I really like the writing of Te-Nehisi Coates, and one day, (one day, like next week for real, because I am practicing) I will get the pronunciation of his first name right on the first try. (“TEH-Nah-HAH-see COATS.” I got this, I got this.) He writes a lot about the contemporary African American experience, and explains how history is still alive and a tremendous factor in how they experience life. It is the kind of overview that I find very helpful. I found two articles compelling in “We Were Eight Years in Power” (some of it is kind of boring, sorry) — “The Case for Reparations” and the last piece profiling Obama.
The first article, wow, really talks about how our country has generated tremendous wealth off of African-Americans. There is slavery, of course, but taking advantage of African Americans didn’t quite end with the Civil War. There were all kinds of post-slavery shenanigans, eg how the KKK terrorized with physical violence and psychological stress, lynchings (and wait, um, David Duke is still alive, speaking at demonstrations, etc. WHAT) And even when African Americans moved north to escape the repression, it didn’t quite work out. If owning your home and voting are key factors in raising your socioeconomic status, they have been denied. In Chicago which Te-Nehisi Coates profiles, he talks about housing practices where real estate middlemen encouraged white flight by hiring young black women to walk down the street with a stroller, spreading rumors that new neighbors were definitely more ethnic. With this fear tactic, they could purchase the homes at a discount and turn around and sell the homes to African Americans a stunning profit. Banks denied mortgages in certain neighborhoods, like predominantly African American ones, so these former Southerners just sucked it up paid these corrupt real estate middlemen who owned the homes towards the day they would be able to own their home. Sometimes were able to pay off the debt, sometimes not, since the cost could fluctuate for no reason and was beyond their control. (It’s still happening if you want to look to the 2008 subprime mortgage fiasco. Not so rich African Americans were definitely explicitly targeted.)
Anyway, I cannot regurgitate everything in the article and you can check it out on your own if you are interested. You guys may already know all these things, but this article in particular helped me feel like I could begin putting my arms around the influence of slavery and the Civil War on contemporary American life, to begin to understand the through-line of history. He’s kind of one of my gateway nonfiction writers.
There are people who refute this piece and as my friend B says, Coates is not the first to make these observations. The fact that he comes across as if he’s the first to think these thoughts, I attribute to his youth. I agree with but it’s sometimes helpful to have a new face, a young person to present the facts — almost like a new brand in order recapture the people’s attention.
What I really want now is to find the Asian Te-Nehisi Coates. Is there a writer out there who has created a cohesive portrait of the entire history of Asians in this country so that I can process my own identity and the context of my experiences? Of course, some people, when they see a need, they step up and fulfill it. I don’t want that gig. Being a full-time freelance writer who generates think pieces — it sounds terrible. I picture myself sweating constantly in the apartment, power eating power bars, jogging in place, paralyzed with inaction. Writing is hard. It’s a job that requires bone marrow.
Luckily, that same friend B. had an Asian American scholarly writer recommendation me: Viet Thanh Nguyen. I’m going to check him out and report back.
The other article I liked was the portrait of Obama. Obama’s central premise of hope is genuine — he is a black man raised by a loving white mother and loving white grandparents who raised him with unconditional acceptance. In Kansas, he got jello molds. In Hawaii, he enjoyed an environment that was genuinely multiracial. Te-Nehisi Coates, not so much. His father was a Black Panther who was murdered by fellow Panthers, after the FBI planted forged evidence. Coates talks about being beaten by peers (ugh, I never want to take a punch), being raised to expect that no authority figure would come to intervene and save the day. He frequently cites his friend Prince, the only son of an African American doctor, who was shot by cops in his jeep shortly after his graduation from Howard. He also mentions a psych study that demonstrated racial bias in hiring practices by sending out test subjects to apply for jobs with identical resumes, the only difference being the white male had a criminal record and the black male did not. The white guy with a criminal record actually got more calls! (This was a seminal study conducted by a gifted young, white woman, Devah Pager, who was teaching at Harvard til this year, when she died of cancer at age 46 [my age, f.] leaving behind a husband and child. Coates sometimes mentions her race in articles, sometimes just the remarkable findings of her work.)
Obama, not having to learn the anxiety and caution you need to live in society as a black man, does not possess the distrust that Te-Nehisi Coates and maybe Michelle Obama greets life with. I found that contrast wildly fascinating — that your experience shapes your philosophy on life (of course it does). Obama, raised in such an unusual way, is an exceptional president and person. He genuinely believes in the goodness of people because the people in his life were good to him. He did not have to be suspicious, wait for the other shoe to drop. And Coates, as I mention early, still feels like a young man to me. Sure, he’s successful, married, a dad, but there’s this definite anger with Obama in his pieces, and the anger seems to be about the fact that Obama has hope, and yet if Obama were to lose that hope, I sense Coates would be devastated. He needs it so much. Man, people are complicated.
Here are two passages I liked:
From “My President was Black”
“I had never seen so many white people cheer on a black man who was neither an athlete nor an entertainer. And it seemed that they loved him for this, and I thought in those days, which now feel so long ago, that they might then love me, too, and love my wife, and love my child, and love us all in the manner that the God they so fervently cited had commanded.”
From “The Case for Reparations”
“Yale President Timothy Dwight, 1810
We inherit our ample patrimony with all its incumbrances; and are bound to pay the debts of our ancestors. This debt, particularly, we are bound to discharge; and, when the righteous Judge of the Universe comes to reckon with his servants, he will rigidly exact the payment at our hands. To give them liberty, and stop here, is to entail upon them a curse.”