Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates
A reader of this blog named Joanna generously gave me a Kindle version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me. Well, if somebody was nice enough to give me the book, I figured I should read it (note to readers: this is generally not a good way to get me to read a book). I did so this yesterday. I spent most of today writing about it, hit “publish,” and lost a good third of it. There was nothing to do but start over. Anyway, thank you, Joanna.
As you know, I was once a regular reader of Coates, and an admirer, but I lost interest when his blog turned extremely bleak. My overall judgement is reminiscent of Christopher Caldwell’s review: it is a bad book about a worthy subject. And it is a deeply religious book — a description that its author, a convinced atheist, might find puzzling. And it is a psychologically revealing work, one that ultimately says far more about the mindset of its author than the world he describes.
The other day, in a blog post called “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Holy Writ,” I described Between the World and Me (henceforth, BTWAM) that way not because of its content, but because of the way so many critics, in particular white ones, are treating it. Now that I have read the book, I stand by that description. BTWAM is deeply sincere, and has passages of true beauty. At its best, the book conveys the feeling of growing up as a black boy in the inner city, with its constant fear of violence. But there are some serious problems with the book and its radical claims, which are at the very least contestable. Yet BTWAM is a book that is crack to liberal whites. The Times‘s A.O. Scott called it “essential, like water or air,” which I thought was silly fawning, but now that I’ve actually read the book, I find that remark quite revealing. BTWAM tells the reader that every bad thing that happens to black people in America is the fault of whites, that even when blacks victimize blacks, this has its roots in white racism. It tells the reader that whites cannot be redeemed, nor can the world itself, and the best thing any of us can do is to face life knowing that it’s all a sham. If one is a white liberal reading this, one can derive both a masochistic thrill from the anti-white animus, but also feel comforted that the only thing TNC really expects you to do is to share his despair, because nothing you or any of us do in the world matters at all.
If you regret missing the famous “radical chic” party at Lenny and Felicia’s back in the 1960s, read BTWAM and its rave reviews. That’s surely what the atmosphere was like.
So, BTWAM has about it a religious sense in that a certain kind of person, especially white person, will see it as a sacred text, one that to criticize is blasphemous. But it really is a religious text, in that it offers an explanation, from an atheist materialist point of view, of why there is injustice and suffering in the world, and what the proper philosophical response to it should be. I call it “religious,” not philosophical, because there is no actual philosophical case made for TNC’s response, only emotionally charged assertions, and a near-obsession with the black Body as a materialist sacrament. TNC offers a totalizing racial ideology that is airless and devoid of any hope. More on this shortly.
You get a sense of his method early on, when he says, “But race is the child of racism, not the father.” This is a claim, and an interesting one, but TNC is not interested in supporting it with argument. He just asserts things. Some defenders of the book say this is fine, because TNC is not writing a standard book; rather, he frames it as a letter to his teenage son Samori. But this is a dodge. If I sent one of my sons a book-length (though a short book!) letter purporting to diagnose the ills of the world and to offer them advice on how to live in it, surely I would be expected to back up my controversial claims with some kind of argument. Yes? If it were a private letter, that would be a weakness that its recipient might wish to overlook, in a there goes Dad again way. But TNC is putting this letter before the public, and charging money to read it. It appears, then, that he’s not actually interested in making an argument, but rather evoking a mood, and conjuring a stance of a strangely passive militance.
TNC claims — agains, doesn’t really argue, but claims — that racism was invented by “new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” It follows from his premises that race is a construct invented by white people. What can this possibly mean? That the phenomenon of race — of blackness, whiteness, Asian-ness, and so forth — does not exist? That racial difference of any sort is a delusion brought into the world by white people?
His point is that whiteness is an identity that subsumes racial and national identities in America. And here we see the heart of BTWAM’s claim, one that sounds sociological, but is actually metaphysical, even sacramental:
As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.
