In February, influential black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates announced that he would be entering the world of Captain America in summer, and the first installment was released on July 4. Calling Marvel’s comic book hero a “personification” of America’s “egalitarian ideals” and embodying “a kind of Lincolnesque optimism”, Coates said he wanted to explore why anyone would believe in the American dream. In an early comic, Captain America

had clasped the American flag and said he was loyal to nothing except the “dream”. With real-life heroes hard to come by, the country still clearly “unreconciled” with its history of slavery and white supremacy, and its President upsetting every norm in the book, Coates’ comic book foray perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise. He explained his angst about being black in America in
Between the World and Me
(2015) and
We Were Eight Years in Power
(2017). In a scathing essay, “The First White President”, in the latter, Coates wrote: “That is the point of white supremacy — to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (and particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that in working twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive — work half as hard as black people and even more is possible.”

Black American writers have been asking the same question for a long time: what does it mean to be black in America? James Baldwin’s 10 essays in
Notes of a Native Son
grappled with the “conundrum of colour”, the “inheritance of every American, be he/she legally or actually Black or White.” Writing in 1955, Baldwin said there have been “superficial changes, with results at best ambiguous and, at worst, disastrous.” What he rued was the lack of a moral change for that is the “only real one”.

It isn’t that easy, as a new book by the anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston reveals.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”
(2018) is her interview with the last slave Cudjo Lewis, in which she hears of the atrocities African people inflicted on each other long before they arrived in the West. As Hurston said in
Dust Tracks on a Road
: “The inescapable fact that stuck in my craw was, my people hadsoldme, and the white people had bought me…” The race question has some uncomfortable back stories.

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