On My Own: “Table Talk” by Professor Opal Moore

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”?

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5 thoughts on “On My Own: “Table Talk” by Professor Opal Moore

  1. I feel those with more economic privilege have the most responsibility to carry out the conversation of race – a few at the top does not mean equality. Instead, they are given the best platform to express change and use connections. The younger generation will not reject the call to consciousness and action because race will continue to impact our community. To reject the call would be to completely ignore surroundings and reject a lineage that always pushed forward and fought for more.

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    1. Thank you, again, Tyler, for responding to Prof. Moore’s compelling post.

      If I were at Professor Moore’s celebratory dinner, I would have chimed right on in with the pessimists. I have very little faith in the contemporary generation’s ability or interest in sustaining meaningful conversations about race. In eleven years at Spelman, I have already seen a shift from black students who valued making use of the relatively safe space of an HBCU for contemplating their experiences of race and racism to a generation who try with all their might to distance themselves from African American history. Unfortunately, this latter group identifies very strongly with white supremacist constructions of black identity, black history, black experiences–black anything. Rather than own the legitimacy of their own pain or pleasure, they typically offer a very weak analysis of the politics of race; instead, this generation embraces the “Santa Clausification” of race (Cornel West) and its goal of silencing any talk of what W.E.B. Dubois called “the public and psychological wages of whiteness” (notice he didn’t say “privilege;” as if “privilege” derives from rape, lynching, murder, police violence and terrorism, etc.See Black Reconstruction) that black people do not have. I actually had a student, who I would have identified as black, but who described herself in the way one would describe the foundation of a garden (one part gravel, one part potting soil, one part water, etc.), tell me that I made her feel uncomfortable because I either allowed students to express their views through the lens of race or because I presented my own. She seemed stunned when I held her accountable for her own feelings. I know for a fact that I speak in terms of systems of domination and not through the singular act of individual white people. I trust that I had a response to those whose feelings about race overwhelmed the historical, the political, and the logical facets required when putting forth a sound argument in a formal, academic space. As I told her, “college is not high school.” Thus, I don’t have to “write you up for” swearing or for tardiness; I don’t have to “call parents” when students fall behind in class; I don’t have to show “how my ‘lesson plan’ addresses” some foolish, anti-intellectual standard. I have a pedagogical philosophy that I strongly adhere to, and it doesn’t include silencing students who put forth strong (though crude) ideas against the legitimacy of white supremacy.

      Teaching white college students has prepared me for the attitudes towards race that are now embraced by many black students who attend HBCUs. More and more, I’m beginning to regard teaching students in this environment as teaching those who have accepted an embedded white supremacist demands that in order to gain what the broader culture finds valuable, one must support the “all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil” (Souls of Black Folks). Regardless, I remain committed to helping black students develop an oppositional conscientiousness. To that end, I can already hear myself preparing students to recognize that in staging the scene of Sandra Bland’s former jail cell as though her suicide note could be found in Psalm 119: 109-110 repeats the practice of slaveholders who used the bible to justify their savagery. Through this one example, I know that my goal is to help students see that we are living in very close proximity to the past. In recognizing the presence of history, I hope to make students aware of the relevance of everything their grandparents ever told them: “[…] you better love it; you. Out there, they don’t love your flesh. They despise it” (Beloved). Dr. Hite

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    2. This exchange between generations, between Ms. Stephens and Dr. Hite, demonstrates the importance of having conversations that reach across time, experience and perhaps geography. The people at my birthday party were certain that “race” as cultural meaning would soon be eradicated. Their certainty was reflected in the broad national (US) assertion that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency signaled the end of race, and the end of the ability of black people to attribute any injustice or systemic inequality to racism. This claim was, of course, a form of erasure. As a black man entered the white house, his race (and the Diasporic story of colonization and global rapacity) was being ERASED by the media pundits. His black presence in the white house was supposed to blind us to all else that we experience. Ms. Stephens expresses confidence that her generation will hear and respond to the “call to consciousness” while Dr. Hite says “that’s not what I’m seeing in the young people who enter my classrooms.” And yet, Dr. Hite expresses a commitment to doing the work of consciousness building–challenging her students to claim all that is theirs.

      I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, “Between the World and Me.” A beautiful, powerful, honest book. I agree with Toni Morrison, it is “required reading” for any American who wants to live an honest life. But Coates is clear about his most desired audience–he addresses this very carefully structured framework for American racism to his 15 year old son who watched the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri and sat up until 11 a.m. expecting to learn that his killer would be indicted, only to learn that he would be set free. Coates’s book is for his son’s generation, the generation that was fed “The American Dream,” without being taught that the Dream depended upon the theft of the Black Body. He states the book’s purpose very clearly: “I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life….” Coates’s book is what Nikki Giovanni meant when she wrote: “Black love is Black wealth.”

      We are a wealthy people. We are the people of the Beautiful Struggle. But how will we now live within our bodies. How will we avoid what Coates refers to as “the sheer terror of disembodiment?”

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  2. We as black Americans can not be exempt from the call to consciousness because it would convey our content as estranged, secondary citizens. We must continue to talk about race because it contributes to the problems and issues that plague the black community to this day.

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  3. Hi Alexis. How do we call Americans, black or otherwise, to consciousness? What does “consciousness” require of us? Are we strong enough to be truly conscious? I noted that Ta-Nehisi Coates reaches back to James Baldwin, who published “Letter to My Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation” in 1962. What does the Emancipation mean to Baldwin? What does it mean to you? And what does it have to do with our current “call to consciousness?”

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