In other words, the blood of the slaves washed all white people free of our sins. Our very existence today is only possible because of the terror white people of much earlier generations inflicted of slaves stolen from Africa, and their descendants. It is a massive claim, a radical claim, one that, if true, justifies seeing every aspect of the white world as criminal. One imagines Ta-Nehisi Coates walking up to the door of the rickety trailer in a mobile home park outside of Ferriday, Louisiana, knocking on it, and telling the bedraggled white single mother who lives there with her three children, surviving on food stamps and what she can scrounge together, that she acquired this palace and her easy-peasy life on the scarred backs of the slaves.
TNC says that what he calls “the Dream” — the American Dream — is forever closed off to blacks “because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” Really? What about Ben Carson, a black neurosurgeon who is now running for president? What about Clarence Thomas, son of a farm worker and a maid, raised by his grandfather, in whose home the boy first saw indoor plumbing? He’s now a US Supreme Court justice. What about the black president of the United States? Yes, those are spectacular examples, but what about all the black people who have made it into the middle class since the Civil Rights movement? The black poverty rate in the 1960 was 60 percent; it’s less than half that now. This does not mean that racism and discrimination has been vanquished, obviously, but it means that the American Dream is slowly but steadily becoming available to blacks.
Prince Georges County, in suburban Maryland, between Baltimore and DC, is a black middle class enclave. TNC recognizes this, but he considers it radically compromised by police brutality — a brutality that he acknowledges is perpetrated by black law enforcement against blacks. But he has an answer for that too: whenever blacks treat other blacks violently, it’s because white people made them do it. This is TNC’s global explanation for any problem affecting the black community: it’s the white man’s fault. I kept thinking as I read, “Surely there’s more to it than this,” but no, there’s really not. It is stunning to read an intellectual proclaim something so simplistic and reductive. Yet this is dogma. In Coates’s racial-materialist system, white iniquity plays the same role that Original Sin does in Christian cosmology.
The black body is Coates’s sacrament. “How do I live free in this black body?” he writes. “It is a profound question because America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”
This requires unpacking. For Coates, an atheist, the “black body” is a “holy vessel,” one that is in constant danger of profanation and destruction. He discloses why the body is the sacrament of his race-conscious atheism: “The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible — and that is precisely why they are so precious.”
Ironically, I could not help hearing in Coates’s frequent invocations of the sanctity of the black body the same rhetoric that Southern whites of earlier generations used to justify oppressing blacks: that black men, with their supposed ungovernable sexual savagery, posed a clear and ever-present danger to the holy vessel of Southern white womanhood, and must be suppressed. Toward the end of the book, I would not have been surprised had Coates encouraged his son resist the white conspiracy to “sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids.” I’m joking, but only slightly. By the end of BTWAM, I was half-convinced that the book was an inadvertent disclosure of its author’s neuroticism about his physical existence as it was a philosophical meditation about the phenomenology of the body. After I finished the book, it seemed to me that TNC holds on to his concept of the black body in the same way Gollum held on to the Ring.
If the black body is TNC’s sacrament, the American nation is its Satanic analogue, conjured in an unending witch’s Sabbath. “The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden.”
Coates explicitly rejects the Civil Rights vision of America, and sees the blacks of the 1950s and 1960s — as portrayed in documentary films of the era — as patsys:
The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life — love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the fire-hoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets. They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality.
Well, blacks were “in especial need of this morality” because as King grasped, it was the strategy that helped them triumph over an oppressor who had overwhelming power. Plus, it was based on the Christian faith that nearly all black Americans of the time espoused, a faith that taught them that to suffer, even to die, for righteousness’ sake is a holy act of witness. And the protesters hoped to reach the Christianity that most white Americans of the era shared with them, to strike a resonant chord within their hearts, and to inspire change. Coates, an atheist, cannot grasp this mindset, and I guess that’s understandable. But the true power of the Civil Rights movement eludes them. Because the black body is his sacrament, the idea that black men and women would put their bodies on the line for the sake of black freedom strikes him as, at best, incomprehensible.
And none of those sacrifices were worth it, in his view, or could ever be worth it:
Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance — no matter how improved — as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.
My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.
