After reading “Between the World and Me”, a line by Malcolm X popped into my head.
“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.”
While the speech, “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?”, by Malcolm X is set within a different context than Coates’ book, both texts speak to one another’s historic sentiments about what it means to be black in the United States.
Both texts function to humanize and empower the black community. I believe that the representation of the community, specifically the representation of a black woman, carries a spiritual strength that establishes the weight of both these texts. I’ll return to this idea later after I first explore the function of race, as it transcends the 20th century into the 21st century.
So, who is responsible for passing down this racially-charged hatred? There’s definitely more than one answer. The answers we seek, especially within the field of race, tend to come at a high price: comfort.
It goes without saying that being uncomfortable isn’t a desirable feeling and people try to avoid situations of discomfort. The subject of race falls within the same realm of religion and politics; if you want to have a comfortably polite conversation with someone, you don’t bring up controversial topics. The idea that we must present ourselves as agreeable and modest while interacting with other people is rooted in social norms formed hundreds of years ago. Therefore, it is an outdated manner of being that distances us from one another instead of unifying us. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be mindful of our surroundings and speak tactfully to uphold a respectful demeanor. Rather, we shouldn’t bar ourselves from being vocal about important topics that affect the world, both externally and internally.
To answer the question of “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?”, we must look to “Between the World and Me”. Just as Coastes tells his son, we must…
“Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains – whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.”
This ancestral dehumanization should make people uncomfortable. It should stay with us for the rest of our lives, so that we keep the legacies of those before us alive; both with dignity for perseverance and damnation for enslavement. Comfort must be found in reclaiming a narrative once smothered by “politeness”.
To return to my point about the symbolic meaning a woman has, Coates illustrates it best:
“Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman…For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation.”
As the bearers of life, females hold an unparalleled significance in the world. Women, addressed from a traditional perspective, continue the cycle of life. The “birth of a better world”, however, is up to all of us. Regardless of race, gender, and sex, we must constantly remind ourselves to consider the historical foundations for the ways we see our present world. We cannot let the memories of those before us fade. We must unlearn this hatred.