Talking Points: Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Real Source of Our Black Pride
Black people are not the descendants of kings. We are — and I say this with big pride — the progeny of slaves. If there’s any majesty in our struggle, it lies not in fairy tales but in those humble origins and the great distance we’ve traveled since.
–Ta-Nehisi Coates, in :”This is How We Lost to the White Man,” Atlantic Monthly (1993) 301 no4 52-4, 56-8, 60-2 My 2008
I’m thinking back to one evening in Pittsburgh. It’s easy for me to remember this evening because I’ve only ever spent two nights in Pittsburgh, back in 1991. It was spring, I was a first-year grad student at UM-Ann Arbor, and I was on a research trip to interview my great aunt (my grandfather’s older sister) about her experiences of Fisk University in the 1920s and Bethune-Cookman College in the ’30s.
I got great material from our interview. My great-aunt told stories of her first Christmas at Fisk, her father’s pride at her graduation, and her exciting years as a young staff member at Bethune-Cookman College, where Mary McLeod Bethune herself introduced her to the man she would eventually marry. One of my favorite stories was of a very eventful road trip that she made, from Florida to New York, with her new husband and writer Zora Neale Hurston.
My aunt’s stories were rich in history and humor; but the part of the visit that was truly transforming for me was the time she and I spent together on my first night in her home. Her husband, my great-uncle, went to bed early that night, but my aunt and I stayed up chatting and looking at photos.
At the time that I visited my great aunt was in her 80s, but she had the energy and comportment of a woman in her 50s or 60s; and on that night we stayed up until almost 2am. She opened drawers and cabinets and pulled out photos and albums, all of which served as visual aids to the story she shared me that night, the story of my people, who they were and where they came from. That night I learned the names of many of my slave ancestors. I even saw photos of a few of them, taken during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was old enough to have met a couple of these amazing men and women, most of whom were former slaves, and she told me anecdotes about their personalities, their lives, and their relationship with her.
I listened with rapt attention, and I handled the photos and programs and other family memorabilia like the sacred objects that they were. That night, as I lay down to sleep – in a strange house, in a strange bed, in a city I had never visited before – I felt a sense of place and belonging of home that was different from anything I’d ever experienced before. Learning about the enslaved men and women before me — the forebears who had struggled and survived and laid a foundation for their future generations — had transformed my sense of self, adding breadth, depth, and meaning to my experience of being the Black descendant of these esteemed forbears. It was one of those unique moments when I realized that I had just gained something that I hadn’t even realized I’d missing.
The ancestors my great aunt described to me were all enslaved Black folks; but it never occurred to me to feel ashamed of or diminished by their bondage. On the contrary, I feel a greater pride in their lives and their relentless insistence on surviving than I ever could feel in the vague possibility that some of those kings and queens of pre-colonial Africa might somehow have been related to me.
The fathers may soar / And the children may know their names.
–Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Posted by Ajuan Mance