This is an explicit rejection of Martin Luther King’s famous line, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” There is no justice in TNC’s view, only chaos and death (= the box, a coffin). He rejects the Christian vision of sacrificial love that drove the Civil Rights movement, embracing instead the ancient principle of lex talionis — eye for an eye:
This was not boasting — it was a declaration of equality rooted not in better angels or the intangible spirit but in the sanctity of the black body.
Again, how would this read if one justified violence against black men believed to have sexually defiled the “sanctity of the white female body”? This really was a thing; I know the names of some white men in my parish, all dead now, who lynched a black man here on the belief that he raped a white woman — a woman who later confessed to having had consensual sex with the lynched man. These white men did what they did because they believed it necessary to defend the sanctified body of white women against demonic defilement by black males. If you accept TNC’s principle of racialized, corporeal sanctity, by what standards do you condemn whites in the past who justified violence against black men as defense of the sanctity of the white female body? The Nazis too held the Aryan body to be a sacred vessel, and their propaganda emphasized that no male Jew can be allowed to violate its sanctity. I don’t think that’s what TNC is advocating precisely — he emphatically does not sexualize the sanctity of the body, except insofar as he valorizes sexual autonomy — but the racialization of the body, which in TNC is a metaphysical principle and an ideology — is far closer to toxic paganisms of the recent past than he seems to grasp.
In Christian terms, imagine a world condemned to live with the effects of the Fall: broken and irreparable, with no way at all of achieving justice and harmony, ever. That is exactly how grim TNC’s world is. Because history cannot be undone, and Coates’s atheism prevents him from believing in spiritual redemption, and for whatever reason, he does not endorse armed resistance, there is no path left for blacks (and sympathetic white Americans) except to endure despair with as much courage as we can muster. He concludes:
The changes have awarded me a rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to, when you have rejected the Dream.
This is the freedom of the nihilist, which to me is indistinguishable from spiritual and mental slavery. Is it really freedom to believe that you have seen to the bottom of everything, and you know it is all a lie? Or is this the only comfort available to an atheist who cannot bring himself to believe in a dream of a better world?
To be honest, TNC is not exactly a nihilist; he believes in blackness, and he believes in his family (his passionate love for his son is a beautiful aspect of the book, though his calling Samori “the God I never had” jolted me, as someone who has seen in the lives of several friends the destructive effects of father’s hero-worshiping their sons (and, for that matter, seeing in my own life the destructive effect of my hero-worshiping my own father).
He believes that whiteness is a fiction, a historical and ideological category that subsumes all the diversity of European tribes into a color category. And yet, he describes Howard University, the historically black college in DC, as his “Mecca,” and thrills in the diversity he sees among the dark-skinned people there:
They were Panamanian. They were Bajan. And some of them were from places I had never heard of. But all of them were hot and incredible, exotic even, though we hailed from the same tribe.
Wait, it’s almost as if TNC is subsuming difference into the category of blackness. So, which is it? Is race a real thing, or not? Is race a real thing for blacks, but not for whites?
It’s not clear. At one point, he appears to criticize an earlier, Afrocentric version of himself (“… and ‘the black race’ was a thing I supposed existed from time immemorial, a thing that was real and mattered.”) In another passage, he raises the body to a level of worship that if you heard it come from the mouth of a neo-pagan Aryan, would chill you to the bone: “…the physical beauty of the black body was all our beauty, historical and cultural, incarnate.”
Later in the book, TNC talks about how he came to see “the invention of racecraft” as answering a “need for escape” — his own. So “racecraft” is a useful illusion? Maybe, but:
And still and all I knew that we we were something, that we were a tribe — on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real.
So this is the Absolute Paradox at the heart of TNC’s cobbled-together faith. Blackness is a phantom, but also real. Whatever.
It is also interesting that he refers to Howard in explicitly religious terms (“the Mecca”). He’s not talking about the institution, but the function of the community he found there:
The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body.
Which strikes me as creepy. I could be misreading this, but it sounds like TNC — an atheist! — believes that the Howard community serves as a pseudo-church, as the means through which
divine grace black racial consciousness is realized within the lives of its people — that is, the means by which their souls minds are formed and their bodies consecrated to … what, exactly? Themselves? The existence and reproduction of the race and its people?
