Let me start by saying that I like the body of work that Ta-Nehisi Coates has produced over the past few years. I believe that he is one of the best writers of my generation, and I read him regularly because I want to see how I might strengthen my own craft. In particular, I admire the ways that he has invoked black history to talk about our present in substantive and nuanced ways. So I was thrown off this week by his article, “Fear of a Black President,” which appeared in the Atlantic this month.
So I wrote a rant. I should probably edit this more carefully, but I don’t want to spend tons of time deconstructing an author I usually really like. So here is my quick response.
What irritates me about the Coates piece is that he turns Obama into Booker T. Washington. And in this article, it’s used as a sort a faux historical shorthand for “sellout.” Which is fine if he had just said, “sellout” but not fine to say Washington, because Washington’s power was predicated on complete acquiescence on the question of not only segregation but also black disfranchisement. I’m enraged by the comparison between the person who silently co-signed some the greatest political violations in American history such as the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 and Obama, whose candidacy made way for the most radical enfranchisement of people of color and the young in American history.
Washington didn’t simply “endorse segregation and proclaim the South to be a land of black opportunity” as Coates quickly asserts. In the wake of violence Washington actually bent to the false notion of the threat of the black male rapist and pleaded for continued opportunities to allow blacks to become more civilized with more non-controversial schools and businesses. At the basis of Washington’s politics was a promise not to advocate for the victims of lynching, to ignore the profound shaming that was racial segregation, and to chose voicelessness in the face of the erosion of black citizenship.
Obama is not a segregationist. And he has not stood silently by in the face of the erosion of black citizenship. I’d argue that the Obama administration has done profound work to expand the franchise and is taking heat for the work that Holder and the Justice Department are doing to contest a wave of unjust voter ID laws, race based redistricting, and voter purges written into state law by Republican legislatures throughout the nation.
And even though Coates goes on to implicitly blame President Obama for politicizing the murder of Trayvon Martin, his voice on Martin’s behalf stands in stark contrast with Washington’s silence in the face of lynching. In the case of the most symbolically horrific murder of our day, it is very relevant that the President did speak. Obama not only spoke but he basically said, I am Trayvon, he could have been my child. When did Booker T. Washington ever stand with a lynching victim and say he could have been my son? To me, that matters. So this tired, reductive effort to make the President into Washington, this effort to reinforce a false dichotomy between racial accommodationism and radicalism is just a misreading of black history. But most people don’t know anything about African American history and the mere mention history and race makes the Coates piece look brave.
And the other searing irony here is his discussion of Shirley Sherrod. In a piece that is devoid of black women as historical actors, he concludes with a black woman. But here he mentions Sherrod as a prop. She is here simply to prove that Obama does not know “the struggle.” Coates doesn’t engage with Sherrod primarily as activist or thinker, but instead as a weeping grandmother worried about what her grand kids will think. Sherrod becomes proof that Obama is a failed black nationalist patriarch who did not to protect the old black woman even though she wants to protect him. Coates interviews Sherrod, but her voice is largely absent as are many of the facts surrounding the Brietbart attack. Didn’t the administration offer her the job back after they realized their grievous mistake? Didn’t Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP also fail to know who she was and fail to properly advocate for her rights? And who is the rights organization here, the Obama administration or NAACP? Coates here takes Sherrod, and her history as a SNCC activist out of a nuanced context and uses her to say that Obama is an insufficiently manly black man.
At the bottom of all of this is that Obama is not Washington or Al Roker (or W.E.B. DuBois or Frederick Douglass or anyone else ever) he is a fundamentally new thing. We shouldn’t use sloppy black history facts to understand what he is. He is this new possibility so amazing that he scares every white supremacist still breathing. And he’s bigger than himself, he makes space for young folks, women, people of color, not to be just like him, but to be heard. Would Coates have a column, would MSNBC have so many black voices? Would people be listening to what black bloggers have to say from small video cameras in their living rooms? Would you be reading my tumblr? People want to hear from the young and people of color because he blew something open. Is he the realization of our dreams? Hell no, but is that his responsibility too? At this moment, when folks are trying to whitecap black voters at the polls, why is Coates’ implicit response, “Mr. President, you are so insufficient.” Really?
