Some of the most powerfully moving artistic products come from testimonies, which are steeped in emotion. In this paper, I will define “testimony” as an emotional reaction to or recount of an (often negative) experience. As a culture, we Americans rely on such accounts. We consume countless songs about personal relationships or experiences in which an artist references a certain “you,” for example, creating an intensely personal and yet very public narrative. We love to empathize with artists in this way; the same can be said for other art forms such as film and writing. Furthermore, we default to personal conversation and writing naturally– so how is it that in a culture so dependent on the individual point of view, some points of view are dismissed?
The erasure of Black testimony is a large part of racism in the United States today. One such testimony is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent book Between the World and Me. In this book he describes his life as a Black man and the racism he has seen and experienced in America. However, many people ignore Coates’s discourse, claiming that it is too emotional and that Coates is too sensitive. In this essay I will examine two Black testimonies in order to show that they are valid and crucial to the discussion of race in the United States, and, furthermore that the act of silencing Black voices perpetuates racism.
Testimony reveals the value of the individual experience and how it relates to dehumanization and oppression. When social commentators such as Kyle Smith condemn Coates’ attention to “minor run-ins” (Smith 22), they invalidate Coates’s humanity, saying that his experiences are not important enough to be meaningful and that he is overanalyzing interactions with other people. This is a common claim that may at first seem fair, but, when looked at from the point of view of a person of color, is revealed to be a sad byproduct of racist beliefs (or rather, refusals to believe others). In his essay “Elevators, Social Spaces and Racism: A Philosophical Analysis,” academic philosopher George Yancy argues that this sensitivity is crucial for minority survival. In order to articulate this, he refers to whiteness theorist Christine Sleeter’s claim, “what white [people] often find it more difficult to understand is that generally people of color know that they may over-interpret race, but most of the time the interpretation is correct” (qtd in Yancy 854). As a white man, Smith cannot relate to Coates or Yancy, so he does not understand the gravity of these “minor run-ins.” Smith, as a white man, does not get to decide what can be considered racist and what cannot. After all, who better to explain the horrors of racism than those who actually experience it? This is why testimony is so valuable to the study of racism. If we try to combat racism based on twisted definitions of it, how can we ever be productive? Would this practice not uphold institutionalized racism?
The refusal to consider points of view, along with the purposeful deferral of issues, which many white people employ in conversations about race, perpetuate racism. After describing his encounter with a white woman in an elevator to his class, Yancy remarks that many of his white students were eager to avoid calling the encounter “racist” and instead offered other ways of looking at the cause of the woman’s reaction toward Yancy. While it is good to consider other ideas, in this case, when the students tried to change the subject, they inadvertently showed Yancy that they believed his argument to be of little value. Yancy explains,
“It is possible for me to be incorrect in my interpretation of the situation. Indeed, I grant that one of the difficulties with racism is that it is not always obvious. It can be difficult to ascertain under particular circumstances whether someone is simply having an awful day, is typically obnoxious, is preoccupied, or is a racist. However, this does not make racism less of a problem” (Yancy 853).
Explicitly, Yancy cites the erasure of Black testimony as a component of racism. Implicitly though, I would argue that this statement underlines the importance of Black testimony and what it can tell us about racism. Even though Yancy admits that he may be incorrect in his interpretation of a situation, he is the only one that can explain his feelings about it. What I mean to say is, even if the woman in the elevator recoiled from Yancy because of his gender, for example, instead of his race, the fact that Yancy associated her reaction with race is very telling. It shows that, at other times, he has been exposed to so many similar reactions by white people which were in fact reactions to race that he grew to assume that negative reactions toward him were racially motivated. Furthermore, how many white people have had enough negative encounters with strangers to assume that those encounters are connected by a common thread? Unless one were a minority in another realm of his identity (in terms of sexuality or gender, for example), I would argue very few. Even if he were wrong about this singular encounter, Yancy’s testimony helps the white reader understand the nature and prevalence of racism and racist actions, both in everyday social interactions and the erasure of Black testimony.
