A few weeks ago, Kenyatta and I had dinner with another couple. They are old friends of ours, and like us, children of black consciousness. Kenyatta and the couple were talking about the beauty and wonder of Paris (I’ve never been.) They were contrasting that with all of the race critiques we came up on, some of which we still hold. And some point one of us said something to effect of, "You know you really gotta give it up. These white folks got done did something."

When you are a young intellectual black kid, you often find yourself in this desperate search for some sort of anti-Western tradition. That Saul Bellow quote—"Who is the Tolstoy of the Zululs"—really captures a lot of the dilemma for those of us looking for a "native" tradition. That search ends all kinds of ways for different people. But for us, I think it ended in the rejection of the premise, in the great Ralph Wiley riposte that “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.”

That line was sorcery for me. It found me a black pathologist, and set me free by revealing that my own search for something “native” was an implicit acceptance of the very racism that I sought to counter. The way out was not to find my own, but to reject the notion of anyone’s "own." If you reject the very premise of racism—the idea skin color directly contributes to genius or sloth—then all of humanity becomes "native" to you. And so empowered, I could—out of my own individual identity—create my own intellectual and artistic pedigree, and I was free to have it extend from Biggie to to Wharton to Melville to Hayden.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Federalist Papers"