When author and MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates stepped out from behind the red curtains in The La Sells Stewart Center on Thursday night, he was cheered by a packed house. In three other overflow rooms around campus, hundreds more waited to watch Coates being live-streamed onto their screens. Coates was speaking on “The Burden of History,” which many felt was particularly relevant given the political events of the previous week.
For Coates, the current spate of Islamophobia being played out on the political stage has direct echoes to his particular area of interest, African American history, and the creation of race and racist policies. Coates said the recent ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries was one example of labeling a certain group of people as “the stranger,” in order to cast them as dangerous and foreign.
By casting Muslims as ‘strangers,’ Coates said it’s an easy step to demand they leave, much in the way that African Americans have been told through the years to ‘go back to Africa.’ He pointed out that blacks have been living in this country since 1619, much longer than many people of European descent, but that you never hear someone say “Go back to Italy.”
“That’s the power of whiteness,” Coates said. Because of the lack of ready labor in the early foundations of the United States, it soon became apparent that slave labor was the easiest way to keep and cultivate the vast tracts of land European men were claiming and overtaking. And as the economic need for black slave labor grew, so did the propensity for blackness to be equated with subhuman characteristics, in order to justify their continued enslavement.
“The idea of the black man as predatory against white women, as criminals, these ideas are bone deep,” Coates said, and also completely constructed by white supremacy.
“Race is a manufactured thing,” Coates said. “And the theory of American diversity holds that different races can’t get along.” By creating divisions, by casting some as strangers, then it becomes easier for the dominant group to take from the other. But the idea of blackness, Coates said, is created.
“Here in Corvallis, I’m proud to be black. But I recognize that in Brazil I might be something else entirely. If I was born during a certain period in South Africa, I might be “colored.” In New Orleans 200 years ago, I would be something else,” he said. Coates joked that anyone who has attended a black family reunion would immediately notice that ‘black’ is a label for a wide variety of people.
“There’s no real test across time,” Coates said. “The Irish, the Italians, the Jews were not immediately accepted as white. They were not accepted under an umbrella of whiteness.”
The shifting attitude toward African slaves, especially during the latter part of the 1700s and into the 1800s, was reinforced by laws that ensured that only white landholders received certain protections. And throughout that early history of America, slavery was an essential part of the country’s development.
“You cannot imagine America without slavery,” he said. “It’s not a bump in the road. It IS the road. If you went to South Carolina in 1860, a majority of the people were enslaved… there were whole counties in Virginia where 70 to 80 percent of the people were enslaved. Collectively this slave labor was worth $3.5 billion of wealth. All the wealth from banks, shipyards, factories, the entire productive capacity of the United States was worth less than the four million black people in the South.”
Coates said he commonly hears people play down the role of slavery on the development of America, but the fact is that previous to the Civil War, economic growth was fueled by centuries of slave labor.
“The way that you accumulated wealth was you bought people and worked them to death,” he said. “It powered the rest of the country.”
And the repercussions are still being felt today. When the Civil War ended in 1865, peoples’ attitudes toward African Americans didn’t magically change.
“If you have 250 years of telling yourself that blacks were not human,” he said, that belief doesn’t shift because of political circumstances. “And what scares me now (about the Muslim ban) is the possibility of us doing it again… At the single stroke of a pen we have become the most Islamophobic country in the West. Putting ‘them’ outside gives you permission to do something to them.”
“To folks on this campus who are from the seven affected countries, I want to tell you ‘I’m with you. I feel you.’ I see my history being repeated again.”
Coates said he wanted students to realize that things that were being taken away were going to be very hard to reverse.
“I don’t want to scare you, I want to inspire you,” he said. “You may not want to hear this but your vote matters a lot.”
He said growing up in the 1980s in Baltimore, he remembers the Clinton-era actions that negatively impacted the black community, and he understood the frustration that some black voters felt over selecting between Trump or Clinton.
“As an adult you have to make decisions that are not ideal, not inspirational,” he said. “But Jeff Sessions is not Eric Holder. Sometimes as we mature and grapple with our political consciousness, there are facts we need to face.”
During a Q&A following his lecture, moderated by Christopher McKnight Nichols, Coates talked about his process as a writer, and writing for himself, not for an external audience and certainly not for progressive whites, although he has a large following among that group. He said when he first started blogging online, he had an audience of two, himself and his dad.
“You’ve got to make peace with the fact that people aren’t going to read you,” he said, and in fact, trying to write simply to get an audience is dangerous. “You will be corrupted if you think about it.”
And while he said as a youth he was very skeptical of the non-violence espoused by the Civil Rights movement, given the violence he experienced every day in Baltimore, he said that a violent uprising is not the way to react to today’s political turmoil, rather it is to change the political system at a grassroots level.
“You have to enrobe yourself in the system,” he said. “Start building from the ground up. Start building the actual architecture. That’s not romantic. It’s not Che Guevara.”
~ Theresa Hogue