The Moral Imagination of Ta-Nehisi Coates

It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extract organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me, 2015.

The publishing sensation of the summer of 2015 was undoubtedly the Atlantic Monthly’s National Correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me

And rightly so – written as it is in the context of a spate of police killings of African-American children, teenagers and adult men in the USA in recent years – killings which have put all the euphoric, utopian and quite frankly ridiculous liberal illusions about the USA at the trick of a moment having turned ‘post-racial’ with the election of Barack Obama as the USA’s first black president in 2008 to a much needed reality check. There are already any number of analyses and reviews of Coates’ brilliant little book out there, so I will here limit myself to some short personal reflections about the book.

By way of an initial admission, I, like many other of his readers outside the USA I suspect, I first discovered Coates upon reading his extended 2014 essay The Case For Reparations in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly. With its compelling punchline – “two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole” – that essay made me aware of a writer with an exceptional talent for combining analyses of the longue dureé of US history with an acute awareness of the state of the present in a persuasive and poetic language. At the time that I discovered Coates’ writing, I had for quite some time been working on the drafts and revisions of a short introduction to racism co-authored with my Norwegian colleague Cora Alexa Døving and published in Norwegian in early 2015.

Working on that manuscript had, by way of what was mainly a detour I pursued out of personal interest, sent me back to the classics of African-American literature: Frederick Douglass’ (1818-95) Narrative Of The Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) , Solomon Northrup’s (1808-63) Twelve Years A Slave (1863) , W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) , Ralph Ellison’s (1914-94) Invisible Man (1952), and James Baldwin’s (1924-87) The Fire Next Time (1963). I also read Gary Younge’s fine The Speech (2013)  about the background to Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 March on Washington speech I Have A Dream (which still makes me emotional whenever I watch it), James M. Washington’s 1986 edited collection of King Jr’s speeches A Testament of Hope, David Levering Lewis’ outstanding biographies of King Jr. and Du Bois’, the late Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, as well as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Lines of Descent: W. E. B. Du Bois And The Emergence of Identity, and David Bryon Davis’ The Problem of Slavery in the Age of EmancipationNow, it has increasingly become clear in recent years that even if Norwegians generally like to imagine themselves as exceptional and virtuous when it comes to racism and discrimination, to such an extent that they have historically in Norwegian social imaginaries been conceived of as something happening elsewhere but not here (typically in segregation-era USA or apartheid South Africa) and that racism has long been among the most taboo terms in intellectual and public life in Norway, these phenomena also mark and darken the lives of many Norwegians of immigrant and/or minority background. Especially so, in its garden party varieties, since most Norwegians prefer sublety over in-your-faceness.  In my youth, I lived the paradox of growing up in communities which were almost exclusively white and Norwegian, whilst paying more attention than most of my peers (I assume) to the history of the civil rights struggle in the USA and the struggle against apartheid than what was going on around me. This was still a relatively innocent time, years before intellectuals in Norway who insisted that all men and women are created equal and are entitled to equal rights to life and dignity were met by the European far-right’s new obfuscatory charges of engaging in ‘moralism’. And so the greatest heroes of my youth were Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson R. Mandela. My ethnographic research in Cape Town, South Africa, among coloured Muslims who had in many cases grown up under apartheid was crucial in providing me with an insight into what structural racism is and what it does to the lives of individual men and women living under it. And I think it was here I first discovered the very real and tangible limits of a Christianized message of redemption through forgiveness and reconciliation, messages which King Jr. and Mandela had to variable degrees (King Jr. throughout his life, Mandela after his prison conversion from anti-apartheid militancy) lived by. These are the limits to which Coates repeatedly gestures in his book. And in his declared atheism, Coates is arguably unusual:

“I could not retreat, as did so many, into the church and its mysteries. My parents rejected all dogmas. We spurned the holidays marketed by people who wanted to be white. We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God…[…]…My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent towards chaos then concluded in a box”, writes Coates on page 28 of Between The World And Me. And it is of course Ta-Nehisi’s father, the former Vietnam veteran turned Black Panther activist turned dogged archivist-librarian and publisher of rare Afro-Americana, William Paul Coates – appropriately but slightly mockingly described as ‘Conscious Man’ in Ta-Nehisi Coates debut memoir from 2008  – which hovers in the background here. But let us remind ourselves – not all that unusual after all: The immediate inspiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son Samora in Between The World And Me is after all James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew James upon the centenary of emancipation from slavery in 1963, first published as the essay ‘My Dungeon Shook’ and later included in Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Unlike Coates, Baldwin was raised as a man of God, to the extent of becoming a much loved preacher in his father’s church in Harlem as a teenager, before developing a religious crisis at the precocious age of fourteen. Here is Baldwin: “And if one despairs – as who has not? – of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God – and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly – is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far?” (Baldwin 1963, page 34).  His son’s views of this is rather unsurprisingly also linked to the question of black responses to racist violence inflicted on black bodies – now as in the past. For when the white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down eight black worshippers and their pastor in cold blood at one of the oldest Baptist churches in Charleston, South Carolina in June this year, the liberal conservative media in the USA and in Europe wasted no time in waxing lyrical over the bereaved relatives following what they no doubt saw as the Biblical script by offering their forgiveness to the murderer of their nearest and dearest ones in Roof’s first court appearance.

