Being True to Our Native Land: Why Thomas Chatterton Williams gets the race conversation wrong

Selma march

Oppression messes with the mind.

That’s a sentiment that has stuck with me in earnest during the second half of 2014.  As I personally embroiled myself with online conversations around race and gender that I found supremely frustrating and watch a nation grapple with race in a different manner following the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, I saw the ways in which this country–on both sides of the power dynamic–allowed oppression to govern their perspectives.  In all transparency, I certainly view much of these issues through a colonized lens; I interpret many things leering through the intangible yet visible specter of American exceptionalism.  All of these outpourings of oppression have seeped into our thought, our language, our essence like floodwaters through the floorboards of an old rickety house.  I watched blacks and whites castrate their language when it came to finding ways to maneuver through the land mines trying not to offend; it’s as if trying to create and frame a conversation is a blanket that if you pull it over your head, the feet are cold and to shift toward the feet leaves the head naked.

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ proposal of “the next Great Migration” does nothing but move the blanket to yet another part still leaving other parts exposed.  Aside from the escapist nature that he seems to be proposing, the essay seems to take a Morgan Freeman approach to racism: if we stop talking about it, then it will just go away.  Granted Williams may identify as black, his memoir Losing My Cool certainly shows how he also identifies with being biracial as well–his mother is white and his father is black–and this could perhaps explain his love affair for all things European.

Running to Europe en masse would solve none of the racial problems here in the United States.  And let’s be clear, the London riots of 2011 were sparked by a police shooting of a non-European ethnic minority and just last month an inquiry was launched by local police in London after Chelsea football fans were intimidating a black rider preventing him from boarding a railcar in the London underground subway.  If nothing else, this proves how much western thinking has dominated our mindsets.  It’s as if a teacher is telling her first grade class about slavery and a student runs home asking his mother why didn’t the slaves escape to Europe or America?

Perhaps because I read his book, I’m filtering this most recent essay through my thoughts about how he arrived at the conclusion that blacks should expatriate themselves to Europe.  It reeks of the “white ice is colder than black ice” trope that blacks have unfortunately deferred to and still do in many subconscious instances.  It’s the ordering of “American” before “black” that makes one wonder just how much value is found in blackness.

A realistic program of black expatriation today would start with appreciating the huge potential of cheap flights and Internet hyperconnectivity. And it would be tempered by a healthy skepticism toward the idea of finding utopia anywhere. It would focus instead on the strength and adaptability of individuals and the social networks they can create by integrating into societies that allow black expats the status — still too often denied in America — of being treated first and foremost as Americans and not as blacks.

It’s easy to label this as self-hate and that Williams is yet “one of those” self-hating black people, but I honestly don’t think he’s that obtuse.   Rather I think this sentiment is something that bubbles right at the surface for many blacks, those who are conscious of the struggle between having a healthy identification and comfort with being black as well as having to navigate the treacherous waters of whiteness.  Whiteness, not meaning white people per se, but whiteness as a system of oppressive ideals that manifest itself through institutional racism, white privilege and various other economic, social and political venues. This sentiment that Williams is demonstrating is a form of ontological dissonance, and his just seems to be amped up a bit more than the general black populace.

This ontological dissonance appears when blacks question the need for Black History Month and say “they gave us the shortest month” without any understanding of the history thereof and that there is no they because its inception began with Carter G. Woodson in the month of February.  It comes up again when we question the need for Kwanzaa, the only African American created holiday of any national repute.  I am not suggesting that one must endorse these things blindly, but the vehemence in which they are denounced seems to be from the same sentiment that Williams pledges that what blacks have created here in the United States isn’t worth it and we should look into leaving.

Oppression, as an “Other,” has a way of allowing the oppressed to feel that it is their duty to stop their own oppressive situation; that they must assume their own agency to stop the external hurt and pain.  This approach does not address the power dynamic and it releases the oppressor from any responsibility.  This approach also seems to entail some phantasmagoric version of the “personal responsibility” argument; it is the job of the oppressed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps even when it is evident that oppression does not allow for it.

This is the fulcrum on which I levy the ways in which Williams’ ontological dissonance bothers me.  We live in a country where the city of Cleveland officially says that the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by police officers when waving a toy gun, was his own fault, it is very clear that the ways and means of oppression are tentacled arms that stretch very far and wide.  While we all exude this form of cognitive dissonance at one time or another (’tis our plight as blacks in this country), the hope is that our dissonance errs on the side of addressing the power structure and requiring our country to “hold these truths to be self-evident.”  Part of the reason why protest is such an American ideal is that it’s a constant way in which the citizenry holds a mirror up to itself saying are we living up to the ideals we say we believe in, and American blacks are part of that citizenry.

The intricacies of the social construct of race are absent from Williams essay, maybe because the editor didn’t want to include them, or maybe because Williams doesn’t think they are important.  But, for many, to have that conversation without engaging the myriad of challenges that race has and is continuing to produce comes off as myopic, maybe even lazy.  Williams reframes the race conversation in this essay in a very linear way void of tangents and intersections.  Even the intersection of his own biracial being that I think would have been worth exploring given this topic.  At the same time, he also lets us know that one’s ontological disposition is a choice.  The notion that ontology is a choice can’t be overstated, Williams chooses to view race through this lens in very much the same way that many others, my self included, do not.

