How Ta-Nehisi Coates is shaping a student’s reflections during Black History Month

By Jenna Anne Chan, '15  |  Illustration by Thom Mulgrew

As we celebrate Black History Month, I find myself thinking about how slavery and the Civil Rights movement are things of the past. So why is there still such a racial divide in our country?

I keep revisiting some of the questions Ta-Nehisi Coates called to mind during his lecture at Loyola University Maryland on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

Weeks after his lecture, here are a few ideas I am still reflecting on.

We need to think beyond Martin Luther King. I was surprised when Coates went as far as to admit that he was not a follower of King, the renowned Civil Rights leader. “I didn’t actually grow up as a strong Martin Luther King acolyte. My family was much more influenced by the legacy of Malcolm X. So for me to find the importance of Martin Luther King took a kind of intellectual search.” Martin Luther King, Jr., was known for his stance on nonviolence, something Coates couldn’t relate to growing up on the tough streets of West Baltimore. “I’m from West Baltimore and in the daily interactions, no matter the moral imperatives of nonviolence, it was not, shall we say, too often practiced in the crowds that I ran with.” It was interesting to hear how Coates’ earlier life molded him and shaped his beliefs.

There may be a deeper chasm between races than we realize. Coates took an unconventional approach on speaking out against racial injustice. He went deeper into the subject, touching on the history behind it and directing us towards the actions we must take to fix it. “My obsession has been, what is this chasm between black and white in America, and how did we get here?”

We need to delve into history to understand the true plight of African-Americans over time. Coates brought to life America’s misdeeds in treating its black citizens. He used the term “plunder” to describe America’s sins: “The fundamental feature of American racism in this country is plunder, in which one group takes from another.” ​From the time blacks stepped foot on American soil, they were taken advantage of as slaves. It is only now that we are considered “equal”—but black people are still paying for the damage that has been done to their ancestors in the past. Coates brought up issues with housing discrimination, black crime, and the education system in a profound article in The Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations.”

We need to consider how to take action. We can speak about racial injustice all we want, but in order to combat the problem, we need to take action and be the solution. To conclude this reflection with the last quote that sums up the lecture as a whole: “If you have been plundering a people for 350 years, maybe you should give some of that back.”

What are you thinking about during Black History Month?

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