music and comport themselves like Barack Obama, is comparable to the double standard that asks one thing of Jack Nicholson and another of Meryl Streep. Kim Novak also got The Talk...
When Novak entered the industry in the 1950s, studio executives made her cap her teeth, bleach her hair, shrink her body with a strict diet and exercise regime, and perpetually paint her face with the help of a personal makeup artist. I wonder where she got the idea that she mattered for her looks?
Novak's failure to absorb and fully implement this awesome wisdom makes her a target for humiliation and ultimately, maybe not death, but banishment from the public stage.
We should probably stop bragging about Jackie Robinson, and remember that he died young. We should probably cite Ginger Rogers mostly as damning evidence. We comfort ourselves with individuals who get over, ignoring the broad masses who—necessarily—cannot. I think we should pause before noting that Sally Field is "aging well." Most of her fellow human females will not. That is because the very notion of "aging well" is riven with all our notions of who owns their body and who does not.
The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence -- the public existence -- of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare -- at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare -- and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. [Emph. added]
A few have always risen -- in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement.
Forgive me if I have distracted, in any way, from Amanda Hess's piece. You start thinking and you're not sure what will come out.
Last Thursday, I took my son to meet Lucia McBath, because he is 13, about the age when a black boy begins to directly understand what his country thinks of him. His parents cannot save him. His parents cannot save both his person and his humanity. At 13, I learned that whole streets were prohibited to me, that ways of speaking, walking, and laughing made me a target. That is because within the relative peace of America, great violence—institutional, interpersonal, existential—marks the black experience. The progeny of the plundered were all around me in West Baltimore—were, in fact, me. No one was amused. If I were to carve out some peace myself, I could not be amused either. I think I lost some of myself out there, some of the softness that was rightfully mine, to a set of behavioral codes for addressing the block. I think these talks that we have with our sons—how to address the police, how not to be intimidating to white people, how to live among the singularly plundered—kill certain parts of them which are as wonderful as anything. I think the very tools which allow us to walk through the world, crush our wings and dash the dream of flight.
Jordan Davis was also given a series of talks, which McBath believes ultimately got him killed. We were sitting in the bar area of the Millennium Hotel in Times Square. She had a water. I had a coffee. My son sat back and watched. She talked about Jordan's first days in public school after several years of home school. She talked about how he went from shy caterpillar amazed at the size and scope of his new school to social butterfly down with kids in every crowd. He had strong opinions. She thought he would be a politician or an activist. It was in the blood. Her father, Lucien Holman, was head of the Illinois NAACP and served on the executive board. Lucia McBath herself is now the spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
"We always encouraged him to be strong. To speak out," McBath told me. "We tried to teach him to speak what you feel and think diplomatically."
She took a moment here. Her voice quavered but held. She said, "Even in that case with Jordan and the car, I think that he was not as diplomatic as he could be. That does not let Michael Dunn off the hook," McBath told me. "But I say to myself as a mother, 'I didn’t teach you and train you to do that. Adults are adults and you are still a child.'"
Agency is religion in black America. Benjamin Banneker made it. Harriet Tubman made it. Madame C.J. Walker made it. Charles Drew made it. Malcolm X made it. Barack Obama made it. You must make it too, and there is always a way. The religion of autoliberation is certainly not rebutted by the kind ofgraphs and stats that keep me up at night and that can easily lead to suicidal thoughts. Yours is the only self you will ever have. One must discover how to live in it or perish.
She continued, "In my mind I keep saying, 'Had he not spoke back, spoke up, would he still be here?' I don't know. But I do know that Jordan was Jordan to the end. I think Jordan was defending his friends. 'We’re not bothering you. We don’t know you. You don’t know us. Why can’t we play our music as loud as we want?'"
I told her that I was stunned by her grace after the verdict. I told her the verdict greatly angered me. I told her that the idea that someone on that jury thought it plausible there was a gun in the car baffled me. I told her it was appalling to consider the upshot of the verdict—had Michael Dunn simply stopped shooting and only fired the shots that killed Jordan Davis, he might be free today.
She said, "It baffles our mind too. Don’t think that we aren’t angry. Don’t think that I am not angry. Forgiving Michael Dunn doesn't negate what I’m feeling and my anger. And I am allowed to feel that way. But more than that I have a responsibility to God to walk the path He's laid. In spite of my anger, and my fear that we won’t get the verdict that we want, I am still called by the God I serve to walk this out."
I asked if she'd considered that Dunn might never be convicted of Davis's murder. "It's a strong possibility," she said. "The minute we looked at the jury instructions, we thought, 'That right there is what will keep Jordan from getting a guilty verdict.' I was crushed but not surprised."
A thought came to me that had been swirling for days: Dunn might win on appeal. I considered the possibility of him walking free. I considered the spectacle of George Zimmerman walking free. I considered the great mass of black youth that is regularly interrupted without any real reckoning, without any consideration of the machinery of black pariahdom. I asked McBath how she felt about her country.
She paused, then gave an answer that perfectly summed up the spirit of African-American patriotism. "I still love my country. It's the only country we have. This is the best that I've got," she said. "And I still believe that there are people here who believe in justness and fairness. And I still believe there are people here who don’t make judgments about people based on the color of skin. I am a product of that. But I am disheartened that as far as we've come it doesn't matter that we have a black president. It doesn't matter how educated we’ve become. It doesn’t matter because there still is an issue of race in this country. No, we have not really arrived. If something like this can happen, we have not arrived. And I ask myself, 'At what point are we going to get there?' And I have no answer. And I want to be able to answer."
