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Le Misérable

Hélas, Ta-Nehisi Coates spends his summer becoming a soixante-huitard

What did Ta-Nehisi Coates do on his summer vacation? He went to French camp and descended further into gloom. His report on having spent this past summer in a French immersion environment at Middlebury College reminds me both of what I love in his writing and why I find him hard to read anymore. Excerpt:

Acquiring a second language is hard. I have been told that it is easier for children, but I am not so sure if this is for reasons of biology or because adults have so much more to learn. Still, it remains true that the vast majority of students at Middlebury were younger than me, and not just younger, but fiercer. My classmates were, in the main, the kind of high-achieving college students who elect to spend their summer vacation taking on eight hours a day of schoolwork. There was no difference in work ethic between us. If I spent more time studying than my classmates, that fact should not be taken as an accolade but as a marker of my inefficiency.

They had something over me, and that something was a culture, which is to say a suite of practices so ingrained as to be ritualistic. The scholastic achievers knew how to quickly memorize a poem in a language they did not understand. They knew that recopying a handout a few days before an exam helped them digest the information. They knew to bring a pencil, not a pen, to that exam. They knew that you could (with the professor’s permission) record lectures and take pictures of the blackboard.

This culture of scholastic achievement had not been acquired yesterday. The same set of practices had allowed my classmates to succeed in high school, and had likely been reinforced by other scholastic achievers around them. I am sure many of them had parents who were scholastic high-achievers. This is how social capital reinforces itself and compounds. It is not merely one high achieving child, but a flock of high achieving children, each backed by high-achieving parents. I once talked to a woman who spoke German, English and French and had done so since she was a child. How did this happen, I asked? “Everyone in my world spoke multiple languages,” she explained. “It was just what you did.”

OK. But I suspect I would have a similar reaction if I went to Middlebury for the summer. I made good grades throughout school, but did not develop good study habits. When I ran into classes that were really hard, one’s that defeated my ability to wing my way around, I failed, or very nearly did. This wasn’t because of a deficit of culture. This was because of me. Still, I grant his point here, though I would add that anyone in or approaching middle age (TNC is 37) is going to have a less plastic brain than classmates in their early 20s, and is going to move more slowly.

Anyway, being surrounded by all those young people who grasped French more quickly than he did causes him to blame the government:

Like many black children in this country, I did not have a culture of scholastic high achievement around me. There were very few adults around me who’d been great students and were subsequently rewarded for their studiousness. The phrase “Ivy League” was an empty abstraction to me. I mostly thought of school as a place one goes so as not to be eventually killed, drugged, or jailed. These observations cannot be disconnected from the country I call home, nor from the government to which I swear fealty.

For most of American history, it has been national policy to plunder the capital accumulated by black people—social or otherwise. It began with the prohibition against reading, proceeded to separate and wholly unequal schools, and continues to this very day in our tacit acceptance of segregation. When building capital, it helps to know the right people. One aim of American policy, historically, has been to insure that the “right people” are rarely black. Segregation then ensures that these rare exceptions are spread thin, and that the rest of us have no access to other “right people.”

And so a white family born into the lower middle class can expect to live around a critical mass of people who are more affluent or worldly and thus see other things, be exposed to other practices and other cultures. A black family with a middle class salary can expect to live around a critical mass of poor people, and mostly see the same things they (and the poor people around them) are working hard to escape. This too compounds.

He’s right, of course, about what segregation and racism did in a systematic way to black Americans, but I think he’s off, and off in a way that matters, about what lower middle class white families can expect. Remember Tabi, the poor white girl from Pennsylvania that the Washington Post profiled? She was struggling mightily to break free from the poverty culture that was everywhere around her, and reinforced by her mother, her siblings, and just about everybody. Does TNC seriously think that Tabi would have it easier than he if she ended up at Middlebury for the summer?

Let’s say that Tabi isn’t lower middle class; she’s just poor, and therefore not an ideal example. I’ll consider my own case. My family was somewhere between lower middle and middle class. My dad worked as a health inspector; my mom drove a school bus. We lived in rural south Louisiana. I knew exactly one kid growing up who could be called rich, and he didn’t flaunt it. My folks expected my sister and me to make good grades, and we did, but all of this was disconnected from any broader intellectual culture. I don’t say that to fault them at all; my mom and dad were very good about buying me whatever books I wanted, and I’m grateful to them for it. The point I’m making is that in the family and local culture in which I was raised, the purpose of education was to be able to go to college and to get a good job. The end.

The idea that we, and people like us, could have expected “to live around a critical mass of people who are more affluent or worldly and thus see other things, be exposed to other practices and other cultures” is completely ridiculous, about two tics away from Eddie Murphy’s White Like Me clip. There were exactly two cultures visible to a child like me: the culture of white people, and the culture of black people. We shared a lot of things in common (like, well, school; there was one school, and we all attended it), but we were also quite different. In neither case did a child, black or white, see affluence and its culture. I suppose lower middle class looks affluent to someone who lives on welfare, but the point is, a white kid raised in West Feliciana in the 1970s and early 1980s had little or no intellectual culture of the sort that TNC imagines. The highest goal you aspired to was to attend LSU. Almost nobody thought of the Ivy League. When a friend of mine got into Brown, I was astonished that she had even thought to apply.

