Ta-Nehisi Coates begins his book Between the World and Me with an anecdotal experience he had with a White newscaster. He shares his frustration with having to explain to her the violence of Whiteness within the United States framework because for Coates, the history of the United States is in direct relation to violence enacted against Black bodies. When the host eventually asks him about hope, he realizes that he has failed to make her aware of the gravity of race in the United States. In this moment, he is saddened because he knows he cannot give her the soundbyte nor the happy ending that she longs for; as a Black person who is conscious about race in the United States, he knows that the concept of hope is a pipe dream - one that he has chased for a portion of his life.
I am currently rereading Coates’ book for my African-American literature course. Earlier this week, I had to make a statement regarding a comment I had made in class about my discomfort with speaking about race with White people. My comment was similar to Coates’ message; I could not offer the class any inkling of hope, but I could offer my experience as a Black woman, the ensuing pain, and my analysis of race in the United States thus far. The next day, I received an email from my professor stating that she had received multiple emails from White students and students of Color who shared that my comment made them uncomfortable and were worried about the precedent it set for the class. My professor, worried, asked me to give her a call.
A couple hours later, I was on the phone with my professor, someone who says she’s spent a bulk of her life studying and understanding African-American literature and thereby, the African-American experience. Much like Coates, however, it felt like we were worlds apart. It was clear to me that we had approached the phone call from two different perspectives. She seemed to be defensive, persisting that I understand the impact of my comment. Unbeknownst to my professor, I completely understood what I had done, how my comment had been interpreted, and why I was being asked to make a statement.
The most alarming moment of that conversation occurred when she relayed my comment. Rather than accurately remembering what I had said, she stated I had shared to the class: “I’m done with White people. Down with White people.” In that instance, I was shocked at how a comment about my discomfort and limitations could be misinterpreted to be malicious and violent. After I clarified my comment, she asked me whether I thought this class was for me. As a Black student taking an African-American literature course, I do not know why this class would not be for me. I also cannot assert if she was operating from a place of bias. But I do know that, unlike Coates, I wasn’t sad nor was I disappointed.
I have been documenting my journey with activism since I was fourteen years old; so I know that what happened in that college classroom and phone call has happened to me before - in friendships, on stages, in high school classrooms, and online. More overtly stated, it sounds like: why are you so angry? More discrete, it sounds like: I see you just did your angry Black woman thing up there. Or it manifests as angry stares and social isolation.
Throughout the process of reconciling with my anger, I’ve learned that most people will try to villainize my words; will try to rewrite my story; will try to silence me rather than put effort into listening to me speak; will call me a liar rather than face my/the truth head on. And if I’m not careful, they’ll succeed; they’ll strip me of my dignity and render all the work I’ve done worthless. And because I am aware of that possibility, I made a statement the following class; I made an effort to appease their discomfort.
I’m learning that most people are only willing to accept the words and work of Black revolutionaries because they seem like a relic of an ancient past; as if racism no longer permeates the elaborately woven threads of this country. Yet, to reduce the Black revolutionary to merely words on a page is an injustice and a violent act brought upon yet another Black body. It is disrespectful to their legacy, the risks they’ve taken, and the air they breathed into the movements we’ve inherited. To celebrate a Black revolutionary’s words and work is to know that although racism surely isn’t over, we must celebrate the Black body and mind before it is taken and martyred.
But I wonder if people truly understand the weight of the Black body; if when they read Coates’ book, they understand that living while Black is almost as if you’re not living at all - that the notion of violence and death is something that is always gnawing at the back of your mind. To exist while Black is to watch, year after year, the words of Black revolutionaries be celebrated while contemporary Black bodies are demolished. To exist while Black is to simultaneously be taught to celebrate Coates - a Black man who vehemently critiques the notion of Whiteness - in a predominately White academic space whilst being told that your comment about Whiteness makes others feel uncomfortable.