At my birthday dinner last June a group of my friends fell into a common conversation—what does racial identity mean to our children, and what should it mean. The topic was sparked by a recent interracial marriage between the black son of a friend and the white daughter of a wealthy white CEO. At the close of this conversation, just before the food arrived, one person asked a question: will there be a conversation about race in 25 years. Everyone immediately said, ‘no.’ And we picked up our forks.
But I have to ask myself, silently, why not? As racism and social inequality thrive in 2014, why would there not be a conversation about race and interracial marriage in 25 years? For sure, there will be a conversation about religious identity. There will be even more vivid class differentiations and access issues. Will the discussion of racial identity (which I understand as an historical/cultural lineage conversation, or even a conversation about typologies and justice) die just when such conversations will matter most? Do Black people feel more obliged to obliterate this conversation than others? Will Asians stop believing that their historical and cultural identities matter? The Latino identity conversation is currently heating up. Will “Black / African descended or implicated” children be the only ones whose historical/cultural conversation will have been deemed irrelevant or backward or impolitic or just plain uninteresting?
Ta-Nahisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, scheduled for release in September 2015, has been moved to an earlier release date, and now resides at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Many of my friends at my birthday party clearly believed that young African Americans, born to expectations of access and a certain kind of economic privilege, will be the ones who will disdain such a conversation. Mr. Coates has another book, The Beautiful Struggle, which he patterned after James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to My Nephew On the One-Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” Clearly Baldwin knew that the matter of race would not disappear in his lifetime. Will our younger generation reject Mr. Coates’ recent call to consciousness and action?
But Mr. Coates is not in “The Academy.” Yet, on our list of readings is a book called Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. If social justice is an everyday matter, and if slavery is not “an antique” narrative of past “victimization” (Charles Johnson), is anyone truly exempt from this “call to consciousness and action”?