On Halloween Eve, Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, told the world that Robert E. Lee was an “honorable man” and that the Civil War was a result of the lack of an ability to compromise.
One of the people who took him to task on Twitter was Ta-Nehisi Coates, staff writer for The Atlantic magazine, where his well-known articles “The Case for Reparations” and “The First White President” appeared. Coates is also the author of a book of letters to his son, Between the World and Me, and a new book reflecting on the Obama years in a time and place where Donald Trump is president, called We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.
On Nov. 1, Coates spoke at the University of Pennsylvania, and some of us — George Washington Carver High School for Engineering & Science students — were in the audience. We had the opportunity to meet and talk with him before the lecture.
Much like Coates' writing style, his speaking style is blunt. Some of us had read Between the World and Me, and our questions referred to what he wrote and related to what possible advice he could give us.
But he avoided giving us advice. Coates wanted us to think for ourselves, to think about what we wanted to do, and just do it. Growing up in West Baltimore, not really caring much for school, later dropping out of Howard University, he could have been just another black statistic. But now, he’s a New York Times best-selling author.
By redirecting our questions back to us, he was telling us that the circumstances of how we grew up don’t matter; we can do whatever we want to do. When asked what books he would recommend to young writers, Coates responded by saying that he loves James Baldwin, but that doesn’t mean that we will love Baldwin, and we should choose the books and authors that speak to us and what’s important to us.
For part of the evening, Coates spoke about what it means to be Black in America now, but he really got heated when talking about John Kelly’s comments, pointing out that “white people are crazy.” When an African American man asked why he thinks white people are crazy, Coates referred to Kelly’s outrageous comments, pointing out that it is “crazy and dangerous to be a defender of this country but not know how the Civil War started.”
On Thursday and Friday, we huddled with each other and our teachers to process our encounter with Coates, to discuss and debate his ideas, and even to school our teachers on some of the things he was saying about being Black in America.
We worked through lunch, and our principal was nice enough to buy us pizza. We started writing this commentary, but we couldn’t really write without the conversation. We also had to reread Coates’ articles and think deeply about what his words and ideas mean to us.
It was very cool, but at times confusing. Mostly, it was a lot of hard work. Here is our commentary and responses to our evening with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
My First Encounter With Obama
By Gabrielle Brown
My father, Wayne Brown, immigrated to the United States from Jamaica when he was just 10 years old. He grew up in a household where hard work, good character, and family were core values. Therefore, he raised me in the same manner. That is why he took me to see Barack Obama in Northeast Philly at one of the last campaign rallies of the 2008 presidential race.
My dad was eager for me to hear Mr. Obama speak because he thought that, as a candidate campaigning for the highest political office in our country, Obama was demonstrating the very values that molded him. The very same values he wanted to pass on to me.
Although I was too young to really comprehend the importance of the moment, I instinctively felt the same sense of affirmation and pride that the Black adults around me were feeling. “Gabbs,” my dad said, “you’re growing up in the greatest time to be alive. A Black man is going to be president of the United States. Can you imagine what that will mean for the young people like you!”
Through all of the things my parents did, my dad especially, they were trying to explain to me how lucky I was and how historic those eight years were. To be Black and grow up having a Black president was a luxury for my generation; no generation before mine had been fortunate enough to have had this. The affirmation that I felt, the feeling that my opinions and, most importantly, my life meant something to the person running the country was the security that no generation before mine had felt. This was the historic importance of having a Black president.
And now, more than ever, I understand that.
In We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates says: “ ...my struggle is to remain conscious, to remember the gifts of so many out there, treading, drowning. And the praise will make you forget all that, will convince you of your own special nature, instead of reminding you that you had the great fortune of living and writing in the most incredible of eras — the era of a Black president.¨
The one positive outcome of the Trump era is to know that now, more than ever, I must always be conscious and thankful for the Obama years.
The Trump Effect According to C’Essence
By C’Essence Palmer
When Trump was elected president, I was traumatized. I realized I was living in an America owned by white people and controlled by white people.
Before long, it became obvious that many white supremacists felt that this was their time to shine, that this was their moment of truth. This problem is so deep that a 20-year-old man, James Alex Fields, felt compelled to drive a car into a group of people at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing an innocent white woman who was protesting white supremacy.
This seemed to me to be a perfect representation of Trump’s America. To me, Trump and his followers are encouraging James Alex Fields, who seems to believe that he is a soldier in a Civil War taking place right now.
It is obvious that the power of white supremacy is so strong that white people are willing to kill each other in support of ideas that they hear from the White House. This is because they have never been enslaved Americans.