As longtime readers know, my late sister and I had a long-running feud in which she patrolled the borders of our relationship, looking for signs of my putting on airs. If she were here today, and I told her that I was going to French camp at Middlebury for two months, I would never hear the end of it. If she were here to see that I was headed to Italy to research Dante next month, I would feel the scornful lash. Just last night I told my dad about my planned trip, and about the book I’m writing about Dante. He was polite about it, but I could tell he was thinking, “More of the same bullshit from that boy.”

All of which to say is that TNC imagining that white people get exposed to a wider range of cultures, including intellectual and academically-inclined cultures, simply by virtue of being white, is the kind of thing believed by someone whose primary experience of white people is working at the offices of The Atlantic, and hanging out with the kind of white people who read The Atlantic. I remember the first time I was ever exposed to that world. It was the fall semester of 1988, and I was doing an internship in DC for a political consultant, through the LSU Journalism School. I spent that fall a nervous wreck, constantly aware of all I lacked. The young people I encountered all seemed so much smarter and worldlier than I was. I remember being invited to an after-work party of some sort at Eastern Market, on Capitol Hill; it was a big mixer for young Democratic types (as I was then). It took everything I had to walk up to the entrance, but I lingered there watching people my age go in, and just … couldn’t. I turned and walked back home, and felt my shame and cowardice. Almost 30 years later, I sit here at my breakfast table with my stomach knotting up, recalling it. I thought everybody I saw was smarter than me and better than me, and that it was all so bloody obvious. I could never be like them. Never.

I eventually grew up. Years later — only five years later — I was living on Capitol Hill working as a reporter, and feeling right at home. I remember the first time I walked past Eastern Market as a Hill resident, feeling the vast difference between that time and the time before. The main difference was in my attitude. Somehow, I realized that most of the people my age that I met and socialized with were more or less like me. True, some had come from privilege, and gone to excellent schools, and moved more fluidly in the world of politics and academia than I did. But this was my world too. I had to do more to get caught up with young people who were acculturated to feel right at home in this world, but like so many other ambitious twentysomethings in DC, I did it.

My family back home didn’t care. I don’t say that in a mean or aggrieved way. It wasn’t that they were disdainful, exactly; it was simply that they couldn’t conceive of the world I had entered: why it was important to me, or why it was important at all. I may as well have been off trading in rugs in Samarkand, or something. I remember having my feelings hurt when I would go home for the holidays, and nobody asked me about my work. It would not have occurred to them to do so. That wasn’t their culture. I had stepped outside of it, and was on my own.

TNC writes of a moment of breakthrough at French camp:

In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn’t know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea.

I love it when he writes this way. He had another line, this one about his younger classmates, that I identified with: “And they loved all the things I so wanted to love, but had not made time to love—Baudelaire, Balzac, Rimbaud.” These are moments in his writing of such humanity, of how a love of art and literature forges a deep human connection. When TAC’s Noah Millman blogs about Shakespeare, I envy him in some ways, because he loves Shakespeare passionately, as I wish I did. But I have not made time to love Shakespeare. There are so many things I have not made time to love, and there is no one to blame for that but myself.

Then TNC goes on to draw some sort of black nationalist lesson from his summer at French camp, culminating in this line: “Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.” OK. Whatever. Reparations scholarships to Middlebury for all!

I snark, but honestly, the idea that the enormous privilege of spending a summer studying a foreign language at a verdant Vermont college should conclude with a resolution to become even more of a militant race man is depressing. Exactly whose house will TNC be burning down as a result of the tools he acquired this summer at Middlebury? François Hollande’s? I don’t get it. I seriously don’t. Seems to me that learning French as a middle-aged American can only do one worthwhile thing: make you more of a humanist. TNC thinks it has done that for him, I guess. Recalling his past self, he writes:

I saw no reason to learn French because it was the language of the plunderers of Haiti.

I had to be a nationalist before I could be a humanist.

What does that mean? That he had to learn to love his people before he could love all the world? I guess I understand that, but if a rural white Southerner had the same thought, what would TNC think of him? I know good and well what the overclass that TNC spent his summer with would think of that Southern kid.

Anyway, it seems that TNC is, in fact, learning French because it was the language of the plunderers of Haiti. I don’t know how else to read his conclusion, referencing Audre Lorde’s line, that the meaning of his summer spent immersed in the language of Baudelaire, Racine, and Rimbaud is to be found in how it empowers him to resist white supremacy. That does not sound like power to me. That sounds like impoverishment.

He is part of the Establishment now. He writes for a well-respected national magazine, about things he enjoys. He takes summers to go to language camp to learn French. That’s great! Why is he such a sore winner? Feeling guilty about one’s privilege doesn’t mitigate it. I suspect this all has to do with the way he felt walking across the Luxembourg Gardens on his first time in Paris:

I felt myself as horrifyingly singular there. A language is more than grammar and words, is the movement of The People, their sense of appropriate laughter, their very conception of space. In Paris the public space was a backyard for The People and The People’s language was not mine.  Even if I learned the grammar and vocab so part of it must be off-limits to me.  it could never really be “mine.” I had a native language of my own. I felt like a distant friend crashing a family reunion. Except the family was this entire sector of the city. I could feel their nameless, invisible bonds all around me, tripping my every step.

I was no more a part of French culture than TNC, and understood the French language not much better than he did. Yet I felt liberated by the pleasure of feeling singular there in the Luxembourg Gardens, in a foreign place, in a place that never would be mine, but didn’t have to be for me to experience joy in it. He reminds me of the 18-year-old me that felt shame approaching the doorway to Eastern Market.



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