She wanted you to know that Jordan Davis was an individual black person. That he was an upper-middle-class kid. That his ancestry was diverse. That he had blacks in his family. Mexicans in his family. Panamanians in his family. That his great-grandfather was white. That some of his ancestors had passed.
She wanted you to know that Jordan Davis was not from the "Gunshine State." That he was from Atlanta—Douglasville, Georgia, to be exact—where black people have things, and there is great pride in this. She wanted the world to know that Jordan Davis had things. That he lived in a three-story home in a cul-de-sac. That most of the children there had two parents. That original owners still lived in the development. That she was only the third owner. That Jordan Davis had access to all the other activities that every other kid in the neighborhood did, that he had not been deprived by divorce.
And she wanted you to know that Jordan Davis had a father. That this was why he was living in Jacksonville, where he was killed. That she was battling a second round of breast cancer and Davis's father said to her, "Let me raise him, you get well." She wanted you to know that she never ever kept Davis from his father. That she never put Jordan in the middle of the divorce, because she had already been there herself as a child—placed as a go-between between her mother and father. She said that this had wreaked havoc on her as a young woman. That it had even wreaked havoc on her own marriage. That she had carried that pain into relationships, into marriage, and did not want to do the same. She wanted you to know that Davis's father, Ron, is a good man.
She wanted you to know that what happened to Jordan in Jacksonville might not have happened in Atlanta, where black people enjoy some level of prestige and influence. That Jordan believed the level of consciousness in Jacksonville was not what it was in Atlanta, and that this ultimately played into why Jordan spoke up. That this ultimately played into why he was killed. I thought of Emmett Till, who was slaughtered for not comprehending the rules. For failing to distinguish Chicago, Illinois, from Money, Mississippi. For believing that there was one America, and it was his country.
She stood. It was time to go. I am not objective. I gave her a hug. I told her I wanted the world to see her, and to see Jordan. She said she thinks I want the world to see "him." She was nodding to my son. She added, "And him representing all of us." He was sitting there just as I have taught him—listening, not talking.
Now she addressed him, "You exist," she told him. "You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid of being you."
She gave my son a hug and then went upstairs to pack.
1.) Kelela. Good God, I am killing this joint. (Peace be upon the great Jenny Deluxe for the recc.) I was thinking about "Drunk In Love" which—like all humans—I just adore. ("I would kill that horse if I could meet Beyoncé.") But I sort of hate Jay Z's verse because, like most rappers, his idea of talking about sex is basically to describe a track and field event. Very few rappers can go here:
That you'll turn me out
Almost time to go,
Just one more round before you send me out.
That is because the pimp is the archetypical figure in hip-hop today, and the pimp must always be in control. The pimp can not be reduced to pleading and begging that actual humans, very often, find themselves reduced to when confronted by sexual desire.
2.) The God William Shakespeare. The first thing I try to establish in my essay class is that great writers have a high "stuff to words" ratio in their sentences. In other words, in any great sentence, there's always much more going on then you'd think based on the word count. And no one does it better:
Doubtful it stood,
As two spent swimmers that do cling together
And choke their art.
That is from Macbeth, and it's a beautiful, tactile, concrete image that does everything it's supposed to. What initially got me about Shakespeare's tragedies is the extent to which they reminded of MCing:
I rather tell thee what is to be fear'd
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.
Shout out to our own mod Kathleen for getting me back into the Bard. I'm juggling between Julius Caesar and Macbeth right now. I read both in high school. Have fonder memories of Macbeth, but loving Caesar now, too.
3.) Bob Marley. Don't know what it is right now. But I'm really feeling "So Much Things To Say." I don't think you escape how you are reared and, given my rearing, when Bob says "I'll never forget, no way, they sold Marcus Garvey for rice" or "Don't forget who you are and where you stand in your struggle," it will always have meaning for me. It will always be the voice of God in whom I can never trust.
4.) Smoking Loon: White Wine Blend. Take this for whatever it's worth. My palette is wholly undeveloped. And I generally prefer reds. But this has become an indispensable tool in keeping me sane during these times.
7.) Avoiding House of Cards. Evil is neither intelligence nor self-justifying. And despite my foray into darkness, I'm not a cynic. If the cynic is right, there's no point to anything. Even storytelling.
The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence -- the public existence -- of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare -- at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare -- and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few.
A few have always risen -- in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered.The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children are doing. They are imitating our immortality, our disrespect for the pain of others.
No writer is more essential to me right now. Perhaps no writer is more essential to me, period.
Here is a short piece from yesterday's Morning Edition with a conversation between Steve Inskeep, Gene Demby, Jamelle Bouie, and myself. Embedded below is a much longer conversation covering Stand Your Ground, the logic of twice as good, and a little misquoting of King Lear. I wish Jamelle's ruminations on the work of Tony Judt had made it in. But this is still very good. It was also very therapeutic. This blog has been dressed in all black for some months now. I'm starting to get used to it.
Michael Dunn reacts to the verdict against him. (Reuters)
I have generally written about the mistrial on the murder charge in the Michael Dunn case assuming that some number of jurors truly believed Dunn acted in self-defense. Another theory we've seen in comments here, and across the web, holds that no juror believed Dunn acted in self-defense, but that the jury merely split on whether to go with first-degree murder or a lesser charge.
Because the jury convicted Dunn of three counts of attempted murder, it is certain that the jury determined that Dunn was not acting in lawful self-defense. Stand Your Ground is a rule about one detail of when self-defense is lawful. Accordingly, the assertion that Stand Your Ground may have been a reason why the jury hung on the first degree murder charge is totally implausible.
The three convictions for second-degree murder show that the jury had determined there was no self-defense; ergo, jury confusion about self-defense was not the reason why the jury deadlocked on first-degree murder.