This is what I mean when I say Between The World And Me is a religious book. And in TNC’s cosmos, the line between good and evil is drawn between white and black. All moral failures by blacks are ultimately the fault of whites. The savage violence of the mean streets of West Baltimore? Whites made those street thugs do it. Black men who abandon their children?
I felt then that these men — these ‘fathers’ — were the greatest of cowards. But I also felt that the galaxy was playing with loaded dice, which ensured an excess of cowards in our ranks.
They are cowards, but how, says TNC, can they be expected to help it, given that the universe is stacked against them? The United States, in his view, is not a New Jerusalem, but an infernal facsimile:
‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination an exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.
About the black cop who gunned down an innocent young black man: “The killer was the direct expression of all his country’s beliefs.” America wanted that young man to die, because that is America’s purpose: killing blacks. He really believes this.
You might think that I’m overstating the case when I tell you that TNC has written a song of innocence absolving black Americans from any fault for their condition, and blaming it all on whites. He has taken a partial truth — that while none of us are guilty of the sins of others, we are unavoidably involved in them — and exalted it to a cosmological principle. The killing by an undercover cop of Prince Jones, a young black man he had only slightly known at Howard, comes across as one of the acts that embodies and justifies TNC’s hatred of America. (Never mind that Jones died at the hands of a black cop, who worked for a black-led police department; it’s all the fault of the white man). This passage about 9/11 is where TNC lost me forever:
I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.
They were not human to me. He ought to be deeply ashamed of this opinion, but he doesn’t say this in self-reproach. When I read this, I thought of one of the FDNY funerals I attended, the one for Vernon Cherry, who served in my local firehouse in Brooklyn, and was one of 12 black first responders to die at the Twin Towers. I went to his funeral, and the funeral of two other firefighters from our neighborhood. I sobbed along with the families of these brave men, and along with their friends, and neighbors like me, who did not know each other, and did not know Vernon Cherry and his colleagues, but who were profoundly moved by their courage and their sacrifices. I stood outside a Catholic church in Brooklyn Heights and watched the widow and young children of one of the firefighters leave the funeral, and walk sadly down the block, to get into their minivan and drive off to the rest of their life, without a husband and a father.
These are the people who are not human to Ta-Nehisi Coates, because they wore uniforms, or loved the men who died in their uniforms when the Twin Towers collapsed on them. Was Vernon Cherry not human? Were the black men, the white men, the Hispanic men, who gave their lives trying to save strangers that day not human, because Ta-Nehisi Coates has a big problem with authority?
Had TNC confessed to having had this feeling, but later repenting of it, that would have been one thing. As far as I can tell from reading his book, he believes his malicious feeling justifies itself. This is an evil belief. It really is. It reminds me of the morning in 1985, my freshman semester in college, in which a quiet Puerto Rican Marxist intellectual with thick glasses and a gentle demeanor told me that the Palestinian terrorists who earlier that day had murdered cruise ship passenger Leon Klinghoffer, and dumped him and his wheelchair into the ocean, were justified. “If he was rich enough to take the cruise, maybe he deserved to die,” said this radical.
TNC doesn’t say that the firefighters and cops who died on 9/11 deserved it, but this is just a small difference of degree.
