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Waking from the dream

Kevin Smith, Dean of Libraries

Many years ago, soon after we were married, my wife and I spent a year as house parents for a group of academically-talented teenage boys from disadvantaged backgrounds who, were they not part of the program that put them in better schools, would have had little chance of getting into college.  The house was, to say the least, ethnically and racially diverse.  One afternoon, one of our seniors came home upset and with his knuckles bleeding.  Corry, as I will call him, had been in a fight because another boy in the school had called him the N-word.  The details of the fight, as well as his distress at the result, convinced me that Corry had behaved as well as could be expected in the circumstances, but there were complex consequences.  For me, the most profound part of the whole episode was when I sat listening to a conversation between Corry and his father.  His father asked Corry if he understood why being called that word had upset him so, since it was common enough in music and on the basketball court.  When Corry admitted that he did not, his father explained the context and history of that epithet in his own life, which I think opened Corry’s eyes.  I know that it opened mine.

I thought of this story as I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which is the common reading book for the coming academic year here at the University of Kansas, part of our First Year Experience program.  Coates structures his book as a long letter to his son, partly occasioned, it seems, by the failure of the courts to bring charges against the police officer who killed Michael Brown.  At one point, he writes that his son, Samori, “thought that Michael Brown was the injustice,” but that the injustice is so much deeper than that, embedded in narrative and myth, in the construction of race and the false dream of “Whiteness.”  Corry’s father began to fill in some of that narrative for his own son, and for me, those 30 years ago.

Coates’ book is powerful and complex. It is a provocative choice as a common book for many of our students to read.  KU seems very serious about being willing to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations about race, diversity and inclusion, and this book will certainly provoke those kinds of discussion.

One of the things that struck me immediately is how physical Coates makes the issue of race.  Slavery, and the other, related, forms of capricious violence to which African-Americans are subject, involve the loss of one’s body, the inability to control one’s physical safety and the security of one’s person.  The story Coates tells Samori is nothing less than his quest to make his body his own.  There is a fear here, an insecurity, that I can never fully understand, because that goal of feeling secure in one’s body and at home in society is something that has been achieved for me, as one of those who “believes himself to be White,” over a long history of violence and oppression.

By talking about his body, and the desire to have his own person within his control, Coates shows powerfully how bone-deep racism is, both in the consciousness of an African-American man and in American society.  At the same time, it reminded me, at least, of how shallow the foundation of “racecraft,” to use Coates’ word, really is; all that struggle, violence, oppression and discrimination over a mere pigmentation, something that really means nothing at all, until we invest it with meaning.

For me it is not very hard to feel the injustice of racism on behalf of others, but much more difficult to understand the privilege and the deception at the root of my own self-identification.  Whiteness, Coates reminds, is a social construction that has shifted over time; my own Irish ancestors were once not considered white.  Whiteness, he says, is “a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate our bodies.”  I read these words while sitting on the leafy deck of my suburban house on the edge of a golf course; how could they not upset me and rattle my view of myself?  I have gotten an extensive education, worked hard, and been fairly successful in my chosen profession, so those perks in my life seem natural, don’t they?  Coates forces on me the awareness that that sense of naturalness, of entitlement even, is constructed.  It is not “natural” to everyone, and my entitlement has been – continues to be — built on the suffering of others.

Coates has shown me, I think, how very deep the reality of White privilege is.  It is not just found in the relative security I feel when out in public, or applying for a job, or when stopped by the police.  It is embedded in the very myths and narratives that are the foundation of the culture in which I live, and it allows me to be profoundly ignorant of those other narratives that Coates discovered, and even began to challenge, while he was at “The Mecca.”  His explorations of himself, his ancestors, and his societies must be so much deeper than mine because for me the narrative is ready-made and inclusive; for him it must be won through struggle, lest he be crushed by the violence of someone else’s story (mine!).

What makes Between the World and Me a daring book to ask all incoming students to read is that it challenges the very moral of the American story, the comfortable belief that anyone who works hard and obeys the rules can succeed (by the standards of those on the inside).  It destroys the myth of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps,” and the related blame so often heaped on those perceived to fail at such self-help, by showing how society makes that process difficult and even impossible for some.  It even questions the value of our “traditional” forms of education, themselves rooted in a history of violence and oppression.

On the other hand, however, it is significant to me that Coates himself began to find his own connections to the stories that would help him shape his identity in the library at Howard University.  As our students arrive on campus, we want to welcome them, to make them feel that we are glad they are here, and to know that we will treat them equally and with respect.  But we also have an opportunity, if we can embrace it, to help each student discover him or herself within the unique narratives that will be revelatory and self-defining for them.  To do this we must adopt an attitude of cultural humility in the deepest possible sense.  Libraries above all are a place for this to happen, if we will make space for it, physically and emotionally, and also collect with an eye to the great diversity of narratives that can truly support an inclusive campus aware of its role in promoting a more just society.

It is so hard for those of us who identify with the majority culture, those who live and breathe inside “the Dream,” to step back and let others develop as their own selves, rather than as our narrative says they should.  The dominant narrative often resorts to violence to prevent that development.  But Coates shows us a different path.  He writes that his own desire for his son is that he will grow so he does not feel the need to constrict himself in order to make other people comfortable.  For those of us who live inside the dream made possible by centuries of oppression, it seems like a simple aspiration.  But for many of our students it is very difficult indeed, and we need a personal and an institutional commitment to the attitude of humility and respect for difference — even differences that make us profoundly uncomfortable — that can open the space for it to happen.

Kevin Smith's post originally appeared on In the Open.

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