Identity and the Black American Experience :
An Analysis of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and OJ Simpson’s Experiences
The black American experience is quite complicated. It takes many forms, but the oppressions black people face all stem from similar roots. One of the most important points that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his book, Between the World and Me, is that white America depends on black oppression for their success and progress. We consider ourselves exceptional, the melting pot of the world, a diverse and post-racial society. However, none of this is really true. Coates challenges our belief that we are exceptional. He outlines what it is like to be black in America in an attempt to relay to his son what his experiences have been and what he should expect. While Coates speaks to his son, and America, about his experiences, OJ Simpson has had a quite different experience with race. He saw himself as exempt from blackness because he was embraced by white America and made into a star worldwide. While on the surface, OJ Simpson may seem like the exception to Coates’s point, I would argue that he is not. His success spoke to the black community and for the black community. Had he not been twice as better than his white counterparts, he would not have been half as successful. In America, we glorify black athletes because they further our own causes, while simultaneously abusing black bodies and justifying it because of our necessity to hold them to a higher moral standard. We can see how this plays out when we dig deeper into what Coates is saying and how OJ attempted to separate himself from this.Order now
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me was written to be a letter to his son about being black in America. He reflects on his childhood, struggling to understand his identity through the context of the streets and the school, neither of which he felt he really belonged to. “Unfit for the schools, and in good measure wanting to be unfit for them, and lacking the savvy I needed to master the streets, I felt there could be no escape for me, or honestly, anyone else” (27). He coined the term dreamers for people in America who believe themselves to be white. Dreamers are the people who always seem to find justification for the forcible control of black bodies. They justify the treatment of black bodies by considering black people to be of a higher moral necessity to be nonviolent and peaceful, even amidst violence perpetrated towards them (32). Black identity is not something that black people have had the opportunity to define, because it was defined before they were born. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease” (17). Coates is attempting to relay to his son how he navigated this system which defined him from birth, and how he found himself in it. His world was changed when he met black people from around the world. It meant that what he was told that he was, by the schools and the streets, is not all there is for black people. He learned new meanings of love. He learned that his own oppression did not mean that he and other black people were incapable of oppressing others. His worldview shifted, then, and he now wants his son to know all that is possible for him as a black boy in the diversity of the world. “I wasn’t so much bound to a biological ‘race,’ as to a group of people” (119). Black people were not bound by the skin and physical features they had, but by the culture they shared, including their shared oppressions. Living in America, his son will still be exposed to the schools and the streets. Though, the world is vast, he must still be especially cautious of how he behaves around police, because they will not see him as a brilliant, worldly, open-minded kid, but as simply a black boy in America, which, to most, is that same identity that Coates asserts America created for black people. He found that while the world was vast and black men and women shouldn’t feel limited, the world, namely the white world, has relied on their oppression for centuries. “‘The two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black,’ said the great South Carolina senator, John C. Calhoun. ‘And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class and are respected and treated as equals.’ And there it is—the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality” (104). Racism is not the same as it was in the past, it is more subtle, less obvious, but it is there. And it will remain as long as white people depend on black oppression.
While Coates is giving voice to the majority of the black community at a time when they can still not rely on society to respect and protect them, OJ has a very different, albeit, not totally separate, experience with identity, particularly in regards to what it means to be black in America. OJ believed himself to be exempt from the black experience in America. He was even pleased when a white woman referred to the black people surrounding him as “n*****s” but seeing him as superior to them (00:36). He lived in a completely separate reality from other black people. He went to a wealthy white school and was surrounded by white people praising him for his athletic abilities. They didn’t see him as black (inferior), because he was so good on the field. He embraced this notion, saying “I’m not black, I’m OJ.” Later, he got into advertising for Chevrolet and Hertz. He thought that this spoke to his ability to transcend race. Little did he know, he was really being used as a way to gain sales from black buyers, while not losing sales from white people since they embraced him. Though he seemed separate from black America, his presence on television was a major milestone for the black community. He was fighting for their cause, whether he wanted to or not (1:09). Though he said in college that pressure didn’t get to him, we found that it did. He cracked. The attention went to his head and he was abusive to his wives. In the end he murdered his second wife and her lover, and was acquitted. He even wrote the book, If I Did it. He was later sentenced for a separate crime and now resides in prison for robbery and is up for parole in October 2017 (Cleary).
Our society is one in which we abuse black bodies, while glorifying black athletes and celebrities who we benefit from. Coates recalls the mother of Prince Jones telling a story from her youth in which she was sitting at a football game hearing her peers praising the black running back on their own team, while shouting “Kill that n*****!” with her sitting right next to them (Coates 139). We can easily see the parallel between this and OJ’s experience. He supposedly transcended race, which was why he was so successful. This gave him justification for ignoring the violence that his fellow black people were experiencing. He lived in a completely different world, or so he thought. But I would posit that he did not. The only reason that he transcended race was because he benefited white American football. He thrived on the attention he received from white America. To further this, he only had such success because he was better than his fellow white football players. There were likely many black aspiring football players from his time who were good, and possibly even better than their white counterparts, but were overlooked because of their race. There’s a saying I heard in a show that I watch “You have to be twice as good to get half of what they have.” The show was Scandal and it was a black father telling his daughter that she can’t let herself fall behind because white people don’t have to work nearly as hard to get what they want. I think that sentiment is relevant here. It’s a reflection of the idea that black people are held to a higher moral standard. They are held to higher standards in almost every aspect of their life. OJ was not exempt from that.
Though it may seem simple to say OJ is the exception to the point Coates makes, when we really look at each of them and the experiences of black people in America, we can see that he is not the exception. He does not transcend race. White America simply used his talents, while overlooking his blackness. Had he not been twice as talented as his white counterparts, he would not have been half as successful. While he was ignoring the black struggle taking place in his own city, he was also breaking barriers for black Americans. Whether he likes it or not, his blackness affected his experience in America and in the end the pressure got to him and the attention went to his head. In America, we glorify black athletes because they further our own causes, while simultaneously abusing black bodies and justifying it because of our necessity to hold them to a higher moral standard. This is not exceptional.