Reading, Racism and the L

I wrote the following piece in late July. The violence and hatred from white supremacists over the past weekend at the University of Virginia makes it clear that the battle against racism has to be fought 24/7. We cannot avoid it if we want to live in a just society. Higher education has a great responsibility in this struggle.


Riding Chicago’s Blue Line, I was re-reading a section of Ta-Nehisi CoatesBetween The World and Me when a male voice made me look up.

“Do you like the book?”

The tone was slightly aggressive, almost pushy. The train was full, not to point of packed, but there was little room to move about. I was not immediately certain who was asking me.

The questioner made eye contact. He was in his 30s, a bearded bulky white man with tattoos up and down both arms. He wore shorts, boots, and was holding on to a child’s hand.

I processed this quickly. Part of my brain was aware that I was doing the assessment, too. Chicago can always surprise you. And questions are not always just about asking. Engaging in some questions, particularly about difficult subjects, can lead you down interesting paths. Coates’ writing has impressed me for some time, and I’ve seen him interviewed as well. I responded with a clear affirmation.

“I think that it’s brilliant. He writes beautifully and it’s a really powerful book.”

Coates’ book is filled with powerful insights. It is beautifully written, but it is not an easy read. His observations are terrifying in their honesty. Coates pulls no punches.

One observation that struck me, hard, is that “race is the child of racism.” I had thumbed back to that statement when queried on the L. In that moment on the train, I was thinking about race, racism, and how I’ve taught American history. It is impossible to cover US history without giving hard thought to the many ways that race and racism have shaped our nation’s history. In fact, it seems that while we might be making some progress, we have yet to truly grapple and understand just how insidious and pervasive racism is to our history, culture and life.

My fellow traveler turned out to be a college teacher. He talked – never asking me another question – and talked, telling me how he teaches freshman English in Missouri and always tries to keep his readings topical. He assigned the book last year and he thought that it went over very well. He likes using Coates’ Atlantic articles as well; he thought that they always generate good discussion. He gave me a torrent of words, without any interest in a genuine back and forth. Then he exited the train with the child.

Had he remained, and if our environment was more conducive to thoughtful discussion, I would have asked him  about the book. Do his students see themselves or others as Prince Jones, Coate’s classmate who was later killed in a police shooting? What role and responsibility do they see in the forces of government? Do they think that race relations are the same, getting better or worse? And what sort of conversations did he have in the spring semester with his students in a post-Obama environment?

With time, I would really like to learn is how faculty, staff and students think about the importance of Howard University to Coates’ growth as an informed thinker. College was critical to his intellectual development and life. It was his Mecca. That is no small charge. What was the combination of factors made this man consider his college the holiest of places? Was it the faculty? The student body? The rigor and demand of his assignments and courses? What role did the mission, as an HBCU (Historical Black College and University), provide Coates and his fellow students with an exceptional education? What is the educational alchemy?

Howard served as the catalyst to help this young man grow and to realize his potential. Ta-Nehisi Coates was much altered by Howard University. He is better for it and so are we, his readers. This is the sort of accomplishment that institutions of higher education can strive for daily.  When we create environments that promote research, hard thinking, difficult discussions, and rigorous work – when we listen to each other seriously and strive for equity and justice – we can challenge ourselves to do and to be better humans. It is much more than a job.

I want to thank my Missouri teacher for the unexpected question on the L and making me think. I wish him and his students well: good reading, good discussion, and good writing. Maybe he can awaken a future Ta-Nehisi Coates.

David Potash

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