I do not think there was a conviction for second-degree murder, and I suspect Kopel meant three counts of attempted second-degree murder. Either way, the view that the jury believed Dunn was "not acting in lawful self-defense" is not consistent with the recollection of one of the jurors who sat down to talk to Nightline:
Nightline: You all first took your first poll of guilt or innocence on the murder of Jordan Davis, what was the vote?
Juror No. 4: 10-2.
Nightline: Ten people thinking he was guilty.
Juror No. 4: Yes, sir.
Nightline: And two people saying what?
Juror No. 4: Self-Defense.
The juror later says, "We took a poll. There were two of us undecided. Two for was justified and the rest not justified."
I don't mean to beat on Kopel, who wrote his piece before any of the jurors spoke out. (His main argument is that Stand Your Ground had nothing to do with the case, and that it's standard self-defense.) But I do think it's important that we be clear on the facts where we can be. As it stands, the facts hold that three jurors believed that the killing of Jordan Davis was just, and nine did not. My contention is that that belief is inseparable from our racist heritage, which dictates African-American life is of lesser value.
Put modestly, from the mid-17th century until the mid-20th century, the policy of our ancestral colonies and the policy of this country proceeded from this assumption. Perhaps the most amazing feature of our current era is the belief that 300 years of such policy gives no tell on our daily lives. The second most amazing feature is the belief that juries are somehow beyond reproach and capable of cleaning up our shit.
That is unfortunate. This is not about the jury; this is about our Constitution. This is not about Michael Dunn, individually. This is not about George Zimmerman, individually. This is about me and you and everyone American we know. This is about whether we will live in candor or live in flattery. This is about whether we will continue the dishonorable tradition of leaving uncomfortable business to be inherited by our children:
... and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen'd crawl toward death
A very wise man wrote me the other day and said he would have been happier if Dunn had been convicted of first-degree murder, gotten 15 years, and then was released to try to pick up the pieces of his life. And I think that really gets to the point. This is not about the ruination of white people—individual or collective. This is about coping with a heritage of regarding black people as subhuman.
Jordan Davis and his mother, Lucia McBath (Courtesy Lucia McBath)
I got up at 5 a.m. today in hopes of making the gym before my train to D.C. I handled business and with some time to spare, walked over to my favorite bakery for a touch of that summer love, now lost to my life upon these shores. The waitress addressed me in a familiar accent. I asked, Vous êtes française? She smiled and said, Oui, Monsieur, and memory of the changes washed over me like a wave.
I ordered in French. I was flustered because I did not know how to order a latte. Was it feminine or masculine? Is latte even French? Isn't it just café au lait? I know more than I can say, though very often, I say much more than I actually know. I am brutal with the language. I am a 6-foot-4, 230-pound baby, bumbling through the museum. My Je vous en prie might shatter an ancient vase, scar the work of old masters. Meanwhile, the French just dance. They speak delicately, as though they barely have a tongue. I can hear everything that is wrong with my diction, but I don't yet have the muscle memory to fix it. It's an old feeling. When I was 19, all I wanted was to write like black people sang, and I could see everything wrong but could do nothing to fix it. Ten years later I had muscle memory. And then in 10 more I had the faith to put a piece down, come back, hammer at it again, and repeat because I believed in the inevitability of work.
I'll be 39 in September, and it has taken all 39 of those years to learn how to learn. I never considered myself particularly smart. I've always learned things at a fairly slow clip. But I was insanely curious, and I've learned to not panic at my slowness, at the creaking gears in my head. I've learned to live in the curiosity, to just sit there and wait. I told the waitress I'd like "une latte." I don't even know why. Probably because I am brutal with the language, and have not yet learned to dance. But I have learned to sit and wait. I have learned so much, just in the past five years. That is to say I have gone through all kinds of changes, and I think this is a luxury.
The face of Trayvon Martin is always with me, trapped in the amber of youth. What is bracing about these regular deaths is how easily I can slot myself into the same circumstance. Follow me in a Jeep, then follow me on foot and we might come to blows. Demand that I turn down my music, at 17, and you might well not like my response. And I do not think this is a fact of black magic, of pathologies, of my culture. I think it is product of 17. I ride the trains in New York and I see boys of all colors who are very loud, because they finally can be, and no one can stop them. I see them and smile, and remember my own days back in Baltimore, my first freedoms, talking shit and being out in the world.
I finished my café au lait—I believe that's what it was. I was now late, because I am still a little young, and punctuality is not yet among the changes. I hailed a cab. The cab barreled down Broadway, past the Applejack Diner, and I thought of my twenties. I used to pass this restaurant with Kenyatta. Samori was barely one. We were broke and in trouble. I remembered getting off the train for couples counseling. I remember thinking I couldn't even buy my girl breakfast. My Dad used to visit us and leave cash. I remember thinking he was insane. We were ridiculous. How privileged are we to now see the changes?
I made my train, and it is from here that I now send this kite to you. I am sitting here watching the frozen hills run by, and I am thinking of all the changes that so many black boys never see, for the death tax which their country has long levied upon them:
That we shall die, we know. 'Tis but the time,
And drawing days out, that men stand upon.
But some are given more days than others, and I think of dying at 17, in my loudness, in my vanity, which is to say in my human youth, and I tremble. I was barely anything. I understood barely anything. When Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis, he obliterated a time-stream, devastated an open range of changes. And somewhere on that American jury, someone thought this was justice, someone believed in the voodoo of shotguns and teleportation. Michael Dunn killed a boy, and too robbed a man of his chance to be.
