Weekend Read: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Education and Segregation

By Carla Murphy Aug 29, 2014

For the educators and learners among us: Make time for this meandering introspection from The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on learning a new culture, navigating its border police and finding out this summer that, "I was more ignorant than I knew." Baltimore born and raised Coates spent the summer learning French at Middlebury College in Vermont. He uses this French immersion to understand and explain how segregation prepared him well to become a writer, less so a high-achiever in the classroom.

There’s much to dig in Coates’ essay. But I’m drawn to the notion that for members of marginalized communities, acquiring education does not necessarily mean an end to persecution. It has often meant the opposite:

In the early 19th century, the Cherokee Nation was told by the new Americans that if its members adopted their "civilized" ways, they would soon be respected as equals….

The Cherokee Nation…embraced mission schools. Some of them converted to Christianity. Other intermarried. Others still enslaved blacks….Thus the Native Americans of that time showed themselves to be as able to to integrate elements of the West with their own culture as any group of Asian or Jewish American. But the wolf has never much cared whether the sheep were cultured or not.

"The problem, from a white point of view," writes historian Daniel Walker Howe, "was that the success of these efforts to ‘civilize the Indians’ had not yielded the expected dividend in land sales. On the contrary, the more literate, prosperous, and politically organized the Cherokees made themselves, the more resolved they became to keep what remained of their land and improve it for their own benefit."

Cosmopolitanism, openness to other cultures, openness to education did not make the Cherokee pliant to American power; it gave them tools to resist. Realizing this, the United States dropped the veneer of "culture" and "civilization" and resorted to "Indian Removal," or The Trail of Tears.

Read the whole essay, "Acting French" on The Atlantic.