Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates garnered attention recently after publishing an article in the Atlantic called “The First White President.” The article talks about Trump’s white supremacy, the white vote. Its subtitle is “The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.” It makes me think.
On the one hand, my eyes have been opened as the prejudice in our country is uncovered and white supremacy is loosed in terrible ways. I appreciate the challenge in reading Coates, the way his words make me remove my shoes and slip on his, they way they make me step out of my bubble and reckon with what is really going on, the racism deeply embedded in our country. On the other hand, his words make me feel off kilter as I reflect on my own experience and detect some relationship in our situations. We whites have benefitted immensely from our elevated status and histories as the enfranchised, but we are sick from this cancer in our society too. Women and men striving, competing, climbing over each other, we are soul sick. We don’t even know what we are working for, and we are so busy we don’t realize what we are missing.
I will never know what it is like for Coates to live in this predominately white world where police kill black men and incarcerate many more. What it is like to be feared and hated, to be seen as a threat and as less capable at best and as criminal at worst. But I feel that we and those like us are brother and sister, both of us awake to the truths of our society and the long history of its sickness.
I am pierced and aggrieved by this white nationalistic stuff, and I know in the face of it, I am, to borrow a sentiment voiced by water protector Doug Goodfeather to a small group of us white people, a [red] black man now. In these current times, white nationalists are a threat to all of our safety, to our communities and democracy, to any wellbeing. This threat to half the population is a threat to me, to all of us, and I know this assertion to be true from the depths of my heart and soul.
I know my life has been far easier than Coates’s has, and yet I feel that his struggle is a highlighted, more intense, and poignant partner to my own story of alienation and lack of self-worth. As a white woman, my own weak sense of self, the sense of being at odds most of my life now reveals itself to be a function of our corrupt and destructive economic system.
I honestly read Coates like a hungry child, one who is living with a sense of lack, who is sad that the “adults” about her work, often producing more junk, more highways, more shopping malls, while finding little time for their families, for their creativity. I begin to understand how these white suburbs I’ve inhabited are built upon others’ suffering and exclusion. I begin to see how screwed up our economy, our politics, our media are. Within Coates’s shoes, I see who we are as Americans.
As he shares his own experience growing up in Baltimore streets and witnessing the horrific treatment of black men in this culture, I consider how I grew up in the edges of DC in all-white suburbs, not far from Baltimore but oblivious. In depicting the economic hardships, drug problems, inner city violence, and discrimination in the prosecution and jailing of black men, he helps me better understand the world I see in which materialism, competition, and isolation reign. In the shadow of his story mine shows well lit, my blindness as well as my crippling low self-worth and my confusion. Coates contributes to my long slow awakening.
I see more clearly than ever how we whites suffer from the same corporate greed, from dismissal and denigration by those in power or those with money, from the materialism, from political and economic corruption, from egotism and exploitation. While whites might have hid from or avoided some of the ill affects of corporate greed, from economic and political corruption, we are now beginning to enter the thick of it. When oil companies want to frack in my back yard and dump toxic waste in my community, when Republicans want to take away my health care and increase my taxes, jail me for protesting, I become the black man, the red woman.
Though most white people may not experience daily fears for our lives, our bodies, our loved ones, we have become more and more isolated, focused on our own little lives, our goals and dreams, unaware of what is going on around and in us. We are alienated from our neighbors and sometimes our own family members. We are brainwashed by a demeaning economic model, worn out and sometimes sick from our striving, our amassing of stuff. We hurt from our divisions. And in our insulated and whitewashed existence we have not realized how toxic industry and politicians have raped the land and poisoned everything around us.
In The Souls of Black Folks, published in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois pondered the situation and status of Black Americans but also the direction of society as a whole. In that work he noted that a Tennessee town he lived in experienced major changes some called progress and he called “ugly.” He warned against the “greed of gold,” or “interpreting the world in dollars.” He said blacks should not abdicate “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness,” to the ideal of wealth attainment. “. . . to make men,” said Du Bois, “we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living,-not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold.”
Greed and progress are the very values our whole society has succumbed to. Time for a book called “The Souls of Americans,” time for taking stock. What meaning will our youth find in their white suburban lives as the notions of progress and achievement whither?
Paradoxically, the revelation of our decay and corruption releases energy. When I feel my connection to Coates, to people and planet, I am feeling life. A force that allows me to break through the fear, conformity, and insanity like a new shoot through dead leaves.
This darkness and division actually allows love to surface and grow. The roof or our prison can be removed to let in sunshine and allow movement. We have an opportunity to listen to one another and to learn, to remove walls and plant gardens. To awaken within our bodies, minds, and hearts. Shaking out rusty limbs, blowing off dust, let us build cabins and communities, listen to our Mother and learn new ways of being. Forgive one another and work together, celebrate together, live as the beautiful multi-colored imaginations that we are.