And this will happen again, must happen again, because our policy is color-blind, but our heritage isn't. An American courtroom claiming it can be colorblind denies its rightful inheritance. An American courtroom claiming it can be colorblind is a drug addict claiming he can walk away after just one more hit. Law and legacy are at war. Legacy is winning. Legacy will always win. And our legacy is to die in this land where time is unequal, and deeded days are unequal, and blessed is the black man who lives to learn other ways, who lives to see other worlds, who lives to bear witness before the changes.
Marchers in Jacksonville, Florida, protest the verdict against Michael Dunn. (Reuters)
I wish I had something more to say about the fact that Michael Dunn was not convicted for killing a black boy. Except I said it after George Zimmerman was not convicted of killing a black boy. Except the parents of black boys already know this. Except the parents of black boys have long said this, and they have been answered with mockery.
Jordan Davis had a mother and a father. It did not save him. Trayvon Martin had a mother and a father. They could not save him. My son has a father and mother. We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.
Henry "Box" Brown, whose family was destroyed and whose children were trafficked, knew:
I stationed myself by the side of the road, along which the slaves, amounting to three hundred and fifty, were to pass. The purchaser of my wife was a Methodist minister, who was about starting for North Carolina. Pretty soon five wagon-loads of little children passed, and looking at the foremost one, what should I see but a little child, pointing its tiny hand towards me, exclaiming, "There's my father; I knew he would come and bid me good-bye...”
Spare us the invocations of "black-on-black crime." I will not respect the lie. I would rather be thought insane. The most mendacious phrase in the American language is "black-on-black crime," which is uttered as though the same hands that drew red lines around the ghettoes of Chicago are not the same hands that drew red lines around the life of Jordan Davis, as though black people authored North Lawndale and policy does not exist. That which mandates the murder of our Hadiya Pendletons necessarily mandates the murder of Jordan Davis. I will not respect any difference. I will not respect the lie. I would rather be thought crazy.
I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy, and shall not be extricated through the latest innovations in Negro Finishing School. I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson's genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington's abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge. I insist that the G.I Bill's accolades are inseparable from its racist heritage. I will not respect the lie. I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting to which, likely until the end of our days, we unerringly return.
Despite Richie Incognito claiming exoneration was on the way, the Wells Report, which the NFL commissioned, pretty much shows him to be who Jonathan Martin claimed and a good deal worse:
After a thorough examination of the facts, we conclude that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman, whom we refer to as Player A for confidentiality reasons, and a member of the training staff, whom we refer to as the Assistant Trainer. We find that the Assistant Trainer repeatedly was targeted with racial slurs and other racially derogatory language. Player A frequently was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching. Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.
In 2013, the Dolphins distributed a workplace conduct policy to all players, and Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey each signed an acknowledgement form stating that he understood the policy and agreed to be bound by it. The policy defines harassment to include “unwelcome contact; jokes, comments and antics; generalizations 2 and put-downs.” Guided by this policy, it was not difficult to conclude that the Assistant Trainer and Player A were harassed, but the questions raised in Martin’s case were more complex, nuanced and difficult.
I'm just getting into the report now, and will have more to say later. But I wanted this up so that The Horde would have a chance to dig through and debate.
Here's a special invite to The D.C. division of The Glorious Horde. I'll be in town next Tuesday (courtesy of the wonderful folks over at Atlantic Live) talking with Liza Mundy about her excellent piece in January/February issue of the magazine, The Daddy Track. In between interrogating Liza, expect that I'll be pulling from my own experience as a stay-at-home Dad including memories of diaper-genies, umbrella strollers, and slow-dancing with the boy to Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" at three months. Yes, we were very cute, then.
Anyway, you can get all the deets here. Conversating will be in full and total effect.
NFL prospect Michael Sam announced on Sunday that he was gay. For reasons that should be obvious, most pro athletes have come out either after they've retired or, as with Jason Collins, toward the tail end of their career when their prospects were in doubt.
Mr. Sam, a senior who was listed at 6 feet 2 inches and 260 pounds, had a stellar season as Missouri finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. He was a first-team all-American and was named the Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, widely considered the top league in college football. Teammates voted him Missouri’s most valuable player.
Now Mr. Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.
As the pace of the gay rights movement has accelerated in recent years, the sports industry has changed relatively little for men, with no publicly gay athletes in the N.F.L., the N.B.A., the N.H.L. or Major League Baseball. Against this backdrop, Mr. Sam could become a symbol for the country’s gay rights movement or a flash point in a football culture war — or both. Mr. Sam, 24, is projected to be chosen in the early rounds of the N.F.L. draft in May, ordinarily a path to a prosperous pro career. He said he decided to come out publicly now because he sensed that rumors were circulating.
Sam, unlike his predecessors, has his professional career in front of him and a great deal of money on the line. And I suspect there's something more. When black soldiers joined the Union Army they were not merely confronting prejudice—they were pushing the boundaries of manhood. And when the Night Witches flew over German lines, they were confronting something more—the boundaries of humanity itself. Groups define themselves by what they are and what they are not: Niggers are never men, ladies are never soldiers, and faggots don't play football. When Michael Sam steps on a football field, he likely will not merely be playing for his career but, in some sense, for his people.
In that sense he will be challenging a deep and discrepant mythology of who is capable of inflicting violence and who isn't. Last week, Jonathan Vilma speculated about how he might feel if a gay teammate saw him naked:
Imagine if he's the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?
What undergirds this logic is a fear of being made into a woman, which is to say a fear of being regarded sexually by someone who is as strong as, or stronger than, you. Implicit to the fear is the gay player's ability to do violence. It exists right alongside a belief that the gay player is a "sissy." ("Grown men should not have female tendencies. Period," Vilma once tweeted.) The logic is kin to the old Confederate belief that Southern slaves were so loyal and cowardly yet they must never be given guns.