TNC discovers the secret doctrine that accounts for America’s evil: the “plunder of our bodies” is the “missing thing” that “explained everything.” Once he fixes his mind on the concept that America is built entirely on the “plunder” of the black body, and that white society is a machine dedicated to the continuation of that plunder, he has taken the red pill that makes everything clear to him. All of history — American history, anyway — becomes the history of plunder, of the Wicked (= Whites) stealing from the Innocent (= blacks). All the sins and failings of blacks are offloaded onto the white scapegoat, and onto institutions of order, like the Fire Department of New York. Earlier in the book, TNC explains how he had come to admire the hate Malcolm X had of whites, because it was just. Eye for an eye, remember? All of which puts this passage from the book (which, recall, is a letter to his son), into a certain perspective:
You were almost five years old. The theater was crowded, and when we came out we rode a set of escalators down to the ground floor. As we came off, you were moving at the dawdling speed of a small child. A white woman pushed you and said, “Come on!” Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body. And more: There was my sense that this woman was pulling rank. I knew, for instance, that she would not have pushed a black child out on my part of Flatbush, because she would be afraid there and would sense, if not know, that there would be a penalty for such an action. But I was not out on my part of Flatbush. And I was not in West Baltimore. And I was far from the Mecca. I forgot all of that. I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defense. I experienced this as his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast. He had made no such attempt on behalf of my son. And he was now supported by other white people in the assembling crowd. The man came closer. He grew louder. I pushed him away. He said, “I could have you arrested!” I did not care. I told him this, and the desire to do much more was hot in my throat.
TNC says that the only thing that stopped him from getting violent was knowing that his little boy was watching him. He says he tells this story out of shame that his actions that day put his child in danger of watching the NYPD “cuff, club, tase, and break” his father.
This is such a revealing anecdote. Living in New York means having to deal with crotchety, pushy old people. We lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn for five years. This was a fact of daily life. It is not at all shocking that a pushy old lady on the Upper West Side overstepped her bounds with a child. The woman was wrong to do so, but Ta-Nehisi Coates made her bear the weight of 400 years of white supremacy, or at least the anger of a grown man who had been raised in the ghetto. No wonder she shrunk back, shocked. And if I saw a young man speaking with hot anger to an old lady in a public place, I would likely step forward to defend her too. But TNC interprets that as a white man exercising racial solidarity, and choosing the old woman over his son. Maybe the white man did not see what the old lady had done to TNC’s son. TNC does not tell us. TNC concedes that he reacted with rage, and that he shoved the white man back. In what world is this an acceptable response to a minor incident? For TNC, the penny-ante rudeness of an old woman in the lobby of a Manhattan movie theater is the showdown at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He connects that grumpy woman’s action to Jim Crow and slavery.
More darkly, TNC openly fantasizes about how the old woman’s pushiness would have been kept in check had she been in a black neighborhood, because of fear. Well. For one thing, does TNC imagine that white children in New York are immune from the rudeness of crotchety old folks? Does he think that the worldview Eddie Murphy parodied in this 1984 short film on SNL is real? And what would he have seen done to the old white lady had she laid her hands on his son in Flatbush, knowing as we do that he has a tendency to see those he associates with the white world and its institutions as inhuman?
There is no evidence of injustice against black people that TNC does not take as a sign of black innocence and white guilt. He writes about being in Chicago, watching a sheriff’s deputy evict a black family from their home. We don’t learn whether or not this eviction was just. Coates uncritically folds it in to the unjust history of redlining and racist housing policies, and calls even more evidence of white “plunder.” This actual black man, and actual black family, were not human to him either, only actors playing a role in TNC’s cosmic drama.
Nobody can seriously deny that police brutality against black men exists, and is a problem in our society. But what about the fact that the overwhelming majority of black men who die violently do so at the hands of other black men? TNC’s got you covered:
To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.
Is there room in his vision for any moral agency, at all, for black people? Or are they doomed to be pawns of whites, forever? Whites, too, are not human, but actors in TNC’s abstract play:
I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, and entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.
He later says that white people “think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity”? Really? Does he know any white people? Can he see them as human beings? Take this ridiculous paragraph above to the white trailer park in Ferriday, and see how many Buck Rogerses, Princes Aragorn, and Luke Skywalkers you can find. This radical-chic cant doesn’t even rise to the level of stupid.
This, in which he mentions the little children of white gentrifiers in Harlem, does. These kids
commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs. … No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.
When even a white kid on a tricycle is a sign of racial terror and injustice, you know you are pretty close to losing your mind.
(Oh, and just so you know, Ta-Nehisi Coates blames white racism and its plunder of the black man for global warming. I’m serious.)