By Tiffany Roberts
I grew up attending racially and culturally diverse schools. This meant that I didn’t have to think about the evils of racism because we treated each other with respect. Furthermore, my parents raised me to believe I could achieve all of my goals as long as I worked hard and got my education.
We rarely talked about race in my home, probably because my parents didn’t think that my skin color could hold me back. One of the first times my family talked about race in depth was during the 2016 presidential election. Responding to Trump’s obsession with immigration and building a wall, my dad said, “After them, you know who’s going next, right?” That really shocked me. I no longer felt safe. I didn’t feel secure because, for eight years in my life, I had a president who looked like me, and now we have a president who despises everyone who doesn’t look like him.
It wasn’t until Trump was elected that I realized that, in the eyes of a large segment of the United States, I was nothing more than (and I don’t say this lightly) a “nigger.” As president, Trump made it clear that, like the country, he believed that he could just sweep hundreds of years of slavery and segregation and torture under the rug.
It is as if Trump thinks that people of color don’t understand our own history. Even scarier, we never know what’s going to happen next, how his tweets will affect us, and how everyone, including foreign powers, will react to his illogical ramblings.
At the lecture, I noted that Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “You cannot convince me that somebody could be Black, and be that politically unqualified, and even be a governor, forget president. If Donald Trump was Black, he wouldn’t have made it off the block.” What he meant was that if Trump was Black and acted like he does now, it would be highly unlikely that he could succeed in mainstream society. Making it off the block equates to successfully moving from a bad or rough type of neighborhood to more stable conditions.
In my case, I am a privileged Black teen who was never “on the block.” Not every Black kid grows up the hard way, only having choices of keeping their head down in the streets or running them.
Being a Black Man in America
By James Hillyard
The world presents two pathways to Black preteen boys.
The first path is to become the legs of the entertainment industry, running and jumping higher than your classmates. You can be an athlete in the field or on the court. In a similar path, you can become an artist, learn an instrument, and create content that will be sold for less than what you are worth (which, on iTunes, is about 99 cents to $1.29). I defer to J Cole's’ line on “Trouble,” which goes, “Jump shot wasn’t that good, couldn’t sell crack but I rap good.”
Speaking of selling crack, welcome to your second option as a Black man. The government destroyed any attempts at a thriving Black community both literally and mentally by flooding our streets with drugs manufactured in labs using chemicals that are not found at the corner store.
In “The Case for Reparations,” Coates describes how the government had a role in preventing thriving Black communities, and in Between the World and Me, Coates talks about the ways in which Black bodies are consistently taken away from the community. On top of this, we are murdered and incarcerated at high rates for selling the same drugs as white people. Could you call this racism? Possibly.
I’d rather call it psycho/biological warfare with a hint of grand larceny. Hundreds of thousands of lives are stolen by dead-end jobs, low wages, poor living conditions, and an ingrained slave mentality handed to us before we even start the high school application process. If you were given an option to be Black in your next life, would you take it?
Between the Word and Us: Encountering Ta-Nehisi Coates
By Tiffany Roberts
When you think of well-known people, you identify them as being someone who is above the rest — an author, a celebrity; they can’t be touched.
Ta-Nehisi Coates changed that perception for me. When the Penn professor who interviewed Coates asked him whether he thought “The Case for Reparations” was the piece that made him “famous,” the first thing he said was, “I feel uncomfortable with that word.” He explained that the article was not about him, nor was it meant to get more readers or his name out there.
He wrote the article to tell the story of a man, Clyde Ross, who was robbed by this country time and time again, with no apologies, reparations, or acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Clyde Ross was one of millions of black people denied the opportunity to purchase houses in a booming housing industry after World War II. Because U.S. law prevented integration in many neighborhoods that white homeowners invested in, Black people could not accumulate the wealth that many white homeowners were able to have.
This wealth gap continues to this day, and this is why Coates writes that Ross was “robbed.”
When asked the question about being famous, Coates explained that being praised by people was not his intention. To have everyone talking about him as a writer, and not about Clyde Ross, who was alive and still could be paid, was an unsettling feeling. According to Coates, sometimes people begin to believe in the labels that dehumanize them.
Coates’ comment about the article made me reflect on myself and how we, as a global community, have to place a label on everything: gay, straight, success, failure, Black, white. Everything has to be labeled, and “important” people have to be praised, and what we as a society have to understand is that if we continue to label everything, we are just separating the country into groups of those whom we say are similar.
The United States of America is a union, so how can we possibly be “united” if we’re always separating someone because of their label?
The Philly School Media Network – which includes Edison High School, George Washington Carver High School, and Henry C. Lea Elementary School – is made possible by a grant from LRNG Innovators and the National Writing Project.