The mythology Jonathan Vilma endorses will not fade through vague endorsements of "tolerance," lectures on "acceptance," nor any other species of heartfelt magic. The question which we so often have been offered—is the NFL ready for a gay player?—is backwards. Powerful interests are rarely "ready" for change, so much as they are assaulted by it. We refer to barriers being "broken" for a reason. The reason is not because great powers generally like to unbar the gates and hold a picnic in the honor of the previously excluded. The NFL has no moral right to be "ready" for a gay player, which is to say it has no right to discriminate against gay men at its leisure which anyone is bound to respect. And discrimination is already in the air:
"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said an NFL player personnel assistant. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
All the NFL personnel members interviewed believed that Sam's announcement will cause him to drop in the draft. He was projected between the third and seventh rounds prior to the announcement. The question is: How far will he fall?
"I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down," said a veteran NFL scout. "There's no question about it. It's human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier?'"
This is going to be a fight, no matter how congratulatory the tweets. But Michael Sam already knew that. Ready or not, here he comes.
Around the time I came to The Atlantic, and just after my first book was published, I started seriously doing television and radio for the first time. It was not then uncommon for people to comment on my accent, my syntax, and my all-around need to "Think Of The Children" whenever I spoke. I never came up worrying about any of this. There's a kind of black household where speech is obsessed over, where grandmothers make you deposit a nickel for every "ain't" and "finna," where aunts respond to "Where they at?" with "right behind that preposition."
I actually never understood that one.
When I started writing it was as an MC. After Rakim, my greatest influences were the rhythms inherent in the common speech all around me. There were drums, as Zora Neale Hurston would say, tucked into these voices, and I have tried since those days as a five-foot MC to bring those same drums to anything I write. I never had much reason to "speak proper," as very few poets, and very few print journalists, cared about such things. In general, I thought that what was "proper" on the basketball court was not what was "proper" in a job interview, and that was not what was "proper" for writers, like me, and that, still, would never be proper for the lawyer approaching the bench. I believe my son should learn "standard English," much for the same reason I believe he should learn "standard French" and "standard Spanish." On the whole, knowledge beats ignorance every time.
The other day, I watched an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee for the first, and regrettably last, time. (Jerry, how I used to love you.) The episode featured the Francophone comedian Gad Elmaleh. At one point Elmaleh said to Seinfeld, "I don't understand baseball and I know you would never explain me how it works." In many African-American homes, Gad would have been out of a nickel. I found it amusing. In French, to ask someone to explain something, you can say, "Expliquez-moi"—which literally reads in English as "Explain me." There was nothing wrong about Elmaleh's actual thoughts, nor the message he was trying to convey. He was not speaking bad English, he was speaking in French grammar and using English words. And this—like a man driving to the hoop in coat and tails—was amusing.
This has been one of the small great lessons in studying French. People don't so much speak bad English, or bad "any language," as they resort to their familiar clothes, activity be damned. When the Ukrainian says "Why always Boris?" instead of "Why do they always call me Boris?" he is not being immoral, nor corrupting the children, so much as he is telling you something about his native tongue. And when the African-American tells you, "My wife been done gone" he too, is carrying other languages, though we are not yet sure which. But packaging matters to us, and language is but a specimen of this fact.
I was reading some pages from Anne Applebaum, the other day, on perceptions of the Russians as they drove the Germans back through Poland and then into Germany at the end of World War II.
When describing what happened, many spoke of a “new Mongol invasion,” using language tinged with xenophobia to evoke the unprecedented scale of the violence. George Kennan was reminded of the “Asiatic hordes.” Sándor Márai remembered them being “like a completely different human race whose reflexes and responses didn’t make any sense.” John Lukacs recalled “dark, round, Mongol faces, with narrow eyes, incurious and hostile.
Kennan thought that Soviet brutality had no parallel in modern Europe. The Red Army certainly was brutal, but not unparalleled. In under a decade, Hitler murdered some 11 million people. I'm not sure that his victims ever saw much sense in their executioners, either. And one need not go back to the time of Asiatic hordes to find devastation in Europe. It was Count Tilly, hailing from modern-day Belgium, who gave us the phrase "Magdeburg Justice," an episode born in a conflict at the very heart of Europe which served to reduce the German population by as much as one quarter. A consistent theme in my reading is that of a "Western Europe," where brutality is logical, if immoral, and "Eastern Europe," where brutality hints at something inexplicable, Oriental, dark, and primitive. I think I know something of that.
If you get a chance, check out this video of Pussy Riot on The Colbert Show. It's cool to watch the translations back and forth. (I suspect they have some English skills also, but prefer to speak in Russian.) The humor is never lost, which is to say the thoughts are never lost and are, on some level, the same. Humor sometimes depends on culture, but culture is not inexplicable and the thoughts undergirding humor do not pause for geography.
Why do we impute morality into language? I suspect for the same reasons we need to see the Russian "hordes" as Asiatic aliens, and Stalin, not simply as evil, but as evil that defies comprehension. But if you look closely, there is always science, there is always a method. Applebaum's great success is that instead of offering a litany of Soviet evils, she explains them. Soviet communism functioned like missionary Christianity—a veneer of respectability for a ruthless imperialism. And reading this, I can see how I too might have been swept away.
Yesterday it was a chapter where Applebaum discusses the secret camps in the Soviet Union where international communists were educated. The international communists felt privileged by the allure of clandestine knowledge held in the inner sanctums of the party. I thought, "That could have been me, too." And, as I've said before, I think that's the point of it all. To find yourself there, in another language, in another place, and feel the fragility of your morality, to feel the common nature in even your most treasured thoughts.
