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?