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Finding Hope in Ta-Nehisi Coates and Dr. King

By Justin Danzy, Copy Editor

Justin, Coates, and other students during Coates visit to Kalamazoo. Photo credit: Robert Neumann, courtesy of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation

Justin, Coates, and other students during Coates visit to Kalamazoo. Photo credit: Robert Neumann, courtesy of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation

In the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I find it harder and harder to believe in the Dream of the man who has been sanitized, appropriated, and heralded as the proper savior for a people still toiling away in Babylon. I think about how Dr. King’s own belief in this Dream began to wither as he grew older, and I wonder had he not been assassinated if his beliefs would have hardened. While considering King’s aspirations, I find myself reflecting on  Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me and his visit to my campus at Kalamazoo College last year.

In Coates’ keynote speech, he exhibited a directness as he offered point after point arguing his case for reparations for black Americans, tracking concrete policy decisions from the Fugitive Slave Act to the exclusion of black people from FHA loans and the GI Bill. Rather than making a moral appeal to the packed auditorium, Coates argued that we should not work to eradicate racism because it is morally unconscionable, but because of the United States’ historical track record of intentionally plundering and keeping black people in a state of subjugation. Simply put, black people should not be paid reparations because it is the nice and just thing to do, but because this historical track record makes it clear that black people are owed. If you rear end another person’s car, you do not pay for their car to be fixed because you are a good person; you pay it because the damage you caused their property must be accounted for.

Coates also expressed his belief in the body and that preserving the body is something worth struggling for because there is no hope beyond it. The plundering of the black body is an eternal wound, so there is no time to wait for people to decide that they morally object to the epidemic of police killings of black people and other racialized injustices in our country. Justice and reparations are owed now, and that fact is non-negotiable.

His remarks were in sync with his book. And when I read Between the World and Me, what I find most striking is his portrayal of fear as an omnipresent force in the lives of black Americans, no matter their individual lived experiences. In his book, he juxtaposes the killings of Michael Brown and his Howard University classmate Prince Jones, who were both killed by police officers in their own communities.

Dr. Martin Luther Kind Jr. Photo credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office (WHPO). Source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

Dr. Martin Luther Kind Jr. Photo credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office (WHPO). Source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

While both murders are tragic, as all of the ever-increasing number of extrajudicial killings of black people are, it is important to note the differences in the social positions that Brown and Jones occupied rather than conflating the two as one in the same. Michael Brown was a resident of a neighborhood in Ferguson, Missouri riddled with poverty, lack of opportunity for gainful employment, and crime. His community was surveilled by a police force that exploited the city’s mostly black residents, disproportionately issuing tickets for petty offenses such as jaywalking, the offense Mike Brown was stopped for. Prince Jones, on the other hand, was from Prince George’s County in Maryland, a predominantly black middle class locale with a median income of more than $73,000 as of the latest census. This area is full of black professionals–Jones’ mother is a radiologist–and some might say Prince George’s County represents the fulfillment of the American Dream that black Americans have long been denied. Despite what should have been a much more secure environment, one absent of fear, Prince Jones, according to a 2001 essay published by Coates in the Washington Monthly, was fearful of the police in his county–a mostly black but notoriously brutal force–where he had previously been pulled over and searched for drugs. This makes one wonder: Who is this community trying to protect itself from? I believe they want protection from the Mike Browns and Tamir Rices, black people from areas deemed undesirable and dangerous who are perceived of as a hinderance to the black community’s “progress.” One might say that they wanted protection from a portion of the “self” that they felt the need to distance themselves from in order to become quintessential Americans.

Prince Jones’ death then, as Coates points out, was the result of an empowered community of black people buying into the idea that they should fear what white America fears, which is to say that they should fear themselves. The unfortunate death of one of their own was a consequence of maintaining the illusion of “the Dream” that we have fought to get a piece of for so long. However, “the Dream” instills a fear of the self as well as a fear of white supremacy’s omnipresence, ultimately making it hard to maintain sanity and find hope, leaving black people from middle class areas to deal with a fear that can weigh just as heavy as the fear experienced by black people from lower class areas like Ferguson or Baltimore, which Coates describes in his book.

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking in Kalamazoo, MI. Photo credit: Robert Neumann courtesy of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking in Kalamazoo, MI. Photo credit: Robert Neumann courtesy of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation

Coates, though, provides a silver lining in an otherwise bleak picture. He offers valuable insight in preserving one’s sanity as a black person living in this country. King offers this too, when one can move beyond his “epic, colorblind” speech. Regardless of their differences, both understood the importance of acting while we still can. The small victories gained from struggle can provide enough fuel to keep going, to keep pushing forward even when the feeling of fear seems insurmountable and it seems as if there is no point in continuing. As Coates says, “The struggle drives me to keep struggling.” These words make me think of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and all the women and men that built power to create that change. I think of Michigan United’s Fair Chance For All campaign, which led to the election of three Kalamazoo City Commissioners committed to enacting a policy created by the people to end job discrimination against those with criminal backgrounds. And I think of and pray for the brave activists in Detroit and Flint who are currently fighting for their right to clean water.

From both King and Coates, I have learned that it is important to act, to struggle while you can to try to salvage the lives we’re living right now. That is where hope can be found.

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