The conclusion of TNC’s book is genuinely moving. In it, he interviews Dr. Mable Jones, a black radiologist who rose out of Southern poverty and discrimination to become a medical professional, and to raise her children in the mid-Atlantic region, in wealth. And yet, her son Prince died at the hands of a black undercover cop, even though Prince was guilty of nothing. It really is a tragedy. Coates seems to interpret the meaning of this tragedy like this: See? No matter how far a black person goes, there is no escaping injustice. Progress is an illusion. Elect a black president, and you still get Trayvon.
But is this the most reasonable way to interpret these facts? Dr. Jones should not have had to suffer the loss of her son. Prince Jones should still be alive. But the death of Prince Jones does not negate the amazing achievements of Mable Jones, which were made possible by her own hard work and tenacity, and the changes that happened in America chiefly because of the love and sacrifice of the Civil Rights workers. The world is fundamentally unjust; this is not just the black condition, but the human condition. Only a child or an ideologue would see the persistence of injustice in the world and say that there can never be progress, or goodness, or that evidence of progress and goodness are illusions. Then again, TNC is committed to the idea that redemption is impossible, that America, and white people, are hopelessly compromised by evil, and that nothing black people do to improve their own lives, or the lives of their communities, matters, because perfect justice is unattainable.
Far, far more black mothers in this country mourn sons who died at the hands of black men who were not police officers, but stone-cold criminals. What about those mothers?
“I didn’t yet realize that the boot on your neck is just as likely to make you delusional as it is to ennoble,” TNC writes. Yes, and Between The World And Me is testimony to the fact that he has not yet realized it … and that of all the boots on his own neck, the biggest one fits his foot.
For all that, BTWAM by no means a worthless book. TNC is at his best talking about the constant fear attending him as a child growing up in the West Baltimore ghetto. Any one of us who had been forced to grow up like that would have been traumatized by it, especially if we, like TNC, were intelligent and sensitive. He writes:
To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us.
The Baltimore of his youth is a terrifying place, anarchic and violent and filled with disordered male power. It is interesting to consider the role slavery and Jim Crow played in creating the culture of black male violence that rules the West Baltimore streets. This is what I mean by saying that we are not all guilty, but we are all implicated. But TNC absolves all the thugs, even those who threatened them. It is, of course, the white man’s fault.
Anyway, it is deeply affecting for the reader — this reader — to read how it felt for TNC as a child to experience the sanitized, suburbanized vision of America on television, versus the ugly reality in which he lived. Here’s the thing: I grew up in the country in south Louisiana, in a small brick house, which was normal for middle-class people of my time and place. The world of Leave It To Beaver and The Brady Bunch was alien to me too — not, obviously, as alien as it would be to a black kid in the Baltimore ghetto, but a world that I experienced as ideal. I so badly wanted to live in a suburban world like that, of safety, and plenty, and perfect order. Mind you, I did have safety, and never wanted for food or clothing (though we were very far from well-off), and though no order is perfect, I had stability. I literally cannot imagine growing up as TNC did. It is a tribute to his gifts as a writer that he made this reader feel the desperation in it.
We had nothing like that here in the countryside, in terms of the daily terror from thug life. Still, it was very easy to drive around our parish and find white kids and black kids both, growing up in poverty and disorder. As I write this, I’m thinking about three poor white families I knew growing up, and how alien TNC’s view of white people would be to them. Thank God they never knew the crack, rape, and guns that permeated TNC’s life. I’m not at all claiming an equivalence with what he experienced (though you could find that in the ghettos of Baton Rouge and New Orleans). The point simply is that the reality of life for white Americans is not what TNC fantasizes it is. If the only whites he knew growing up were on TV, he has a wildly distorted view of the white experience.
Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.
I think about the poor white children I knew growing up, and how if you said to one of them today that their childhoods were about being “unworried,” and about “pie and pot roast” and “white fences and green lawns,” they would laugh at you — if you were lucky.
The point is simply this: that the world on the other side of TNC’s ideology and him is a lot more complex, morally and otherwise, than he can account for. To send your child out into the world telling him that everything is hopeless, that any success he has in the world is illegitimate, or otherwise tainted, and that it is all the fault of the Other, for whose vast machinery of cosmic evil you, child, are nothing but fuel — to do so is to poison his mind.