Jury selection begins today in the trial of Michael Dunn, the man who shot and killed teenager Jordan Davis outside a Florida convenience store in November of 2012. Davis was sitting in a parked SUV outside the Jacksonville store with friends when Dunn, who is white, began complaining about their music. An argument ensued, and then ended, when Dunn fired his 9mm handgun into the vehicle. As the SUV raced off, Dunn stepped out of his car and fired again. Then he and his girlfriend drove to a hotel, checked in, and ordered a pizza. He never called the police and was only arrested because a witness jotted down his license plate. Dunn, who is mounting a Stand Your Ground defense, claimed a passenger in the vehicle had threatened him with shotgun—or a stick. The police found no gun.
In the wake of Jordan Davis's death, his mother Lucia McBath has become active in the fight against Stand Your Ground laws. She is currently the national spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense In America. I spoke with her recently about the impact of the death of her son.
How aware were you of Stand Your Ground laws before your son was killed?
I have to humble myself and say I didn't think much about them. I knew what was happening in the country. But I spent more time trying to prepare Jordan to be safe, specifically being a young black male. I monitored who he was with and what he did. And I would have those discussions with him. But I didn't know anything about Stand Your Ground until Trayvon, which I discussed with Jordan as well. Every time I saw a case like that I would just pray to the Lord that something like that would never happen to us. Jordan was in a safe environment. We were in a safe environment. Now my eyes are open. It does not matter where you raise your kids. It does not matter what your religious upbringing is.
Can you tell us about Jordan?
He was always the life of the party. He had a great sense of humor. He would always play jokes on me and his dad as well. He was loved by a lot of people. He had a lot of friends and I always marveled at how quickly he made friends. He was just that kind of gracious personality. He made friends with all kinds of people. He didn't care about ethnicity or religious upbringing. He just liked people. I used to tell him, "Jordan, one day you'll be a social activist or politician because you can bring kids together."
He had a lot of wisdom. I used to pray that God would give him wisdom and understanding. We would have these deep philosophical conversations about life and there'd be times when Jordan would say things and I would say, "How do you know?"
But he would know and he would say, "I just know, Mom."
How old was Jordan when he died?
Jordan was 17. Between his junior and senior year.
Was he thinking of college?
His father and mother were well-educated and we come from well-educated families. But he was an average student. He had his struggles with math. He had gotten to the point where he'd say, "I want to go to college, but I don't know if I'm cut out for it." He was leaning toward the military. My oldest nephew, Julian, went into the Marines and did extremely well. He took Jordan under his wing. Jordan kind of wanted to be like cousin Julian. He was in Air Force ROTC in high school and that seemed to fit him. He excelled in ROTC.
Did he enjoy athletics?
Toward the end of his life he had gained an interest in basketball. As a child, he loved baseball. He took Taekwondo for about four and a half years. I actually took a class with him. He loved roller-skating. He was an excellent swimmer. I put him in the water at three years old and he just took off. He was so fast. When he was younger we would run races together, and I used to be really fast as a young woman and I would beat the boys. But they got faster. Jordan got faster.
How did you find out that Jordan had died?
I was in Chicago with my family on the day after Thanksgiving. I had gone to the bedroom. My phone was on the dresser and it lit up with Jordan's father number. He said, "Where are you?"
I said, "I'm in the bedroom."
He said, "Where's Earl?" Earl is my cousin. He is more or less like a brother to me.
I said, "Why? Where's Jordan?"
He said, "I need you to get Earl."
I said, "I'm not going to get him. What's wrong with Jordan?" I think he didn't want me to hear the news by myself.
What happened after you were told?
Every fear I ever had for my child, especially as he became a teenager—when they're driving, are they going to be hit? Is he going to get in trouble? Is he going to be stopped by the police?—everything I ever feared for Jordan hit me at that one moment. It was excruciating. It was the kind of fear you put out of the mind. You read about it in magazines. You see it on television and you think, "What would I ever do if that happened to my child?"
And then all of that comes down at one time.
Did you know then how he'd died?
I did not know a whole lot at all. What his father conveyed to me was that Jordan had been shot, but we didn't know why. We just knew that there was a confrontation with a man. It wasn't until the detectives started talking to the boys that we knew.
Do you understand, at all, why Michael Dunn shot your son?
I can't understand it. I will never understand it. That will always be a question that remains open in our mind. The only one who understands it is Michael Dunn. In that dark deep-seated moment for him, I don't know where he was. It just doesn't make sense.
How did you handle the days after Jordan's death?
In those first six to eight weeks, my whole life was a blur. To be honest, people look at me like I'm crazy when I say this, but I know we are on this earthly plane and there is this heavenly plane and I was somewhere in between. And God was speaking to me and pointing to me all the people in the Bible who he'd used to do things. It was overwhelming. The Lord kept saying he would open doors for me, and I would walk through them, and I would usher Jordan's father through these doors. It was just overwhelming. All I could hear was that "You have something else you must do with your life."
It was a pregnancy. In my limited thinking I couldn't understand how Jordan's death would be used. But I began to understand that this was much, much bigger. It gave credence to what was happening in this country to us socially, just as a people. This is not the intention God has for our country. "In God We Trust," but we have put our faith in our guns. It's a false sense of protection. Violence begets violence. And I just see fear. Fear hovers over our nation like smog—fear of people who don't look you or think like you do.
The gun industry, ALEC, the gun manufacturers, the NRA—they're using this fear to fuel the massive number of firearms. The gun industry is making tons and tons of money off the fear of this nation. There are a lot of individuals who fear some kind of civil war. People say to me, in code, "Well, the Obama Administration wants to take our guns." There is this sense that we're going toward a civil war, perpetrated by Obama's administration. This is something people are telling me. And I say, "Where are you getting these ideas from?"
