In the United States we have often seen our country as destined for greatness and we often see great success as a guarantee in our own lives. There is something special about being American and about living in the middle or upper class in our society. Many people see their success and place in society as evidence of their own greatness, ignoring the fact that much of their success is random. Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at these perspectives in his book, Between the World and Me, and examines the way that our history set up our country at the expense of black people.
In a letter to his son looking at national attitudes today he writes, “We live in a ‘goal-oriented’ era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory.” Coats is arguing that the general approach most people have when looking at America, our nation’s role in the world, and our lives within our country is to see our success as a guarantee, somehow guided by a divine plan. In reality, according to Coats, American success is in no way guaranteed, and was kickstarted two hundred years ago by the exploitation of slave labor. “America understands itself as God’s handiwork,” he writes, “but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”
Coats looks at the exploitation of slaves and the discrimination and inequities suffered by black men and women brought to this continent during the slave trade and sees connections to our lives today. After slavery ended, black men and women were still exploited in many ways, denied opportunities, restricted in where they could live, and often not able to advance in careers. The criminal justice system often singled out black men for crimes that occurred in equal numbers between black and white men, limiting freedoms and creating a caste-like system in our country.
It was this historical vision that eliminated the view of America as a country destined for greatness. Coats absolutely sees great possibilities for our country, but his visions are sobered by the realization that American exceptionalism is partly random and partly driven by the huge sacrifices and work of the oppressed. There is no mystical force pushing any of us individually or collectively toward greatness, there are only our decisions, our reactions, and the tremendous work of only a few to propel us.
When you abandon religious views, you stop asking how things are ‘supposed’ to turn out, and you give up the question of why a higher power would decide that things ‘should’ be certain way. This perspective contributes to Coats’ ability to see the world clearly, and to see not just the tremendous decisions and incredible men that led our country from its inception, but also the lives lost and the injustice suffered by countless men and women who have held up our nation all while being scorned and rejected. His views align with those of Joseph Ellis, whose book The Quartet I recently finished. Ellis looked at how four men, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay brought about the constitution as we know it today, and while he did not focus on the inequities of slavery, he did acknowledge how such a system allowed for our countries founding, and he did acknowledge that the visions and efforts of a few drove the true change and better future of our country. The decisions of our founding fathers were certainly, in Ellis’ view, not providential (as we like to believe looking back at history) but political and human, and they made decisions which sealed the fate of black men and women and elevated the opportunities for white men and women. Coats and Ellis both understood that it was luck, decisions, and efforts which afforded our country the comfort experienced today, not a pre-ordained destiny of greatness. Coats however, goes further in his writing and acknowledges the crucial role that exploitation played and has continued to play in shaping America and allowing for some people to exceed.