The Algebra of America: Racism and Oppression = Surplus Wealth
In Between the World and Me (2105), writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates presents the underlying formulas of racism, power, brutality and oppression that undergird the privilege and profits of American society. Here is one such formula: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear” (p. 17). In a compelling style that combines poetry, philosophy, political commentary, journalism, and intellectual intensity this slim volume is written in memoir form as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, Samori. The father’s focus is especially on the physical and psychological nature of being black in America: the fear and anxiety, the confusion and chaos, and the enduring courage and commitment to life. Through the lens of Coates’s personal life, he details the early and continuous abuse and domination of black people to make possible the wealth of what Coates calls the “Dream” of being “white.”
I grew up in a working class area of Akron, Ohio, where my father (like other fathers) got up at 4:30 AM to leave for the factory at 5:30 AM. He worked long and dirty days and, by the time he retired, he was making $10,000 a year. In my school system, I was always (from kindergarten through senior year of high school) surrounded by and friends with black kids. I came to see and understand their circumstances up close and personal, by visiting their homes and neighborhoods. I saw and sensed everything Coates writes about, even though gangs and guns were not as common in the 1960’s in Akron as they were in the 1970’s in Baltimore. In Coates’s language, my family “thought it was white,” that is we were called “white” and called ourselves “white,” but from family photos from Kentucky and West Virginia two generations back, I could see people in my father’s family who looked African American and Native American. I always wondered why we were “white.” My family was not pursuing the Dream that Coates writes about. We were just trying to survive and get on with life, but I think my parents would have found it impossible to question our hypothetical whiteness.
As Coates makes clear, of course, there are no “races,” the category of race having been invented in order to keep black slaves and white indentured servants from becoming a united tribe of oppressed people Polly Young-Eisendrath Ta-Nehisi Coates Blogwho could rebel against the landowners and slave holders. The ruling class invented the marker of skin color to “elevate” people with lighter skin shades and turn them against those with darker skin, and promise “whites” the Dream if they cooperated with the slave owners. Different from our darker brothers and sisters, the “whites” were promised emancipation from indenture and, perhaps eventually, the Dream. And so, the laws were laid down about “the races.” On this topic, Coates says, “I have not spent my time studying the problem of ‘race’ – ‘race’ itself is just a restatement and retrenchment of the problem. You see this from time to time when some dullard – usually believing himself white – proposes the way forward is a grand orgy of black and white, ending only when we are all beige and thus the same ‘race.’ But a great number of ‘black’ people are already beige” (p. 115).
In Akron, I went to school with black kids very much like Coates – smart and curious about life with good parents who were caring. Most of them were also religious and well mannered. Coates grew up with better-educated parents (than most of my working class friends) who wanted him to see into his own life circumstances and to know himself and do something valuable in the world. Coates’s parents were also informed about Black Power and the importance of black identity. Even with these supports at home, he was nevertheless confused and terrified a lot of the time, alternately threatened on the streets by gangs, in his home by beatings from his father, at school by standards and ideals he couldn’t relate to. Coates makes his reader feel what it felt like to grow up in a black body in Baltimore in the 1970’s. His perspective and feelings are also colored by atheism, something he emphasizes and incorporates into his analyses. Coates wants us to stay close to the physical and psychological threats that surround black lives and not to retreat into any excuses or softening that the Black church might bring.
In addressing his son about the meaning of being black in America, Coates is addressing all of us. He wants us to see and feel how our country is founded on a formula of oppression and racism = surplus wealth, and how all of us are seduced into believing the Dream until we wake up. “The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown” (p .98).
Akron OhioOn the back jacket of the book, Toni Morrison says “This is required reading.” I couldn’t say it better. If you want to “find America” outside its marketing of itself, you will find it in these covers. It is an America that is murkier and more horrifying than you may have thought, but Coates clarifies it for you. And yet, he does not leave you with a hopeless feeling. He helps you reclaim your sense of hope by meeting the people who, like himself, are called “black” and have forged together an extraordinary and resilient culture cut from the fabric of fear and oppression. Through his sojourns in Paris, Coates comes to see his America through a new lens: “what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us” (p. 120).
Ultimately, America has to change in a way that is still unknown. And this change has to be led by people like Ta-Nehisi Coates who says, “I knew that I wasn’t so much bound to a biological ‘race’ as to a group of people, and these people were not black because of any uniform color or any uniform physical feature. They were bound because they suffered under the weight of the Dream, and they were bound by all the beautiful things, all the language and mannerisms, all the food and music, all the literature and philosophy, all the common language that they fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream” (p. 119). Please read this book. It will tell you something new about what it means to be American.