The NRA and ALEC spoon-feed fear into people's minds. In some sense we should be in fear—not of one another, but of our gun culture.
What did you think of Michael Dunn's account?
I knew that it was crazy, without a doubt. Jordan had never been around guns. Jordan didn't like guns. Jordan was held up one time at gunpoint. He and a friend had gone off campus to get snacks. At the convenience store they were held up at gunpoint. He said, "I've never been afraid of much in my life, but I was just praying to Jesus. I thought I was going to die over my wallet and there was nothing in it."
It didn't take very long for me to understand his mindset and I just refused to read anymore. They were heinous to me. I couldn't give them the time.
Have you received any apology from Dunn's family?
No, not at all. And I don't expect [I] will. I am praying for him and my church is praying for him. I forgave him a long time ago. I had to. It's not just about Jordan. And I would not stand and wait for him to apologize. I don't need his apology. I had forgiven him pretty much in the first 30 days. I just knew that was what I was supposed to do.
I remember one of the first interviews we did. We talked to Lawrence O'Donnell. And after, I was walking past St. Patrick's Cathedral with my friend Lisa and I said, "Lisa, I have to go in there." And I went in and I was just sobbing for two hours. And the Lord helped me forgive [Dunn] right there. In those two hours. I came out and felt like, "Okay, I am done."
And right after that God started talking to me and showing me things. And I thought that God could use me and use Jordan. People look at me like I'm crazy when I say that.
What would you say to parents raising young black boys?
Watch for him. Keep him close. Jordan had no guns. He had no drugs. There was no alcohol. They were coming from the mall. They were being kids.
Last week The New Yorkerran a lengthy profile of Barack Obama, by David Remnick, in which you can hear the president's opinions on everything from marijuana legalization to war to racism. Obama is as thoughtful as ever, and I expect that admiration for his thoughtfulness will grow as the ages pile upon us. I have tried to get my head around what he represents. Two years ago, I would have said that whatever America's roots in white supremacy, the election of a black president is a real thing, worthy of celebration, a sign of actual progress. I would have pointed out that you should not expect a black head of state in any other Western country any time soon, and that this stands as singular accolade in the long American democratic tradition. Today, I'm less certain about national accolades. I'm not really sure that a writer—whose whole task is the attempt to see clearly—can afford such attachments.
More interesting to me is why this happened. If you begin from the proposition that African-Americans are fundamentally American, in a way that the Afro-French are not; and that America is, itself, a black country in a way that the other European countries are not, Barack Obama's election strikes you somewhat differently. African-American politics is literally as old as American politics, as old as Crispus Attucks shot down for his nascent country. One of the earliest and bloodiest proving grounds for "Western" democratic ideals was Gettysburg. The line that saved the Union, that ensured that "government of the people, for the people, by the people, shall not perish from this earth" was marked by the house of the black farmer Abraham Brian. On that Brian property lived the great Mag Palm, currently lost to our memory, who fought off man-catchers determined to reduce her to peonage.
The first African-American to be nominated for president was Frederick Douglass, a biracial black man of exceptional gifts who dreamed of his estranged father as surely as the present occupant of the White House, perhaps even in this day, dreams of his. The last black Southerner to serve in Congress, before this country assented to the desecration of its own Constitution, was George Henry White, who did not leave in despair but in awesome prophecy:
This is perhaps the Negroes' temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people—full of potential force.
And come again, we have.
In a literal sense, Barack Obama's presidency was made possible by the tradition of black politics—he could not have won in 2008 without the proportional allocation that came out of Jesse Jackson's campaign 20 years before. Considering this history, and considering the valence of African-American culture and heritage in our collective lives, in the very founding of this country, in our politics, I am not sure how much comparisons with European countries can tell us.
Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don't expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama's on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.) I don't expect to see a black woman exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again. (In the private spaces of black homes, I see it all the time.) And no matter how many times I've seen it in my private life, at Howard, in my home, among my close friends, I don't ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again.
This symbolism has real meaning. What your country tells you it thinks of you has real meaning. If you see people around you acquiring college degrees and rising only to work as Pullman porters or in the Post Office, while in other communities men become rich, you take a certain message from this. If you see your father being ripped off in the sharecropping fields of Mississippi, you take a certain message about your own prospects. If the preponderance of men in your life are under the supervision of the state, you take some sense of how your country regards you. And if you see someone who is black like you, and was fatherless like you, and endures the barbs of American racism like you, and triumphs like no one you've ever known, that too sends a message.
And this messenger—who is Barack Obama—becomes something more to black people. He becomes a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities. For liberals and Democrats, the prospect of an Obama defeat in 2012 meant the reversal of an agenda they favored. For black people, the fight was existential. "Please proceed, governor," will always mean something more to us, something akin to Ali's rope-a-dope, Louis over Schmeling, or Doug Williams over John Elway.
How does a black writer approach The Man when The Man is not just us, but the Champion of our ambitions? More, how do you approach the offices that have so often brutalized black people when those offices are occupied by the Champion? How do you acknowledge the president's many gifts, his actual accomplishments, while still and all outlining the depressing limits of his own imagination?