This country has collectively tried to stretch a blanket over everyone in catch-all rhetoric when it comes to race and has had the nerve to blame body parts for sticking out from under the blanket; as if it’s their fault that the blanket is fundamentally too small.  But just like the purchaser of a blanket too small, they don’t want to admit that they read the label wrong and purchased the twin size comforter for their queen size bed.  And who wants to fight to stuff the comforter back in the bag and make the trek back to Target to make an exchange?  That’s where this country has been for some years, an intransigent consumer of collective conscience too small to cover the depth and breadth of its citizenry.  When the feet are covered, the head begins to complain; when hands are covered, the lower body is exposed and complaints are lobbied back and forth and we find ourselves embroiled in the latest round of the Oppression Olympics.  As I opened up saying, oppression messes with the mind.

Do we need a new blanket?  That would be the easiest answer.  But it would also require two important steps: 1) the acknowledgement that the current blanket is too small and 2) being completely exposed for a period of time.  Much like Linus, this country doesn’t want to let go of it’s blanket of whiteness.  The system of whiteness as oppression undergirds so much of how we operate, it informs everything from our gendered politics to our love affair with Target and Walmart; from being okay with segregated public schools in 2015, yet questioning the need for HBCUs to exist.

Highlighting the need for a new social construct, a new blanket so to speak, doesn’t leave for glamorous writing.  It’s not easy work.  To write about it in 1,000 words or less is almost an insult to those that have devoted their life’s work to answering those questions.  To grapple with it leaves more questions that answers, and who wants that?  Oppression, as a system, seems to be the only blanket that covers all: either beneficiary or consumer.

I think Willliams’ argument cheapens the legacy of those who saw leaving the United States as an opportunity to recreate their own destiny rather than just a means of escape.  To no longer stand on the legacy of the American Negro and expatriate to France or Denmark or England is nothing more than being sold down the same river to hopefully a more tolerant master.  The hands of African descendants of slaves laid the bricks and mortar of the White House and the U.S. Capitol, they built the sea ports that welcomed slave ships to this land.  Adopting a European sentiment would be no better than choosing to walk to the back of the Titanic as it was going down rather stay at the front.

A post-racial America doesn’t require a post-national sidestep from black Americans, it requires them to be true to their native land, here in America.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

6 thoughts on “Being True to Our Native Land: Why Thomas Chatterton Williams gets the race conversation wrong

  1. Excellent post; well thought-out and consciousness raising. Thank you for keeping it uppity.

    Writing matters.

  2. Most European nations are more or less ethnic homelands. They’re not necessarily fond of other white people moving in, let alone non-whites. And like white people everywhere their response to a few “extraordinary” members of the black intelligentsia immigrating would be much less hostile to millions of ordinary black people arriving.

    I don’t dismiss his idea that for some people immigration might be a valid move and that Black Americans need to build more overseas ties. But I think those ties might be stronger with some West African countries, Brazil or some places in the Carribbean and not so much with Europe. In case he didn’t notice places like Italy and Spain remain openly racist and are making it clear that they don’t want any more people arriving from Africa.

    1. @shady_Grady

      Couldn’t have said it better.

      Honestly, yeah, I could see the “American Negro” setting up home in the Caribbean, Brazil or Ghana before I’d see middle-class blacks packing up and moving to Paris or London. I’ve talked to the author on Twitter, so this isn’t a personal dig against him per se, but I mean he was a philosophy major at Georgetown and the homeland of the people he was studying is Europe. Even as someone who’s scratched the surface of postmodern and existential thought, those philosophers came out of France, and to that end, the 20th century thought is different from what we generally espouse here in the US. However, to my point, I just don’t buy the argument that Europe is some great “promised land” for black folk in the 21st century.

      My mother always said, as soon as blacks reach 10% population–either in microcosmic settings like a school or a church, or in macro- areas like corporations or municipalities–then you’ll see how dominant culture really feels about their presence.

  3. Great essay, very interesting read. I haven’t had a chance to read Mr. Williams work but I would be interested to see how he differentiates (if he does at all) between the various countries he considers for expatriation…Europe has a great deal of institutional diversity, ranging from more subtly ingrained imbalances to outright bigotry (how can anyone not cringe at the way Cecile Kyenge, a CABINET MINISTER!!, has been spoken to and treated in Italian governmental processions). You mentioned the legacy of individuals who saw leaving the US as a means to create their own destiny as cheapened by Williams’ notion of escape; do you think that any form of migration from America ought to remain on the table as a means to overcome oppression?

    1. @Darcy

      I think there’s great value in living somewhere else. And I’ll go so far as to admit, if I ever had the opportunity to live abroad, Euro-centric places are pretty high on the list; I don’t see myself hopping at an opportunity to move to Ghana any time soon. But part of that is because I would never plan to do the whole ex-pat thing, I would be coming back stateside soon enough. I mean, America is my experiential homeland in all senses of the term. I also don’t want to go live somewhere that would have appropriated black American sensibilities all the way from jazz and blues to hip hop culture and have to navigate it through all the politics of a new country and culture.

      I just don’t think leaving oppression for another form of oppression is overcoming much.

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