I know, I know, I’m just a middle-class white Southern guy; TNC has said that he doesn’t care what people like me think of his views. That’s fine, I guess. What I want to say, though, is that TNC is absolutely correct in his general view that we white Americans do not understand the black experience as well as we should, and lack sufficient empathy for the black struggle. I say that because I’ve spent a good part of the last two years engaged in an extraordinary experience, one that changed my heart, and is changing my heart.
On September 8, the actor Wendell Pierce, who played the Bunk on The Wire, and Antoine on Treme, will publish a memoir titled The Wind in the Reeds. It’s a moving story of an American family — Wendell’s — that rose out of south Louisiana slavery, then rural poverty and Jim Crow oppression, and survived Hurricane Katrina. It is a story of faith — faith in God, in the promise of America, and in humanity. It is also a story of family, of struggle, of art and culture, and the power of education and the tenacity of hope — and how the legacy of the family, going all the way back to slavery, gave its living members the strength to endure the worst the world could throw at them.
It was my privilege to work with Wendell on this book. It shouldn’t have happened. We are around the same age, but come from such different backgrounds. He’s a liberal black man from the big city; I’m a conservative white man from the hills. In an upcoming story in TAC, I tell the tale about how I got involved in doing this book, so I won’t give the details now. It is enough to know that I was able to do this project because Wendell Pierce generously believed in my ability to help him tell his story, and that the content of my character mattered more than the color of my skin.
This is not a ghostwritten book, as many celebrity books are. It really and truly is Wendell’s book; I was a stenographer whose work amounted to organizing the results of many, many hours of interviews, and shaping it into a narrative. One thing I was able to do, though, was spend a morning with Wendell’s uncle, Lloyd Edwards, who lives down south, near Bayou Lafourche. He is the same age as my own father, and they both grew up poor, in rural south Louisiana. Lloyd was black; my dad was white — and even though they were so much alike, in terms of poverty, the color of their skin made a big difference in the lives they had.
Again, without getting into too much detail (it’ll all be explained in the TAC story), entering into this black family’s story as Wendell’s shadow shook me up. Many of the things I learned were not exactly new to me, but when you hear these stories from the mouth of black men who were witnesses, it affects you differently. At one point, after hearing story after story, I said to Uncle Lloyd, “I don’t know why you aren’t angry all the time.”
And then I thought: Oh.
This is why I cannot entirely dismiss TNC’s book. The racism that Wendell’s mother, uncles, aunts, and father suffered was severe, and the threat to their lives real. In the 1930s and 1940s in Assumption Parish, where Wendell’s mother was raised, many of the leading white citizens in the parish were Klansmen. The law could not be counted on to protect black people. It was another America, though one within living memory of our oldest citizens. None of the members of Wendell’s family were under any illusions about their condition. But they were Catholics who believed strongly in God, even as the Church of their day often sanctioned racism. And they believed in hard work, family solidarity, and the transformative power of education. If you, as a white person, read the book, you may be astonished by the obstacles thrown in the way of these people, only because they were black. And the pointless cruelty, e.g., the City of New Orleans, in the 1940s, forcing blacks off the slip of lakefront land granted to them for their own blacks-only beach, and pushing them further down the shore, where the only place they could swim was among raw sewage.
And yet, and yet! Wendell’s story is one of tenacious hope. There’s a part about how his father, Amos, was refused the medals he earned fighting in the South Pacific in World War II, because his paperwork hadn’t yet arrived at discharge, and the white WAC officer processing him through refused to believe a black man could have been so heroic in battle. Wendell’s father kept that to himself, and raised his sons to be patriots all the same. One of Wendell’s brothers graduated from West Point. When Wendell found out a few years ago what had been denied his father, he worked with a New Orleans journalist and Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office to get those medals for his father. Here is a story about the World War II Museum ceremony in which Amos Pierce received his medals.