Here is a passage from Remnick's profile of the president, that brings us back to an old—but significant—argument:
He talked about a visit that he made last year to Hyde Park Academy, a public high school on Chicago’s South Side, where he met with a group of about twenty boys in a program called Becoming a Man. “They’re in this program because they’re fundamentally good kids who could tip in the wrong direction if they didn’t get some guidance and some structure,” Obama recalled. “We went around the room and started telling each other stories. And one of the young men asked me about me growing up, and I explained, You know what? I’m just like you guys. I didn’t have a dad. There were times where I was angry and wasn’t sure why I was angry. I engaged in a bunch of anti-social behavior. I did drugs. I got drunk. Didn’t take school seriously. The only difference between me and you is that I was in a more forgiving environment, and if I made a mistake I wasn’t going to get shot. And, even if I didn’t apply myself in school, I was at a good enough school that just through osmosis I’d have the opportunity to go to college.
“And, as I’m speaking, the kid next to me looks over and he says, ‘Are you talking about you?’ And there was a benefit for them hearing that, because when I then said, You guys have to take yourselves more seriously, or you need to have a backup plan in case you don’t end up being LeBron or Jay Z ... they might listen. Now, that’s not a liberal or a conservative thing. There have been times where some thoughtful and sometimes not so thoughtful African-American commentators have gotten on both Michelle and me, suggesting that we are not addressing enough sort of institutional barriers and racism, and we’re engaging in sort of up-by-the-bootstraps, Booker T. Washington messages that let the larger society off the hook.” Obama thought that this reaction was sometimes knee-jerk. “I always tell people to go read some of Dr. King’s writings about the African-American community. For that matter, read Malcolm X .... There’s no contradiction to say that there are issues of personal responsibility that have to be addressed, while still acknowledging that some of the specific pathologies in the African-American community are a direct result of our history.”
You can basically see what I think of this argument here and here. The president is correct that there is a long history of black leaders addressing "personal responsibility." But as a diagnosis for what has historically gone wrong in black communities, the tradition is erroneous.
When W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1897, claimed that the "first and greatest" step toward addressing "the Negro Problem," lay in correcting the "immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes themselves" he was wrong. No amount of morality could have prevented the overthrow of Wilmington by white supremacists—the only coup in American history—a year later. When Booker T. Washington urged blacks to use "every iota of influence that we possess" to "get rid of the criminal and loafing element of our people," he was wrong. When Marcus Garvey claimed that "the greatest stumbling block in the way of progress in the race has invariably come from within the race itself," he was dead wrong. When Malcolm X claimed that "the white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community,” and asserted that black people "will let anybody come in and take control of the economy of your community," he was wrong. He knew the game was rigged. He did not know how much.
An appeal to authority—even the authority of our dead—doesn't make Barack Obama any more right. On the contrary, it shows how wrong he is. I can't think of a single credible historian of our 500-year tenure here who has concluded that our problem was a lack of "personal responsibility." The analysis is as old as it is flawed, and that is because it isn't analysis at all but something altogether different. No black people boo when the president talks about personal responsibility. On the contrary, it's often the highlight of his speeches on race. If you've ever lived in a black community, you might understand why. I can assemble all kinds of stats, graphs, and histories to explain black America's ills to you. But none of that can salve the wound of leaving for work at 7 a.m., seeing young men on the stoop blowing trees, and coming home and seeing the same niggers—because this is what we say to ourselves—sitting in the same place. It is frustrating to feel yourself at war with these white folks—because that too is what we say—and see people standing on your corner who you believe to have given up the fight.
"I am not raising 'nothing niggers,'" my mother used to tell me. "I am not raising niggers to stand on the corner." My mother did not know her father. In my life, I've loved four women. One of them did not know her father and two, very often, wished they didn't. It's not very hard to look at that, and seethe. It's not very hard to look at that and see a surrender, while you are out here at war, and seethe. It's not hard to look around at your community and feel that you are afflicted by quitters, that your family—in particular—is afflicted by a weakness. And so great is this weakness that the experience of black fatherlessness can connect Barack Obama in Hawaii to young black boys on the South Side, and that fact—whatever the charts, graphs, and histories may show—is bracing. When Barack Obama steps into a room and attacks people for presumably using poverty or bigotry as an excuse to not parent, he is channeling a feeling deep in the heart of all black people, a frustration, a rage at ourselves for letting this happen, for allowing our community to descend into the basement of America, and dwell there seemingly forever.
My mother's admonishings had their place. God forbid I ever embarrass her. God forbid I be like my grandfather, like the fathers of my friends and girlfriends and wife. God forbid I ever stand in front of these white folks and embarrass my ancestors, my people, my dead. And God forbid I ever confuse that creed, which I took from my mother, which I pass on to my son, with a wise and intelligent analysis of my community. My religion can never be science. This is the difference between navigating the world and explaining it.
In his book The Condemnation of Blackness, the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes that a few years after Du Bois made his proclamations he was shocked to find himself cited by unreformed white supremacists. And this is not even the past. New York's civil-rights leadership and the racists of our time are united in their belief in the myth of a Knockout Game, which is to say they are united in a belief in our oldest and most fallacious narratives, which have not died.
Catharsis is not policy. Catharsis is not leadership. And shame is not wisdom. And applause can never make a man right. And there are many kinds of personal responsibility. The young black man, coming out of storied Morehouse, should be personally responsible for the foiling of this new wave of poll taxing. He should be personally responsible for ensuring that the Medicaid expansion comes to Mississippi. He should be personally responsible for the end of this era of mass incarceration. He should be personally responsible for the destruction of the great enemy of his people—white supremacy. It is so very hard to say this, to urge people on in a long war. We keep asking the same question, but the answer has not changed.
And I struggle to get my head around all of this. There are moments when I hear the president speak and I am awed. No other resident of the White House, could have better explained to America what the George Zimmerman verdict meant. And I think history will remember that, and remember him for it. But I think history will also remember his unquestioning embrace of "twice as good" in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much.