Ta-Nehisi Coates: A Different Narrative on the Civil Rights Movement

One of the ‘required reading’ of the summer, ‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a long epistle to his son about the realities of being black in America, specifically, being a black man in America and how America (Dreamers) seek to destroy his physical body. And the picture isn’t pretty. It is a rather short read, only 163 pages long, but it packs a strong punch (no pun intended). It’s a sobering read, unlike most letters from parents to children, it doesn’t end with ‘but it will all work out for you son’. Coates doesn’t say that, in fact he says the opposite, that none of it may work out for the black man as far as his personal safety is concerned and that he really had no answers for his son, except to be vigilant and assertive.

I became familiar with Coates’s writing through his work with ‘The Atlantic’. He writes long, thoughtful pieces about racial injustice in America, in particular, the injustices inflicted upon the black and Native American peoples. The ‘plunder’ (his favorite word) of their bodies, their land and souls, and even when there is nothing left anymore, the ‘Dreamers’ still won’t let up and is out to suck them dry and inhale the fumes of their souls.

The piece he wrote for The Atlantic, ‘The Case for Reparations: Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole’ is a compelling and arguably the most well thought out, most nuanced best argument for reparations against black people (and by extension would apply to any peoples who have suffered at the hands of a white supremacist government ante or post bellum America) anyone has ever written. Many people have argued the case for reparations for descendants of former slaves before but they went about it all wrong. They focused on the pain, abuse and robbing a group of people their humanity over 150 years ago, it’s very easy (and reasonable) to argue that the sins of the father 150 years ago is not to be visited upon his sons. But Coates went beyond that as his title suggests, slavery, Jim Crow, separate but equal and finally racist housing policy which he quotes from Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro in their 1995 book, Black Wealth/White Wealth:

Locked out of the greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history, African Americans who desired and were able to afford home ownership found themselves consigned to central-city communities where their investments were affected by the “self-fulfilling prophecies” of the FHA appraisers: cut off from sources of new investment[,] their homes and communities deteriorated and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that FHA appraisers deemed desirable.

And I would add to the above, during the subprime mortgage boom, when more black people could afford homes, many of the subprime mortgages were marketed to black and latinos, even when they had good credit and could qualify for an A or Alt-A paper loans. Of course, when the subprime bubble burst, the heaviest losses again went to black and latinos. In one fell swoop, they lost the single most important asset to the American family, their home.

Coates change the reparations argument from physical and emotional pain and suffering (which is harder to fix a dollar amount on) but no less painful or deserving of compensation, to real estate, land, dollars and cents, the dinero, something that is tangible, something that everyone understands, real estate and the value of real estate and the number one slogan in real estate sales ‘location, location, location’. Especially since the wealth of middle America in the 1950s and 1960s was built on homeownership and the equity in a family’s home was their ‘wealth’.

Coates is an intelligent man, he and every other black activist knows that getting reparations for descendants of slaves is an unlikely proposition. There is a lack of political will and capital to raise this issue and even established civil rights organizations like NAACP, Rainbow Coalition and others do not have the political willpower to push this through their legislative lobbies.

‘Between the World and Me’ veers from touching in a sentimental way to almost historical clinical coldness. The book is also a personal manifesto of Coates’s views on America as an white supremacy entity, how black and other minorities exist in that space and his total rejection for ‘mainstream’ thoughts, beliefs and analysis of anything white America has to offer. Due to his father’s influence and the doctrine of the Black Panthers, the Coates family do not believe in God, Christ, celebrate Christmas, Easter or any other holiday that was promulgated by white people and white culture. His father sought to educate black Americans about African culture and the beauty and awesomeness of black people and black culture.

Coates readily admits that he was not ‘street smart’ in the sense that he knows how to not get himself killed in the rough streets of West Baltimore, he had no sense of how to protect himself from the local gangs and drug dealers nor the police who were not there to protect them but to kill them. And because of this deficiency in him, his father Paul Coates, for lack of a better description, beat the crap out of him when he done wrong. He justified this as his father preparing for the cruel world out there, rather convoluted. Precisely because the world is a cruel place, in his case, the minute he steps outside his front door, the home environment should be loving and nurturing. It’s also telling that Ta-Nehisi Coates chose to not impose this sort of punishment (the belt) on his own son. He protected his dear boy’s life like it was the most precious thing in the world as a father should. He didn’t nor did he allow another to lay a hand on his boy. So by his own parenting choices, he has repudiated his father’s method of parenting.

Though he was book smart, he rejected American public education, since he saw no reflection of his African culture or roots in mainstream American education. On his own admission he was a mediocre student by design. He got into Howard University for free because his father worked as a librarian there and so his children got to attend Howard University for free but he dropped out to become a freelance journalist and writer. He had a gift of writing, a sense of acute curiosity and investigative and interrogative fervor, so he carved out a career as a journalist for himself. He also has the unique distinction of the only person in his family who didn’t graduate from college. I admire his self-confidence to not follow the herd and what was preached to him. Perhaps that’s the real lesson to his son, no matter your circumstances of birth you can achieve your goals.

Coates does not accept the narrative of Dr. Martin Luther King’s version of civil rights movement, he was a Malcolm X devotee, Malcolm X’s declaration of black power, black is beautiful and open opposition to integrate with whites spoke to Coates more than the King version of doing civil rights, which is consistent with his Christian beliefs: civil disobedience, organized protests and ultimately forgiving your perpetrator did not sit well in the Coates household. In fact Dr. King was only briefly mentioned once in his whole book, in a rather derogatory tone “And all the time the Dreamers are pillaging Ferguson for municipal governance. And they are torturing Muslims, and their drones are bombing wedding parties (by accident!), and the Dreamers are quoting Martin Luther King and exulting nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong.” (p. 130-131 Kindle version)

It is refreshing to read that not every black activist hangs on to every word of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King, in Coates’s view, was too mild mannered, he was too easy on the perpetrators and in the process sold the black people short of what was due to them for centuries of abuse, theft, pillaging and plunder.

It is as if Coates does not view himself as ‘American’, he is black or ‘African’ but because of the criminal history of America, he and his ancestors were chained to a ship and brought here against their will to North America. He would have never chosen to be here. He explicitly wrote that he felt no sadness or sorrow for the police officers (he does not differentiate between white and black cops, all cops were complicit in the destruction of the black body) that died in the Twin Towers on 9-11, on first glance one could accuse him of extreme unpatriotism, but in his view, this country has done nothing but harass, marginalize and harm his physical body and kill his black brethren so he feels no obligation to feel any sense of loss for the law enforcement lives lost on 9-11.

There is also a bizarre quixotic nostalgia of ‘what could have been’ if the victors of history were Africans and not Europeans. Meaning, if Africans were the ones that came to prominence in history and not the European race, the world would have been much different. There wouldn’t be the plunder of Africa for its resources (still ongoing today), there wouldn’t be the transatlantic slave trade, no middle-passage, Africans would treat the conquered nicer, if they even ventured out to conquer (a very big if). It is a great fallacy to hypothesize events of history, one has no where to begin the supposition on how Africans would have treated their conquered, would they have been fairer, more humane, showed clemency? The recent and past history of Africa doesn’t point to this conclusion. While he was busy detailing the crimes of the European race, all of which are legitimate, he failed to recognize that people, any peoples, when given the power to plunder, pillage and abuse, will do so without mercy, especially if the victims are powerless. It’s not only specific to the white race, but perhaps the white race has mastered how to conquer, plunder, pillage, destroy and kill over millennia of practice.

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