Advice for young feminists? Do something else besides feminism. I’m serious. The feminist blogosphere is oversaturated in my opinion. Please, find something else you love and take feminist theory there. It gets lonely over here in tech and video games – I have a great crew of other feminists but we are a little island in a vast sea. We need more feminist minded business bloggers, feminist theory wielding finance bloggers. Labor organizers with a feminist lens blogging. Can you imagine what Deadspin (the sports blog) would look like with a feminist on staff? Restructure writes about science, tech and feminism – join her! Publish a blog doing literary criticism with a feminist lens! Take on the NYT! Talk about class issues and feminism. Whatever it is, apply your feminism in a different space.
I finally finished Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Had a great discussion about it on Twitter last week and then on Blacking It Up with Elon James White. Click on the picture to link to the podcast.
I’ve always been fascinated by the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, an 1857 Supreme Court decision. It makes me think about how betrayed Scott must have felt by the nation, how bold and clear the justices were in denying black humanity. But this moment, when the black sitting president has been forced to prove the place of his birth, has me thinking about Dred Scott once again. I think that America might be having a new Dred Scott moment.
Scott was one of thousands of the enslaved born in Virginia and moved West as their owners sought new fortunes in the American “frontier.” But white settlement required not only wars of displacement against Native Americans but also the violent removal of enslaved African Americans from their birth communities. Neither Native Americans, nor black slaves were conceived of as having claims to anyplace they could call home. The enslaved were auctioned off and sold, traveling in shackles to the newly expanding Deep South or the new Southwest, while the Indian Removal Act of 1830 opened the door for the violent forced removaland warfare against hundreds of thousands of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. This was the incubator of white citizenship in the nineteenth century, grounded in the idea of manifest destiny that imagined that white settlers were fulfilling God’s promise of a new nation. However this process of making space for new white citizens could only be fulfilled through the exploitation of slave labor and “Indian removal,” a moment that marked citizenship as white, and black and brown bodies and moveable and disposable.
As part of the movement west, Scott was taken out of Virginia and then subsequently purchased by a major in the Army, John Emerson, in 1832. Emerson’s army career was shaped by the process of “removal” and was facilitated by his status as a slave owner. Emerson was reassigned by the army to forts in the free state of Illinois and the free Wisconsin territory; he brought Scott with him. While in the North, Scott married, and started a family while continuing to work for Emerson. Called south to serve in the Seminole War 1840, Emerson called on Scott to return to the South with his wife and newborn daughter. When Emerson died, his widow Eliza Emerson attempted to lease Scott as a laborer and keep all of the income. Scott, who had lived in the free North for more than a decade demanded he be emancipated. After he sought to purchase his freedom and Eliza Emerson refused, Scott sued in court for his freedom.
In 1857 the Supreme Court found that although Scott had lived in the free North and had been allowed to legally marry (the enslaved were legally prohibited from marrying) he was not a free man. The court decision articulated broad grounds for attacking not only Scott’s claim but black Americans as a whole. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery from wealthy Maryland family who owned tobacco plantations and hundreds of the enslaved, wrote the majority decision which asserted that because Scott was black, he was not a citizen. In an unprecedented argument, Taney wrote that Scott had no right to sue. Black Americans had sued and petitioned for their freedom, the freedom of their children, and the rights of citizens since colonial times. Free blacks had even voted in a small number of states since the nation’s founding, meaning that free African Americans were part of “the people” who voted to ratify the constitution Taney was shredding to protect the slave regime. In his version of “original intent” Taney insisted that the framers of the Constitution believed that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.” In his dismissal of the idea that the Declaration of Independence might apply to black Americans when it insisted that “all men are created equal” Taney wrote “it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration… .”
The Dred Scott decision meant that to be black in America in the late 1850s was to live in a land that said you did not have a future. You were living in a country where, whether free or slave, you would never be a real American. The Dred Scott decision was devastating to black America. On what terms could they appeal to the Supreme Court when the history of black citizenship, and even the black presence in America had so thoroughly been washed away? How could the fight to end slavery and to win black rights be won in such a bleak context?
