I saw Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was disappointed

Coates was brought to the University of Oregon as a guest lecturer. His book, “Between the World and Me”, was the university’s Common Reading Book.

As the crowd laughed, a waft of smugness filled the air. Nothing was overtly said; nothing was overtly done. But the long action of laughter speaks for itself. It is its own language, and in this moment it rang through the hall and the speaker knew it. James Baldwin, his book’s inspiration, would have recognized it as well. This rippling uneasiness, this coercive laughter is the northern smugness that so proudly teases itself as “righteous” — as siding on the “right side of the war.”

Conversations flitted through the empty air as I stood and waited for the anxious lines of crowd members to ascend and exit.

“Somebody got to him,” someone said. “They told him to censor his speech, to be nice. He needed to rip on all these smug white people here. There’s some serious problems, and he should have talked about it.”

I felt similarly. He spoke for 45 minutes and was poignant, commanding a powerful grace. The immensity of Matthew Knight Arena stretched before him, the seats filled, the great gasp of the crowd ready to devour the air of his every word.

Coates spoke on many things. His opening emphasized the wealth that universities prosper on from athletes — black bodies, whose universities profit off of a modernized slavery. He spoke on Donald Trump’s immigration policies, his fascination with the civil war, and had some broader statements on the nature of racism.

“Race is the child of racism; not the father,” he spoke to applause. This is one of the commanding lines in the beginning of his best-seller Between the World and Me (which UO already has a complicated relationship with, as outlined in my piece here).

He spoke further.

“Slavery isn’t a bump in the road; slavery is the road,” he spoke to more applause before putting his hand up to quiet the crowd. “You can’t make America without slaves.”

The pinnacle figure that he is, every couple of minutes the crowd would erupt in applause. Some stood alone in ovation before retaking their seat. The jeers and whistles flew unrestrained like steam from boiling water. The ceiling must have rattled from the pressure.

But for many, it wasn’t enough.

Coates wasn’t there to be popular — he’s built his career on the the brutal truth, the chaotic. Baltimore poured from his mouth and cutting honesty from his eyes. But the crowd stayed content, not guilty. They stayed clapping, and, in moments I now remember, laughing. He told jokes, sure — any host is subject to humor. But in darker moments, depicting the long gray haze settling on the lawn of battlefields, when gray and blue and red commingled in the broken ground under a blanket of sun, there was no reflection. There were moments in this dialogue on slavery that there was darting laughter through the dusky auditorium. I looked around to witness this but in those moments I missed his expression, alone on the podium, hands gripping the lectern.

There was disappointment with everyone, but what really struck was my disappointment with the crowd. The insensitive, smug, white liberal crowd that sat like birds on a telephone wire, twittering at the world below.

Those who felt they were missing out on an authentic Coates experience understood. I understood. He too, I believe, understood.

The grim shadow of slavery is gluttonous. Frederick Douglass, in his opening pages, details that he never knew of a slave who could name his own birthday; that only white children could tell their ages. He never knew his mother but in four or five passing moments in the night. He depicts, besides his stock-animal-like starvation and routine whippings, being dragged through the forest by ox to the near point of death, his concussed head seeping color into the soil. The specter of slavery swallowed up a continent of people and spat out chains and bones. For female slaves, the brutality was unparalleled. Rape. The theft of motherhood for manufacturing. It is one gluttonous sin to be considered sub-human; it is another to be considered sub-slave.

Imagine two hundred human beings crammed into a space barely capable of containing a third of them. Imagine vomit, naked flesh, swarming lice, the dead slumped, the dying crouched. Imagine, if you can, the swirling red of mounting to the deck, the ramp they climbed, the black sun on the horizon, vertigo, this dizzying sky plastered to the waves. Over the course of more than two centuries, twenty, thirty million people deported. Worn down, in a debasement more eternal than apocalypse. But that is nothing yet.

— Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation

If one looks at history, they will find the slave population in Oregon to consistently be one number: zero. But if one looks closely, they will see the African-American population as always the same number as well: zero. This is because in 1844, Oregon outlawed slavery and African-American citizenship simultaneously, the only state to do so —and a statute which stood tall until 1926. The state rejected the 14th and 15th Amendments until 1953. As Americans came to the state in droves, stamping down the dirt on the Oregon Trail, the hope setting over the sloping hills, burning into the dreams of idealists and entrepreneurs and desperate nobodies, the desire to cling to life was founded upon one thing: white utopia.

America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

According to Walidah Imarisha, an educator and expert on black history in Oregon, “the founding idea of the state was as a racist white utopia. The idea was to come to Oregon territory and build the perfect white society you dreamed of.”

There is a strong correlation between nations that are considered extremely progressive or socialistic (mostly Scandinavian nations) and a stark lack of diversity. Americans fetishize these countries based on their healthcare, education and incarceration records, but often unnoticed is the overwhelming whiteness of those nations — just like Oregon. (Portland is actually the whitest city in America at 72 percent.) This problem is what needs to be the focal point of racial discussion in the ensuing future: coming to terms with the faults of progressivism.

I see these shortcomings of the liberal dream as manifest in Oregon. Couple the destructive history of the state with modern developments, including the quiet #DeepSouthinNW, and what is left is a state that incarcerates African-Americans at a higher rate than any state in the South, despite only comprising 8 percent of the state’s population. The state is the only one in the north to allow felony convictions by non-unanimous juries. Oregon also incarcerates youth at a higher rate than Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida. It would appear that the state, cognizant of its missed opportunity, is using its prisons as reparation.

The hashtag didn’t gain much traction online, but lives on as one example of a growing awareness of Oregon’s troubled history with race.

It makes one wonder if the laughter on that night came from a place that detests slavery or realized that there’s a much easier way to be racist; if it was from a history that realized that slavery is a dependent relationship and that the North wasn’t just free from slavery but, as Kipling would surmise, the ‘burdens’ of race altogether. The path of the South is laid out: reparations. But for the North, and Oregon in particular, it is not so simple — there is no admittance of a crime because it feels there were none committed.

The South is different. It is at least honest about its sins, not cowering behind laughter and progressive insecurity. How can a people come to terms with itself if it cannot look in the mirror? If it cannot call it by its own name, but must instead comfort itself in what it is not? The arena shook that night, and the bubbly crowd of white folks took moments not designed for revelry, but solemn reflection, and stole them.

To believe in slavery is be backwards; to believe in white utopia is progressive.

But the North escaped scot-free. For one thing, in freeing the slave, it established a moral superiority over the South which the South has not learned to live with until today; and this despite — or possible because of — the fact that this moral superiority was bought, after all, rather cheaply. The North was no better prepared than the South, as it turned out, to make citizens of former slaves, but it was able, as the South was not, to wash its hands of the matter. Men who knew that slavery was wrong were forced, nevertheless, to fight to perpetuate it because they were unable to turn against “blood and kin and home.” And when blood and kin and home were defeated, they found themselves, more than ever, committed; committed, in effect, to a way of life which was as unjust and crippling as it was inescapable. In sum, the North, by freeing the slaves of their masters, robbed the masters of any possibility of freeing themselves of the slaves.

— James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

This line of thought is dangerous for many reasons.

The first is alienation. The more we attempt to entrench the South within its identity, the more it continues to ferment within it. To address the history of racism present, there must be an acknowledgment for closure. As Baldwin has stated, the South is at once part of a country that has never lost a war and simultaneously a part of a country that has been conquered and razed. To deconstruct its pride it must acknowledge its failure, and to first acknowledge its failure, it has to see others in the North abandon its identity and be willing to soften their pride as well. The South will continue to be racist the longer it is expected to be so, because that is all it has left of its history.

