Ta-Nehisi Coates on Vanity Fair’s September Issue, The Great Fire

Whiteness thrives in darkness. So it was with the slave narrative. So it is with the cell phone.” ~ Ta-Nehisi Coate


Last year Chicago poet Eve L. Ewing published 1919, a volume that channels her city’s Red Summer into blues. It is a magical work. The voices of house-keepers and stockyard hands are summoned. The thoughts of trains carrying black people north are conjured up. The doom of a black boy is told to the rhythm of a jump rope. The centerpiece of this bracing work is “True Stories About the Great Fire,” a poem inspired by the belief among white Chicagoans that the first Great Migration to the city was “the worst calamity that had struck the city since the Great Fire” of 1871, which took hundreds of lives and burned out the heart of the city. The implications of this equation are haunting. Once a people become a “calamity,” all means of dealing with them are acceptable. I have not yet watched George Floyd’s murder in its entirety, but I have seen enough of the genre to know the belief in black people as disaster, as calamity, as a Great Fire upon the city, has not yet waned.

I don’t know if there is a better way of explaining the police publicly torturing a man on a bright city street. I don’t know how else to think about the killing of Walter Scott, save that an agent of the state had considered him an offense to God. I don’t know what explains Botham Jean nor Atatiana Jefferson, killed in their own homes, save some perverted act of fire prevention. I see the face of Elijah McClain—his deep brown skin, his Mona Lisa smile, his eyes flush with nothing so much as the wide, willing magic of youth—and I think there can be no justification for erasing this young man, save the belief that he is not a man at all, that he is both more and less; that he is Mike Brown, bulking up to run through bullets, that he is Trayvon Martin, irradiated by Skittles and iced tea; that he is Amadou Diallo, whose wallet glinted like a gun. I don’t know how else to comprehend the jackboots bashing in Breonna Taylor’s door and spraying her home with bullets, except the belief that they were fighting some Great Fire—demonic, unnatural, inhuman.

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