The History of the United States is a story of Plunder

I was supposed to blog on the assigned readings for Managing History. Perhaps I will write about them later, but fate, as it does, intervened, and so it will be in another post.

“Are any of you going to the Ta-Nehisi Coates lecture tomorrow night?” asked Cynthia, yesterday.

“Are you going to the Coates thing? Want a ticket?” said Devin, last night.

And so I found myself listening to the esteemed Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates for approximately 2 hours this evening.

First was the more informal gathering in the Center for the Humanities at Temple to which I was half an hour late. Even in the short bit of the Q&A that I caught, Coates came off, as he does in his writing, as a level-headed thinker with a poet’s pen and an honest humility that grounds all he does. He expressed discomfort with the spotlight that has been shined on him after his annus mirabilis in which he earned not only a MacArthur “Genius” Grant but a National Book Award. He declined to speak on topics which he had not exhaustively researched or considered. He articulated a discomfort about being a public intellectual from whom positions of the news of the day are expected in pithy 10-second snippets.

An hour later, I found myself awaiting Coates’ talk in the Liacouras Center, a sports arena in which AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Billy Joel blasted, incongruously, from the massive speakers up near the suspended screens which would magnify Coates’ face. It seemed exactly the kind of venue that would make the writer uncomfortable, and his first comments upon taking the stage acknowledged that discomfort- “-my name is up there-” -before he commenced with a brief reading from Between the World and Me. The reading seemed to give Coates’ the pace and rhythm and he spoke for the next hour extemporaneously before taking questions from the crowd for another thirty minutes. Several questions concerned Temple University’s relationship with the surrounding community and Coates declined to weigh in, reiterating that he feels uncomfortable speaking on topics on which he hasn’t put his considerable faculties to use.

One highlight of the Q&A for me was when Mr. Coates fielded the tricky query: “Can people be racist?” Rather than using the standard equation that prejudice plus power equals racism, he complicated the math. He separated racism from oppression. Coates recognized that he is more powerful (as an individual) than many white people yet it does not preclude racist behavior towards him. On the other hand, he did not give people of color a blank check in terms of racial prejudice: “Having a boot on your neck doesn’t give you moral high ground.” The answer was typical of Coates’ often nuanced and always thought-provoking way of encountering the world.

A disclaimer: fate intervened again and all of the notes that I took on my phone during the talk evaporated when I tried to save them. So all quotes are paraphrased from memory. Some of them were very memorable though.

But I’ve skipped the main attraction, the history of the United States as a history of plunder.

Actually, before we get into the plunder, I must confess a deep sense of embarrassment. While I left the talk moved and motivated, it was embarrassment that I felt most acutely. Or perhaps it was the most surprising emotion so it cut through all of the rest. I am embarrassed that I made it through an undergraduate degree in History (and more consideration of the reality of our country on my own) without fully engaging with the economic legacy of slavery (and the racial subjugation that followed it). I knew that the “peculiar institution” was an economic force of the first order but I did not fully grasp that America’s wealth can be traced back to the enslavement of black bodies which constituted the greatest financial asset of the republic (with the possible exception of the land our forebears forced indigenous people off of). This injection of capital (remember, in the form of black bodies) set the American people on a course of prosperity that has continued unabated–but for the vagaries of the financial institutions–to the present. Restated here this is all a bit facile, but the scale of it all is a bit big for me to reckon with at this moment.

This financial stimulus package of flesh was plunder.  The laws that codified race as a governmentally-recognized reality was plunder. And the breaking up of slave families was also plunder. And the rape. And the lynching. And the disfranchisement. And the Jim Crow laws. The segregating of services paid for with tax money was plunder. And the redlining. The history of this country is a history of plunder.

I struck out across campus, turning the legacy of plunder over in my head. I will have many more thoughts in the weeks to come–a thorough reading of Between the World and Me and “The Case for Reparations” are both in order–but my first question is how do we–white people–return the plunder that remains, and the interest that has accrued? Is reconciliation possible without that? Is any reconciliation possible when we have the level of white fragility that we do in this country?

It is up to all white Americans to be a solution. When Coates was asked about white people whose ancestors did not own slaves or who immigrated after the slave era, he had a simple answer. “Do you celebrate the Fourth of July?” To consider oneself an American, in other words, is to inherit both the freedoms and the slavery that are inherent in the country’s founding documents. To do otherwise, to assume that there is a blank slate every generation is to believe in anarchy, says Coates. In the same way that tax dollars pay for roads that you might never drive on, you drive on roads that have been laid long before you were born. “Slavery is not a bump in the road of the American story; it is the road,” said Coates.

So there’s the takeaway, folks. In case any of you are inclined to breathe heavily into a paper bag at the bigness of all this, I’ll leave you with one of the questions from a Temple student and Mr. Coates’ answer:

“What do you suggest for someone who is overwhelmed?”

“Don’t be overwhelmed. You read a book that blows your mind. Take a minute to breathe, and then read the next book.”

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