The second danger is complacency: the image of Oregon is one of the deepest blue, where progressive idealists pilgrimage to the Mecca of Portland. Those who never had any part in the story of slavery, except for preventing sanctuary, have no right to laugh at its novelties. I guarantee that the overtly ‘backward’ nature of slavery did not do anything to prevent its institution, then or now. The laughter at a South which lies so far away only promises to steal the air from the room, to covet it, and never allow our own grievances to speak. There is something to be said about a racism of isolation — but tongues do not grow back once we have decidedly cut them out.

In those moments, in which the crowd indulged themselves the gift of laughter, I believe Coates knew his whites. They were the whites he grew up with, and they’re the whites that love his books to feel hedonistically guilty. They’re the white liberals that Baldwin so intimately understood but chuckling here and now, decades later. Unlike the South they can never understand the dangers of martyrdom; of a pride in fighting Northern bullies to secure what parts of Southern identity were not lost in the fire. The South clings to something that is so willfully wrong, but that is all it has left. If Northerners understood this circular prison, they would not so gleefully look at the backwardness of slavery, and laugh.

I left the arena feeling disappointed. Not in Coates’ speech or his presentation — he was brilliant, naturally. I didn’t share the feeling that there was a lack of laceration, or that somebody had “gotten to him” and convinced him to soften his speech, even though I’ll admit that I was perhaps hoping for something harsh as well. Coates can do as he likes, and those that earnestly follow his work will find no lack of incendiary honesty. So, then, to project my own expectations on him and his presentation is a grave disservice.

But the crowd and its attitude was what left the sour taste in my mouth. The rows filled with old white men dressed in expensive suits, laughing at slavery. The smug everyday (white) Oregonian, laughing at slavery. Malcolm X speaks about the novelty of black neighborhoods, when rich New Yorkers would flock to Harlem to gaze at the novelty of ‘the ghetto.’ I’m not sure if today’s progressive Americans are so different.

In a way, I owe the invitation to the incredible, abysmal, and really cowardly obtuseness of white liberals. Whether in private debate or in public, any attempt I made to explain how the black Muslim movement came about, and how it has achieved such force, was met with a blankness that revealed the little connection that the liberals’ attitudes have with their perceptions or their lives, or even their knowledge — revealed, in fact, that they could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man.

— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Liberal America treats itself as on the forefront of equity, but this often devolves into a masturbatory white saviorism. “Most of the people who live here in Portland have never had to directly, physically and /or emotionally interact with PoC in their life cycle,” begins a post on a blog entitled “Shit White People Say to Black and Brown Folks in PDX.” The true disaster arises when a state claims to be progressive and fight for racial equity, but in the end, only fights for the idealism. White liberalism in Oregon is fighting a problem they themselves hardly know about, patting themselves on the back for their expertise in racial relations and fighting an imaginary battle. Even then, African-Americans only comprise 6 percent of Portland’s population, and yet these communities are constantly harassed by a carpeted racism and proud gentrification. Disparagement in communities of color are not people to white liberalism, but a diametric problem: either the un-closeted racists arise or, conversely, white liberalism is there to be a solution.

The laughter still grips me. Coates stood at the podium, giving his trademark contemplative scowl, and pressed onward. Here, in the enormous ceremonial arena (built off the backs of athletic black bodies, of course), lied a small model of the world outside. On the stage was the prophet, speaking to his obsequious followers. These followers stood when directed, clapped when expected, and when the pulpit rose its hand, they halted as commanded. In the moments before he resumed, the room stood still. It is difficult to describe the turbulence that sits in dead air.

The day concluded. The staff packed up the extra chairs and took down the long black screens. The lights shuttered dark. I ran through the tides of Coates’ words that I’ve read, catalogued and loved. We returned to our damp homes, and Coates disappeared into the cold February air. We locked the doors, set our alarms, laid ourselves down, and the world fell into the open night. I looked at the day, at the city, at the state, at the immense disappointment of it all and I could not bring myself to speak or laugh.

The sanctity of silence, I’ve thought, has already been broken enough.

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