Acclaimed author draws parallels between slavery and sexual violence
Ta-Nehisi Coates has a knack for asking tough, uncomfortable questions about race.
That skill, which spurred comparisons to the great essayist James Baldwin, a comparison Coates reluctantly accepts, has made him one of the country’s most sought-after speakers on race and its lasting impact on a nation still divided along the color line.
He didn’t disappoint during the “Color of Education 2019 Summit” held at the Raleigh Convention Center on Saturday.
“If 100 years from now, a historian looks back and says how could it be that the first Black president of America was followed by the worst of white presidents, of course it makes sense,” Coates said. “Given the country we’re talking about, it makes sense.”
Coates is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and the author of the bestselling books, “The Beautiful Struggle,” “We Were Eight Years in Power,” and “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award in 2015.
Saturday’s event, a partnership between the Public School Forum of North Carolina and Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center of Social Equity and Policy Bridge of the Sanford School of Public Policy, was attended by more than 1,000, many who view Coates as a kind of literary rock star.
That much was obvious at the conclusion of his hour-long talk, moderated ably by Duke University history professor Adriane Lentz-Smith, when attendees rushed from the convention hall to pick up a free copy of Coates’ latest offering, “The Water Dancer,” his first foray into fiction.
“I can’t wait to get home to begin reading this,” one smiling attendee remarked, waving a copy of the book released in September, then quickly selected by Oprah Winfrey as the media mogul’s new book club selection.
Of sexual violence and slavery
It was Coates’ spoken words, however, that captivated his audience on Saturday.
The writer spoke in detail about sexual violence and its relationship to slavery, a prominent theme in his new book. The protagonist, Hiram Walker, is a child of rape whose memories of his mother were wiped away when she was sold.
Coates compared the phrase “rape survivor” to the word “slave” as it is used to identify Africans brought to America against their will, contending such descriptions have the power of stealing the identities of people who suffer such atrocities.
“Obviously to have to endure rape is a horrible thing, but it’s much more horrible for that [rape] to become your identity, or rather to top that off with that becoming your identity, for that to wipe out everything else about you,” Coates said.
He described a similar dynamic at play for people who were enslaved. “That’s not what they were, that was something somebody had done to them,” Coates explained, acknowledging that the concept is one with which he still wrestles.
“In that, we have the entire range of their humanity, all the things – they had loved, they had laughed, grieved and cried, joked and danced — all the things that human beings tend to do.”
Taking it a step further, Coates said the history of slavery in America is a history of sexual violence. “Go to any Black family reunion and you’ll see it,” Coates said, explaining that the wide range of colors in African Americans is due to a legacy of forced sexual relationships between enslaved Black women and their masters.
For the novel, Coates researched at Monticello, the primary plantation of founding father Thomas Jefferson. He said more Blacks should visit the plantation, but understands their reluctance to do so.
“You’re at a forced labor camp where people were forced to work their entire lives so some dude could drink expensive champagne and it’s hard to take,” Coates said.
Making it worse, he added, is the feeling among some Black people that white visitors to the plantation may be oblivious to its history as a slave plantation.
He said a filmmaker asked him if he thought the much-chronicled relationship between Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemings was consensual. Jefferson is believed to have fathered at least six of Hemings’ children.
“I said I’m not a specialist on this, but if you can’t consent, you can’t consent,” Coates said. “No matter how much the 15-year-old says I was in love with that 30-year-old, nobody cares. It’s rape, period. There’s nothing that 15-year-old can say to make that not the case.”
Even so, Coates noted some locals insist that the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson was consensual, recounting a story about Hemings leaving flowers on Jefferson’s grave.
Lentz-Smith wondered why there’s a visceral need among whites to believe the relationship was consensual and to expect “Black forgiveness” in such circumstances.
Coates answered plainly that to do otherwise would be to acknowledge that one of the nation’s greatest figures is a rapist.
“There were 300, 400 enslaved people at Monticello,” Coates said. “This dude had absolute power over them. How do you know it was just Sally Hemings?”
Such thinking is uncomfortable, Coates acknowledged, because it calls into questions the “stories and myths” many Americans would prefer to believe about the country and people who founded it.
Debunking American exceptionalism
Even after slavery ended, America enjoyed only a short period of full democracy but quickly exchanged it for Jim Crow laws prohibiting Blacks from enjoying full citizenship for decades more, Coates said.
“When you start thinking about it like that, and you say, what is our period of democracy, and it starts to shrink,” Coates said. “And not only does it start to shrink, but you come into the present and even right now it’s under assault.”
Facing that truth doesn’t mean an end to America, Coates said.
“It probably ends any sense of exceptionalism, but I don’t think it’s too bad to have a country humbled enough to realize…that it’s flawed or created flawed things and then figure out how to fix them,” Coates said. “But so much of our identity is embroiled in the messianic and the biggest problem of African American history, and that is to say American history, is that it runs counter to that.”
Spurring a discussion in N.C.
“Color of Education” is a one-day event designed to focus on race, equity and education in North Carolina.
Coates’ presentation followed a full day of workshops and panels focused on addressing racial inequities in our educational system. It was attended by hundreds of educators and public officials.
“It’s important to have these types of discussions so we’ll understand that our children are not getting exactly what they need in our classrooms,” said Kristy Moore, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), after a discussion on the importance of teacher diversity.
“We have to have a more diverse teaching population (so) our students have somebody they can look up to and be a mentor to them. It’s very important that we’re intentional in our conversations and that we intentionally do work to recruit teachers of color.”
Another session focused on school segregation, which, many critics say, has been exacerbated by the growth of charter schools and private schools benefitting from the state’s school voucher program.