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“What would white people do without the nigger?” It’s a question that courses and bleeds through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The First White President.” It’s never asked explicitly, but it lurks beneath each point, ensconced in the piece’s premise: a fundamental and connective marrow. And it’s been with me since Sunday afternoon after I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture for the first time.

Visiting the Blacksonian was a spontaneous decision. Last Wednesday, my wife and I and two of our also-married friends began our journey on the Great Allegheny Passage—a 150-mile bike trip from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md. The trek took four days: 30 miles Wednesday (from Pittsburgh to West Newton, Pa.), 55 (!!!) miles Thursday (from West Newton to Confluence, Pa.), 32 miles Friday (from West Newton to Meyersdale, Pa.) and then 32 miles Saturday (from Meyersdale to Cumberland).

We then drove to Washington, D.C., and stayed at our friends’ house. My wife’s and my initial plan was to stay in D.C. until Monday and hang out with our friends, but they actually needed to fly to Ohio on Sunday afternoon. So while we were still able to stay at their house, we were free for the afternoon and evening, and my wife thought it’d be a good time to visit the museum.

Of course, since it was Labor Day weekend, thousands of others had the same idea, and we weren’t able to get tickets online. Fortunately, after a timely Facebook status and a few follow-up texts, we were able to get two.

We weren’t able to get there until after 2:30 p.m., which meant we wouldn’t have time to view the entire museum and eat there. (And yes, eating at their cafeteria was one of our primary objectives. Perhaps the primary objective.) So we just decided to take in the bottom two floors. Which, for those unfamiliar with the construction of the Blacksonian, are the floors devoted to America’s inception, the Middle Passage, slavery, segregation and the fight for civil rights.

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I’m still not quite sure how to synopsize that experience. I knew what I was going to see. And while certain facts and acts might have been new to me, none of the themes and stories present were. But it still shook me. And, now, four days after visiting the museum, the thought of it still shakes me. I am still fucked up. There were several times while reading the texts describing the horrors in the bowels of the slave ships and while seeing depictions of babies ripped away from hysterical mothers at slave auctions that I began to feel light-headed—only to realize that I was light-headed because I wasn’t breathing.

And even as I already knew of the creation of whiteness and why the creation of whiteness was necessary for those who wished to deem themselves white, the museum’s brilliant reiteration of the brutality of this intentionality was still shocking. Whiteness cannot and does not exist without the nigger. This is made plain in every picture, every voice-over, every artifact, every page, every scroll and every shackle.

The idea of a nigger existing, the metaphysical and existential presence of the nigger, the memory of the nigger, the pity of the nigger, the dread of the nigger, the loathing of the nigger, the envy of the nigger, the theft of the nigger, the threat of the nigger, the thought of the nigger and the fabricated terror of the nigger is as essential to whiteness as grain is to grits. It’s the foundation white status sits and stands on. The mattress white self-esteem lays its head on. The mirror white pride smiles at. The restorative balm white souls are soothed by. Without the nigger—without a nigger—whiteness loses its endoskeleton and collapses into dust.

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Damon Young

I come back to this question of what whiteness would do without the nigger as I think about the towns we drove through and stopped in while on the Great Allegheny Passage. After we left Pittsburgh Wednesday afternoon and passed through McKeesport—which sits 12 miles south of the Burgh—I joked with the D.C.-dwelling couple with us that it would probably be the last time we saw any black people until Cumberland. I was wrong. We saw four, total. (Another recurring joke on the trip is that we were on an inverted Underground Railroad.)

At each stop, we slept at a bed-and-breakfast. We also ate lunches and dinners at restaurants in each of these cities, and we’d feel the heat of the stares from the patrons and servers and hostesses and bartenders—surprised by us, examining us and then ignoring us once they realized we were just there to eat food, and that excessive examinations of us would leave their food too cold to eat. We joked—we had a lot of jokes on this trip, which is necessary to keep sane while driving 150 miles uphill in wind and fog and frogs and rain—that we were going to be an entertaining dinner-table and/or watercooler story for those folks the next day: “Jimmy, you’ll never guess who walked into the bar last night!”

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I think about how these people in these cities dead in the middle of Donald Trump’s America were very nice to us. (Well, mostly very nice.) And how they could go days—weeks, months even—without speaking to or even seeing another black person. We (collectively) are just not a part of their lives. There are no niggers in those towns. And it makes me laugh when thinking about the vastness of the woods we passed through, surrounded and engulfed by either whiteness or darkness or whiteness and darkness on each side and picturing four endoskeletons pedaling through the void.