Last night I had the pleasure of watching one our nation’s great writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, give a talk on the case for reparations at my university. The content of the talk was based on his recent major article for The Atlantic, which you should read. His thesis is that for 350 years, in an ongoing fashion, African-Americans can and are being plundered for their labor. Slavery is a major part of that story, the first 250 years, but he talks mostly housing and redlining and its consequences in the mid-20th century.
In the Q&A, he said something very interesting. A professor asked him what he would tell these “young people” in the crowd tonight, and he very important. He told them that none of them were all that likely to see real change, or at least they couldn’t predicate their activism on that change.
He said that every time the African-American community had seen change, it had been because of a context that made the change useful to majority white society. Frederick Douglas was a great activist against slavery, but emancipation happened because it became useful to winning the Civil War. Ida B. Wells was a great activist against lynching, but the federal government did nothing. MLK was a great activist against discrimination, but civil rights legislation took place because the South was embarrassing America in the Cold War.
Now these historical statements are naturally reductive – Coates made them quickly and off-the-cuff – but they do speak to the difficulty of change. For 250 years, he said, slaves rebelled, slaves fled, slaves resisted. They brought no change, but they did say, in Coates’ words, “Not in my name.”
And then he talked about activism and, for him, writing, of telling true stories and trying to undermine myths of history that serve oppression. Speaking out. Rallying. Even implicitly, rebelling against unjust systems. He didn’t promise change as a result of activism, but he promised that saying – not in my name – might help you sleep at night or live with yourself.
And to me, it’s the telling of true of stories (which is what I try to do) and activism in all its forms, which has the potential to create the context in which change can take place. It’s just not predictable and you cannot base your activism on whether or not you see change. You just have to act, however and in whatever ways you can, locally, globally, in art, in prose, on the streets, in the halls of power, in conversations in your local bar, with your fascist uncle at the holiday table, wherever.
And then you hope that you’re lucky enough to be present when the context changes.