Getting to know Wendell’s family’s story made me feel shame over what America, and people who look like me, and maybe even people in my family tree, did to black Americans. But more than that, it made me feel the power of faith and hope. The other day, when I posted something on this blog very discouraging about the future of America, and doubtful about my own sense of commitment to this country, I thought of Army Corporal Amos Pierce, who had been treated so unjustly by the country he had risked his life for, but who never once let his love for his country — for the country that did not love him back — flag, and how he raised his kids to believe that one day, America would make good on her promises.
Thinking about Mr. Amos made me ashamed of my easy despair, and repent of it. One of the most amazing things about the Pierce and Edwards family’s story, at least to me, is that for all the pain and suffering they endured because of discrimination, it never stole their joy. These poor country black people of the earlier generations had next to nothing, and the Klan at their backs … but they had everything, if you follow me.
Anyway, the story is Wendell’s to tell, and I hope you will buy the book, because he is an extraordinary man, and this is a story filled with tears, but also triumph. Wendell is an incredibly accomplished actor, and this book is in many ways his tribute to the love and sacrifices of the generations of strong black men and women who came before him, to make his success possible. I think TNC’s book set me off so much because I read it in part through the experience of Wendell and his family. Me, I came away from the Wendell project with a lot more understanding of why things are the way they are within black America, and also a deeper appreciation of the only reliable way they will get better. Though TNC’s belief that all white achievement and material success is based on the “plunder” of black people still strikes me as extremely simplistic and unjust, it really is true that whites today cannot turn away from the fate of black Americans. It may not be my fault or your fault that the black kid in the ghetto can’t read, but — and this is something I learned from reading Dante — we are implicated in his fate, and he in ours, because we are all human beings with histories together.
What this means for me, I’m not yet sure. I have a book project in mind after the Benedict Option, one that will tell a story about racial injustice — a lynching — and the way our roots, white and black, become tangled in time. Love cannot raise the dead, but maybe it can reconcile the living. I would not have had the courage to take on this future project if it had not been for the faith Wendell had in me, and in the world his family showed to me by the greatness of their character. I love those people, and hope that the small part I played in helping tell their story does them honor. I think about Wendell’s late mother almost every day. This afternoon, I told a shop clerk the story about Mr. Amos and his medals, and reduced her literally to tears, thinking about that old man’s faithfulness and courage. I lived with these good people in my mind for almost two years, and they will never leave me. It was a privilege. Nothing but a privilege, and a grace, for which I will always owe Wendell. If the book I’m thinking about ever comes to fruition, it will be dedicated to him, in thanksgiving for the gifts he gave me in his family and their stories.
So, we have two books here, both written by black American men, about the black American experience. Neither one, I hasten to say, offers absolution to white America. Yet one is a counsel of anger and total despair; the other is a story of hope and redemption. One is about a world that is so imbued with evil that it can never change or be changed, only endured; the other is about a world that is filled with good and evil both, and can never be perfected, only made more perfect through faith, hope, love, and sacrifice. The angry book — a grimoire that casts a spell of hopelessness over the reader — has gone to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, riding the crest of a wave of great reviews and hallowing praise. We will see what happens to the hopeful book when it’s released on September 8. I hope reviewers and journalists who decide what to feature recognize that when it comes to memoirs and reflections on race in America, misery and despair are no measures of authenticity.
UPDATE: Because one commenter (whose remarks I didn’t publish, because they were nasty and inaccurate) raised the idea that I’m criticizing Coates’s book because I’m “self-promoting,” let me assure you that I don’t stand to make a penny off the sales of Wendell’s book. I was paid a standard fee for my work. I won’t get rich if the book becomes a bestseller — but the book should become a bestseller, because the story of Wendell’s family is extraordinary.
I should also say, because it occurred to me after posting this, that had I been raised under Coates’s circumstances, and without religious faith, it’s likely that I would have ended up with his point of view on things. Again, I think about how my anger at the injustices in the Roman Catholic Church destroyed my ability to believe as a Catholic Christian. It is entirely possible that were I black, and had I grown up with so much fear, and no Christian faith to teach me how to deal with it, my anger would easily have destroyed my faith in America — and my ability to analyze conditions with any kind of balance.