The Trophy Case
Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to the student body at Howard University as his “Mecca.” I imagine him being introduced to a sea of black beautiful faces, taking in all the diverse and culturally unique folks on The Yard and picturing a black kingdom right in front of him. In Between the World and Me, among his many topics, Coates discusses ‘blackness,’---black things, black writers and their books, black love, and black education. The topic of black pride (as I would put it), is one that as a black person hears quite often. Black pride in this sense is not to be mistaken with black supremacy. Black pride can be viewed simply as the love for, and the appreciation of, black growth, black-owned things, black culture, the black past, presence, and future. Coates relays The Yard as having the African diaspora spread before him; in his trophy case, he places the beauty of blackness, the political and economic power of Nzinga, and Howard University.
Now that I have grown more into my own academic journey, and have read more books written by blacks, experienced frameworks that place racialized/marginalized spaces at the center, have gone through more than enough racial injustices in my life, I do not blame Coates for establishing his trophy case; instead, I would encourage its continuance. To this, Coates may say to me that his ‘dream’ of the trophy case was cast down with iron fists by history professors at Howard, who realize the realities of his trophy case; they realize that romanticism of blackness, of Africa, is not the answer---it only mystifies the black struggle even further. I do realize the dangers of romanticizing blackness; I get tired of going to the movies and watching people mull over that black teenage boy living in the ghetto struggling to buy his mama’s insulin and his siblings the next meal. I tire of watching black boys make it to the pros of whatever sport but right before they make it, they had to have battled with leaving the Bloods or the Crips. I tire of watching black girls get pregnant by their fathers and the only ounce of hope is “living” with HIV and a baby boy she can barely support because Mama blames her for what happened. And what happens at the end of these movies? “Wow, they are so strong,” or whoa, what a story; he struggled but made it through.” Why is it that blackness must struggle first before it can be seen as important? Taken seriously? Beautiful even? So to Coates, I say expand your trophy case, fill it with the diaspora, the kingdoms and royals of Africa--at least, you’re the one filling it, and not those who must see you struggle first. The question becomes, then, where can blacks find a sense of nationalism? I would say that nationalism for black students like myself is none other than the black campus.
Black nationalism appears to reject assimilation, but in truth, nationalism will bring most black people closer to American life or the American dream than assimilation could. The home of nationalism, my Mecca, is the student body at Alabama A&M University, my alma mater. And the power on The Yard at A&M is as Coates describes The Yard at Howard, “scions of Nigerian aristocrats...bald-headed Q’s in purple windbreakers, and tan Timbs...high yellow progeny of AME preachers...Christians, California girls turned Muslim” (41). “And all of them were hot, incredible, exotic even, though we hailed from the same tribe” (42). I take Coates very sentiments and marvel at black beauty, black intelligence, black talk. I read more and more, now that I am free of the social standard of solely reading the dead white males, black authors who write national plans to empower Black America, authors who write against the grain of white-centered feminism and call it hood feminism, general histories of Africa. I read black authors who write science fiction, who write speculative fiction, magic realism, of authors who place Afrocentrism in the heart of a cultural capital that says be more like us. Keep adding to your trophy case, Coates. Keep your Nzinga, keep your romantic Africa, your exotic Mecca. And although we cannot uphold the myth and ignore reality, we can very well bind the myth and case it in wonders and ponder at its mystified beauty, and get goosebumps from all its possibilities.
I think the problem with perceiving a real black nationalism is that it is confusing. It is confusing from the point of view of traditional white political divisions. On one hand, black nationalism attempts to promote black businesses, form ways of self-help, and resist the notion that the government can help black people, and that black nationalism isn’t interested in liberal causes like civil rights and integration (Lemman 1993). On the other hand, a black nationalist tendency would be to mistrust white society and celebrate political-liberation movements around the world, especially in Africa. This is why Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam and a mentor to both Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, was legendary among black people as a promoter of traditional values, an opponent of drugs and alcohol, a nurturer of ghetto small businesses, and a savior of habitual criminals, prostitutes, and other hard-core members of the underclass--but he was perceived by the “larger” world, as a preacher of hatred (Lemman 1993).
But how has integration helped blacks? How can blacks make it work? And why is integration seen as bad? Is it that blacks are simply tired of trying? Is there an ounce of hope for a black national plan to empower Black America? Another Black Wall Street perhaps? And again I ask, why is integration seen as bad? Well for one, as a black person in America, I feel obliged to help solve the integration problem. Secondly, for some black people, and for several individual black people I know, embracing integration looks similar to rejecting blackness (Lemman 1993), one’s own blackness, and the rest of the race’s blackness, popular culture has spun the phrase, doing it (or not) for the culture. Lastly, when black people “make it out of the ghetto,” white society views that blacks constantly getting little breaks that whites don’t (Lemman 1993). But that’s not the view I have living in America, and living in America, race will always be an extra burden for me. I think I’ll bag my trophies and take the 85 to Africa.
Coates, T.-N. (2015). Between the world and me.
Lemman, Nicholas. The Atlantic Monthly; January 1993; Philadelphia: Black Nationalism on Campus; Volume 271, No. 1; pages 31-4; 43-7.