Moreover, to deny the importance of a Black man’s personal experience with racism is to assume that he cannot remove his emotions from his reason, and therefore to dehumanize him. Kyle Smith responds to an incident in which a white woman pushes Coates’s son, saying, “frustrated and impatient people are everywhere. But we don’t organize our personalities around minor run-ins, much less intentionally pass along such an obsession to our children or elevate them to world-historical status” (Smith 22). This passage is problematic for many reasons. Firstly, that Smith discredits Coates’s testimony and secondly that he believes Coates unable of separating emotion from fact, therefore removing him from the rest of humanity, a practice thoroughly ensconced in racist ideals. However, Coates disproves this belief when he writes, “there was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body. And more: There was my sense that this woman was pulling rank,” because “she would not have pushed a black child out on my part of Flatbush. . . because she would be afraid there and would sense, if not know, that there would be a penalty for such an action” (Coates 94). Coates acknowledges his emotions, but knows, logically, that this act is still racist. He explains that, while he was certainly emotional, he was not blinded by the woman’s whiteness. To suggest that the woman was not racist is to suggest that Coates’s view of racism is wrong. When this invalidation is thrust upon others’ testimonies, such as Yancy’s for example, we lose the thread that ties these experiences together and helps us define racism. That is to say, without testimonies from people who have been victims of racism, we cannot know how racism is manifested. We need Black testimony to define racism and to translate it to others. Besides, it is impossible and impractical to separate emotion from racism. Racism is inherently emotional. The atrocities committed by whites cannot be viewed as anything less than torturous by all accounts, including the emotional. Attempting to separate emotion from racism is another way to erase Black voices in the discussion about race.
The resistance to and erasure of individual Black testimony is in part due to the false notion of a general “Black Experience.” There is a tendency for whites to believe that one Black man can speak on behalf of the entire race. This is simply not true, but comes from a very long tradition of the objectification of Blacks. Thomas Jefferson himself wrote an analysis on the entire Black race based on his observations of only a few slaves, believing them all to be the same. Though slavery is now illegal, for some reason the idea that Blackness equates to sameness lives on and is yet another example of the reification of racism. To combat this idea, Ta Nehisi Coates stated earnestly in a recent lecture, “I am not a spokesperson for Black people. We’re all people. We’re all different… I write my own truth” (Race in America: A Deeper Black). Furthermore, he entreats his son to look at people individually. He implores,
“ I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman; whose mind is as active as your own; whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods…” (Coates 69).
Coates himself utilizes a form of hypothetical testimony to demonstrate human individuality in his example of the “enslaved woman”. Even his word choice is significant—Coates does not use the noun “slave” to describe the woman, rather the adjective “enslaved.” This suggests that her enslavement is not integral to her character or identity. He wants his son, and the reader, to treat others as he treats this hypothetical woman: as a person with a significant life.
The importance of testimony is further reinforced when we treat people as individuals with unique stories. The emotions inherent in testimony are shared by many people. This is shown in Yancy’s musings on the probability that the white woman in the elevator was racist. He ruminates, “my judgment is… rendered reasonable within the context of a shared history of Black people noting, critically discussing, suffering, and sharing with each other the traumatic experiential content and repeated acts of white racism” (Yancy 852). When we conduct scientific experiments, we consider data and statistics. If there is a correlation in the data when one thing comes in contact with another, for example, we reason empirically that there is a reaction taking place. When we hold individual testimonies with the same regard as scientific data, it is obvious that individual testimonies are imperative to reaching an understanding about racism. Each testimony, or each datum, when added together, helps to create a comprehensive definition of racism in America.
Testimonies are to be trusted because they speak personal truths. Such personal truths cannot be invalidated by others who do not experience racism and who do not know of its terrors. When examined together, these personal truths show clear evidence of a larger truth: a truth we need in order to effectively discuss racism. Though oftentimes ideas like the singular Black Experience are ingrained in whites since birth (because of a history of systemic racism), it is our responsibility to attend to these issues urgently, precisely, and compassionately. There is no better or more honest way to go about this than through the study of Black testimony.
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau: New York. Print.
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Race in America: A Deeper Black.” Reynolds Lecture. Davidson College, Davidson, NC. 17 November 2015. Lecture.
- Smith, Kyle. “The Hard Untruths of Ta-Nehisi Coates”. Commentary. October 2015.
- Yancy, George. “Elevators, Social Spaces and Racism: A Philosophical Analysis.” Sage Journals. 34 no. 8. October 2008. 843-876. Print.
Pledged, Isabelle Sakelaris