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Burning Down The Big House

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Paris, writes about the contrasting experiences he and I had growing up, with regard to learning and experiencing things outside the bounds of the worlds in which we were being raised. He makes the brilliant observation — I cannot believe I missed this — that my sister’s resentment of me for loving […]

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Paris, writes about the contrasting experiences he and I had growing up, with regard to learning and experiencing things outside the bounds of the worlds in which we were being raised. He makes the brilliant observation — I cannot believe I missed this — that my sister’s resentment of me for loving ideas, places, and things she found alien and extravagant was the equivalent of a black person suspected of getting above himself being called out for “acting white.”

He goes on:

By the time I graduated from high school I was writing poetry and I was really beginning to blossom as a thinking person. I can’t really imagine how I would have taken it if someone had accused me of “getting above my raising.” A number of you here have said you had that very experience and I am amazed that many of you moved on despite it.

I think, in some ways, the quasi-black nationalism of my childhood shielded me. You have to remember that Malcolm X read everything in jail–not just black stuff–that Malcolm traveled to London and Paris. There’s some portion of the nationalist tradition that holds that the acquisition of knowledge–any kind of knowledge–is self-improvement, and thus improvement of black people.

That’s really interesting. More:

And to the extent that I am still a quasi-nationalist, this is the portion of the tradition that I cling strongest to: There’s nothing “white” about reading Rousseau or Tocqueville or visiting Paris. This isn’t getting above your raising. It’s burning down the Big House, the caveat being that you can bring some of this back and flip it to relate to the nature of your people. And you always can. Because your people are human.

I really appreciate this insight. It makes me think what “burning down the Big House” would mean for someone of another class — say, the Ivy League graduate son or daughter of a couple of upper-middle class people. If “acting white” means behaving in a false way so as to distinguish yourself in a hostile way from your “tribe,” what would “acting white” be for that sort of person? I mean, study and cosmopolitan experience would be the norm for one of that class, so what would the equivalent of “acting white” amount to? Moving to Vermont and raising goats? Becoming a priest, nun or a missionary?

I was trying to think of something one of my children would do as a teenager or adult that would tempt me to think they were “acting white” (in the sense I mean here), and aside from some grand moral failing, it’s hard for me to imagine. That is on purpose. Before I even had children, I decided that my task is not to compel them to be like me, and to shame and judge them if they were not, but rather to work hard to discern what their own natures are, and do what I can to build them up and cultivate them so that they flourish according to their own nature (or, in pious terms, as God made them to be). I trust that I don’t need to explain the obvious limits to this approach, yes? The point, though, is that I see my parental task not so much as imposing as drawing out and shaping, and affirming each of my kids as they achieve according to their natures.

If one is called to be a big-city journalist, and the other is called to be a small-town schoolteacher, thanks be to God for both. And God grant me the wisdom to help them see when they are being drawn into a path down which they will not flourish, and help them choose something better. My son Lucas loves being outdoors and doing things with his hands. If, down the road, he felt compelled to go to law school not because he really loved the law, but because he was conforming to some false ideal, I hope I have the discernment to challenge him on that. On the other hand, if he were to discover a love for the law, and wanted to challenge himself to excel in something that didn’t come easy to him, I hope I have the discernment to build him up in that.

I suppose, then, that for me, “burning down the Big House” happened in a story I relate in my book. It was 1994, and I had quit my Washington job and returned to St. Francisville to be with my family after my niece was born. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I felt obliged to be near them. I learned in that time here, though, that the weight of my father’s expectations would have crushed me. I learned, through much prayer and deliberation, that God made me for other things — seriously, I, who was a religious man by then, came to understand that I had a calling elsewhere. I was able to leave free of the tormenting guilt that had shackled my mind. And, decades later, when I came to believe God was calling me back to my hometown, and to my family’s side, I was able to come in freedom, out of love, not out of grim duty or a sense of shame.

Anyway, to go back to the point of this post: to my sister, knowledge was good only insofar as it helped one to fulfill the Mission, which, for our family (as she saw it), was to come back home and take your place and do your duty. Anything outside of that was false and destructive. She and I have very different senses of what Mission entails.

(Note to TNC: take your son to Deyrolle, at 46 rue du Bac. You’ll be glad you did. The comics shops in the 5th, at the intersection of the Blvd St-Germain and the Rue St-Jacques, will provide for all your Tintin needs, and more.)

UPDATE: I’ve changed the subject line, and want to elaborate more on the point I’m making. My sister was a version of Binx Bolling’s Aunt Emily . She lived by a Code, and thought it was the duty of our family members to live by that Code. Ruthie was one smart cookie — as I remind you, she made better grades than I did — but she was anti-intellectual, in part, I think, because she saw knowledge as valuable only insofar as it helped you live out the Code. If knowledge and experience tempted you to shirk your duty, then it ought to be stigmatized and shunned. I was an example of what happens when that happens. Ruthie typically sought knowledge for consolation; I usually seek knowledge for understanding.

Here’s where it gets complicated for me. In theory, I esteem devotion to prescriptive Tradition. But my sister lived by that ethic, and so did (does) my father — and it made me miserable. I ran away from here in part because the weight and the strictures of our family’s Tradition was too much to take. If it — if they — had been more flexible, allowing for some modification of the Tradition, I might have chosen a different path. But they could not see any other way. They were not conscious of Tradition as Tradition, which was the very thing that allowed them to be so devoted to it … but was also the same thing that prevented them from accepting any deviation from it. What they didn’t understand was the paradoxical, profoundly conservative wisdom of the Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things have to change.” But I’ll save all this for another post.

The thing I have to concede, though, is that I want the benefits of Tradition without the painful strictures. If I “burn down the Big House,” so to speak, where do I shelter? Where do my children shelter? The thing is, it’s not possible to live in the modern world and remain in the Big House. Human flourishing requires building a different house, one more suited to the way we live today. If we want things to stay the same, things have to change.