“White supremacy does not contradict American democracy—it birthed it, nurtured it, and financed it. That is our heritage.” These are just of a few of the contentious words Ta Nehisi Coates has penned during his time as a national correspondent at The Atlantic.
For those of us raised on the idea of “American exceptionalism,” Coates’ words can be difficult to swallow. But that hasn’t prevented members of the Messiah community from wrestling with them.
On October 26th, Ta Nehisi Coates delivered a talk titled, “A Deeper Black: Race in America” at Temple University. Fifteen Messiah students and faculty piled into a rented van, skipped classes and engagements, and headed to Philadelphia to hear more of his thoughts.
Though to say Coates “gave a talk” is to misunderstand him as a man. His resume is formidable to be sure, (he is a MacArthur Fellow and has written for TIME Magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post) but Coates doesn’t want to “give a talk.” He wants to talk.
This is clearly evident in his speaking style. Coates does not rely on written notes, preferring as the Temple bulletin pointed out, to speak “extemporaneously, forcefully on the events of the day.”
Even Coates’ writing emphasizes conversation over academia. His latest release, Between the World and Me, won the 2015 National Book Award. But he didn’t write it with this honor in mind.
Coates wrote the book as a letter to his son Samori. It documents Coates’ experience as a black man in the United States, from the first time an older boy pulled a gun on him as an eleven-year-old, to his time at Howard University in DC, and his current role as an author and father.
Between the World and Me is “an expression of how I see the world,” Coates explains.
Coates dedicates the majority of his conversations to unpacking what he calls “The Dream,” which began, he claims, with the arrival of black slaves in Jamestown in 1619.
According to Coates, “the Dream” is essentially the “myth” of whiteness and how it leads to the reality of white supremacy.
In a 2014 interview, Coates defined white supremacy as, “a system that is really really old in this country which holds that a certain group of people . . . should always be ensured that they will not sink to . . . the level occupied by black people.”
Coates acknowledges that “whiteness” does not necessarily refer to skin color, as at one point Italians, Irish, and Jews were all excluded from this distinction. But, he argues, “The only people who never fit into that are African Americans.”
Coates is the latest in a litany of voices at Messiah that question the concept of American exceptionialism.
Last November, Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo Nation, delivered a chapel address that called the church to lament the Doctrine of Discovery.
Charles asserted that America’s founding documents are systematically racist in their exclusion of African Americans from the definition of “people” and The Declaration of Indepence’s reference to “merciless Indian savages.”
In February, the annual Humanities Symposium will focus on “Slavery from Antiquity to Present.”
Michelle Alexander will deliver the keynote address of the symposium. Her book, The New Jim Crow, argues that mass incarceration is the latest embodiment of systemic racism in the United States.
Even Messiah’s scheduled commencement speaker Bryan Stevenson has challenged the American system of justice in his book, Just Mercy.
These weighty conversations can be difficult to engage in, but Rachel Taylor, president of Messiah’s Black Student Union, says they are also necessary.
Taylor described hearing Coates as “informative, eye opening, and educational.” She said she “appreciated how he connected history to the present, outlining how the instances and events that took place back in history have transformed the mindsets and actions of individuals presently.”
“[W]e need to address what has happened in the past, and adequately deal with it, instead of brushing over it as a flaw in the past,” Taylor said.
Dr. Bernardo Michael, a Professor of History at Messiah College, is even more expressive in his appreciation of Coates’ work.
“He freed me,” Michael said. “Ta Nehisi Coates freed me.”
Coates’ language has been central to Michael’s work on a book manuscript detailing his own journey to America and his understanding of “The Dream” as an Indian immigrant.
“I am also on this journey where I have to uncover my whiteness,” Michael said. “Ta Nehisi Coates is speaking from the other side of the fence in a way, from the other side of the dream, saying ‘this Dream doesn’t work for me.’ My memoir is my own attempt to ask these same questions. Who am I?”
These are exactly the questions Coates seeks to raise.
“We talk about race a lot,” Coates recognizes, “[But] I don’t think we talk about it in depth, as much as we should.”
“I am not asking you as a white person to see yourself as an enslaver,” Coates qualifies. “I’m asking you as an American to see all the freedoms that you enjoy and see how they are rooted in things that the country that you belong to condoned, or actively participated in in the past.”
Dr. Kerry Hasler-Brooks, professor of African American literature at Messiah, understands that Coates’ perspective can be difficult to deal with. Still, she uses his text in her class and encourages a gracious reading of his words.
“Coates is fearless and that can be frightening for some of us to read,” Hasler-Brooks acknowledges, “but I would suggest that long before we jump to criticism we should read Coates generously, learn from this fearless voice and then raise our own voices in response.”
Perhaps this is exactly what Coates has in mind when he writes, “I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
Joel Johnson is a senior double major in English and Sustainability Studies at Messiah College. Next year, he hopes to attend Northern Arizona University to continue pursuing applicable research in sustainability by exploring the interplay of nature and environment.