It is this despair of black America of the 1850s that reminds me of the disappointment of the past few days. The hardened historian in me wasn’t surprised, but I was struck by the sick theatre of a sitting president making special appeal to the state of Hawaii in the effort to prove not only that his election was legitimate, but that his citizenship is valid .I was struck by the tearful vlog response of Baratunde Thurston and by the rage of my friend Elon James White on his podcast Blacking It Up. I was struck by the profound disappointment of the Obama generation at the state of black citizenship. I was thinking about horror of the president having to show his papers, echoing with the millions of migrant workers, documented and undocumented who have to show papers everyday and are never pre-supposed citizens.
But I know that African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Latino, Asian Americans, we are formative of this American nation. I know that citizenship was only positively and affirmatively defined in the US Constitution for the first time when black people were freed and citizenship was granted in the 14th Amendment. I know that the labor of those black and brown people built the infrastructure and institutions of this nation. I know that our labor fed and still feeds the nation and cares for her children. We carry her mail, run her banks, and write her history. And I know that only through a coalition of black and brown and white folk did we achieve the amazing feat of electing the first African American president. I know that the 2008 election proves that those who would argue even today that “it is too clear for dispute, that the…African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration… .” are wrong. I know that we made them, through the simple practice of democracy, feel small, frightened, and vulnerable. But I want them to know, it’s okay, they are still welcome in our America. It has always been all of ours, all along.
So excited that Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen will be out this fall. She’s been birthing this one for a minute, but it will be a game changer for the study of black women’s politics. It makes me remember all the moments that she told me about bits and pieces of the work. The walk around my neighborhood when she talked about the concept of the crooked room, the imagining of Janie and Tea-Cake as a political story, laughing about those pink heels on BET… I can’t wait to see all those amazing ideas in one place, bound as a second book. Congrats ma! Follow @SisterCitizen on twitter.
Terms like ‘women of color’ are not just descriptions, but have political and ideological histories and current meanings. Here’s a clip of Loretta Ross, cofounder and national coordinator of SisterSong -Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, sharing one of the birthing moments of the term ‘women of color’.
“Y’all know where the term women of color came from? Who can say that? See we’re bad at transmitting history. In 1977 a group of black women from Washington D.C went to the National Women’s Conference that Jimmy Carter had given 5 million dollars to have as part of the World Decade for Women, there was a conference in Houston, TX. This group of black women carried to that conference something called Black Women’s Agenda because the organizers of the conference, Bella Abu, Elise Miller, what have you, had put together a three page Minority Women’s Plank (Laughs) and a two hundred page document that these black women thought was somewhat inadequate (group laughs). And so they actually formed a group called Black Women’s Agenda to come there in Houston with a Black Womens’ Plan of Action that they wanted the delegates to vote to substitute for the Minority Plank that was in the proposed plan of action. Well funny thing happened in Houston, when they took the Black Women’s Agenda to Houston, then all the rest of minority women of color wanted to be included to the Black Women’s Agenda. Okay? Well they agreed except that you could no longer call it the Black Women’s Agenda. And it was in those negotiations in Houston the term women of color was created. Okay? And they didn’t see it as a biological designation, you’re born Asian, you’re born Black, you’re born African-American, whatever, it is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been minoritized. Now what’s happened in the thirty years since then is that people see it as biology now. Like okay, I’m- and and and people say “I don’t want to be defined as a woman of color, I am Black, I am Asian-American, well that’s fine, but why are you reducing a political designation to a biological destiny? That’s what white supremacy wants you to do. (Laughs.) Now, and I think it’s a setback. When we disintegrate as People of Color, you know, around primitive ethnic claiming, yes, we are Asian-American, Native American, whatever, but the point is when you choose to work with other people who are minoritized by oppression you have lifted yourself out of that basic identity into another political being, another political space. And unfortunately, so many times, people of color hear the term people of color from other White people, and think White people created it instead of understanding that, that we self-named ourselves, this is a term that has a lot of power for us. But we’ve done the poorest job of communicating that history so people understand that power.”