Wednesday, November 11, 2015

To Wake or Not to Wake

On Monday I said that I would write more about the extraordinarily book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and the recipient of the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis, and the George Polk Award for his writing.  His first book was the memoir The Beautiful Struggle, and he gained prominence in the mainstream media for his 2014 cover story in The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations."  Of his most recent book, Toni Morrison wrote:
"I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died.  Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.  The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates's journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive.  And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory.  It is require reading."
I couldn't agree more, especially with her assertion that it is -- or, I would say, should be -- required  reading.  Coates's writing is both beautiful and brutal.  His analysis is clear and challenging, painfully so.  He writes of his respect and admiration of Malcolm X -- his example and his rhetoric -- and again and again while reading Between the World and Me I felt as though I were reading the words of  Malik el-Shabazz himself.  Perhaps his description of his feelings toward Malcolm X can better describe what I mean:
Malcolm was the first political pragmatist I knew, the first honest man I'd ever heard.  He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white [a phrase Coates uses again and again] comfortable in their belief.  If he was angry, he said so.  If he hated, he hated because it was human for the enslvaved to hate the enslaver, natural as Prometheus hating the birds.  He would not turn the other cheek for you.  He would not be a better man for you.  He would not be your morality.  Malcolm spoke like a man who was free, like a black man above the laws that proscribed our imagination.  I identified with him. (p. 36)
Coates, too, shows no sign of wanting to make those of us who believe we are white comfortable.  And he doesn't.  With his unflinchingly honest description of what it has meant to him to be black in America, and his biting analysis of where we are and how we got here, those of us who believe we are white who read this book will be extremely discomforted.  I found myself weeping over much of what I read, sitting convicted by much of the rest.  It is no hyperbole to say that I was hanged, broken-open, by the experience of reading this book.  And reading this book is an experience.
Americans believe in the reality of 'race' as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world.  Racism -- the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them -- inevitably follows from this inalterable condition.  In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, or a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men. 
But race is is the child of racism, not the father.  And the process of naming 'the people' has never been a mater of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy, (p. 7)
In all of the work I have done to try to understand the bubble of privilege in which I exist, and the systems and structures that privileged "my kind" while inescapably denigrating everyone else, I have never come across this analysis of race and racism.  Others have made the point that race is a human construct rather than a biological truth, yet Coates takes this idea and makes use of it in making sense of the history of racism, and its current incarnation, in ways that I have never encountered before.

I've said that his writing is both beautiful and brutal.  This passage should suffice as example:
Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh.  It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is 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, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, who thinks her sister talks to loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dress-making and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and as capable as anyone.  "Slavery" is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. ... Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free.  Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains -- whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains. (pp. 69-70)
As we read this book, especially those of us who Coates would say "believe we are white," -- "need to believe we are white" -- we are essentially voyeurs, for it is written as a letter to his fifteen year old son.  It is written in the context of all that has been happening that has lifted issues of race into the consciousness of white America in a way not experienced since the Civil Rights Era -- the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and all the others (including the often overlooked women such as Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnston, and Tanisha Anderson) who have been killed in recent encounters with police, as well as the near-universal lack of convictions or even accountability for the people who fired the killing shot.  He is writing in the age of Black Lives Matter and the defensively dismissive response of All Lives Matter.  Of those who would argue that there is no conscious plan or pattern in all of this, no conspiracy, Coates says:
But what one "means" is neither important nor relevant.  It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out hat day to destroy a body.  All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black. (p. 103)
He notes that those of us who desperately want to be identified as white are able to continue to justify the Myth of America's commitment to freedom is our ability to forget our past.
The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream.  They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote, the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.  (p. 143)
There is so much more I could say of Between the World and Me -- his descriptions of growing up on the streets of Baltimore, his experiences of what he calls "The Mecca" at Howard University, the murder of a friend at the hands of the police, the birth and raising of his sons, and ever so much more.  There are so many more passages I could lift up and out in the hope that at least some of it will be read.   I will end with just one more.  In writing of those who struggled, who laid down their safety and their lives, during the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s he writes:
Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement:  to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, as done to the world. (p. 147)
I return to Toni Morrison's assessment -- that this book is, should be, needs to be required reading. And digested.  And shared.  Widely.  I believe -- more accurately, I suppose, I hope -- that if it were those of us who are so ensnared in the Dream that we don't even know it as such will indeed be roused.  And, being roused, might be able to work with all those who need us to work with them to change the reality behind the Dream.

Please.  Read this book.  And then lend it so someone.


P.S. -- The most recent issue of UU World magazine includes a transcript of a discussion that took place among five Unitarian Universalists of color about Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me

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