Now these relatives and others have every right to make their own choices, but there is something which strikes one as too facile and one-sided in such acts and declarations of forgiveness. Which is more or less what ordinary South African township dwellers seemed to be telling me when they declared to the starry-eyed and enthusiastic foreign anthropologist that Reverend Desmond Tutu’s internationally sacralized Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) then making international headlines with images of apartheid torturers and assassins embracing the mothers and daughters of anti-apartheid activists they had murdered as ‘only politics’. This view, far more common among ordinary black South Africans who had lived and suffered under the racism and the indignities of apartheid than what international news media and a great deal of academic scholarship on the TRC was willing to let on (with a  monograph by the anthropologist Richard Ashby Wilson being an outstanding exception, may have been slightly reductionist (in that the TRC was also about creating an historical record of apartheid’s myriad brutalities) and could hardly be said to have offered a real political alternative under the conditions that prevailed in the transition from apartheid to a still-to-be-born democracy in South Africa. But through my years in South Africa and through my work in the ‘zones of neo-liberal exclusion’ in townships and informal settlements in post-apartheid South Africa, where the shadows of the damages done by apartheid still lingers on, I came to understand all too well where that view came from. And I came to secretly and guardedly admire the principled stance taken by the relatives of the slain anti-apartheid and Black Consciousness icon Steven Bantu Biko (1946-1977), slowly tortured and starved to death by apartheid security police officers in a prison cell in Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape in 1977.

For by refusing to take part in the TRC process, these relatives had undoubtedly made themselves marginal to the Christianized national narrative of redemption through reconciliation that was meant to be created in and through the TRC. But they had asserted a principle that seems no less important to assert today as in the past. Namely that forgiveness in the absence of a real reckoning and real contrition on the part of racist perpetrators is virtually meaningless; that ‘black lives matter’; and that black lives are as precious as any other human lives. And Ta-Nehisi Coates is rightly critical of his teachers at the time of his coming of age in Baltimore, for their offering of what he characterizes as “ritual review[s] of the Civil Rights Movement”, by virtue of which he and his classmates spent every February’s Black History Month with its “series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera” (page 32). And he goes on to assert the obvious: “Why were only our heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of non-violence, but of the sense that blacks are in special need of this morality” (ibid., emphases mine). And he writes of his young self being drawn, like his father once was, to Malcolm X, who “spoke like a man who was free, like a black man above the laws that proscribed our imaginations.” (page 36). For “Malcolm made sense to me not out of a love of violence but because nothing in my life prepared me to understand tear gas as deliverance, as those Black History Month martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement did” (page 95). And he writes this, as an Afro-American man from West Baltimore, who by his own admission was ‘despised’ among his teenage peers for ‘not wanting to fight’ (Coates 2008, page 48), and whose father, for all his revolutionary fervor, was according to him ‘not a violent man’ (Coates 2008, page 65) – except when it came to his sons who would be subjected to beatings with a leather belt if their father thought they had erred. Traces of Baldwin again: “…[…]…There is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more far-seeing than whites; indeed, quite the contrary” (Baldwin 1963, page 55). For all its historical significance – which should not and can not be denied – the election of Barack Obama was – as indicated in David Remnick’s masterful biography The Bridge premised on the unwritten contract between a black liberal technocrat with elite background and a population wanting to believe, despite much available evidence, that the USA had ‘moved on’ from ‘race’ and its trappings. And the fulfillment of that contract has as we now know depended on Obama never reacting with anger, rage or despair at white US police officers or white supremacists killing young black men and women with impunity. For carefully scripted, choreographed and churched versions of Amazing Grace are, however moving, the limits to which that unwritten contract allows one to venture.

The black men in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle and Between The World And Me are fearful men, whether they appear as young boys in his childhood West Baltimore dressing up in ‘gangsta’ style, his own father beating him with a belt, or himself as a father writing to his teenage son about the predicament he is in as a young black teenager in the USA who could under given circumstances potentially be killed by police on account merely of the colour of his skin, and regardless of his privileged social background. And the statistics continue to bear this fear out.

The fear of black fathers for their children is of course a classical theme in African-American literature. Recall here, W. E. B. Du Bois’ ‘Of The Passing Of The First Born’ in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in which he mourns the passing of his son Burghardt in Atlanta, Georgia in 1899, whose death at the tender age of two, from an untreated dyptheria, had more than a little to do with the fact that Southern white doctors in the era of segregation and lynching refused to treat black patients: “Well sped, my boy, before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow. Better far this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you.” And here is Baldwin writing in 1963 again: “The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it, was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house. It was another fear, a fear that the child, in challenging the white world’s assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction” (Baldwin 1963, page 31). The black men in Coates’ world are not the ‘invisible men’ of Ellisonian legend, but rather hypervisible in all the fears they generate and all the fears they inhabit.

“How does it feel to be a problem?” runs the perhaps most famous line in W.E.B Du Bois’ classical The Souls of Black Folk from 1903. Now, my native Norway in most respects presents a completely different world from the many worlds found in the USA. Not the least when it comes to violent crime and police killings – of which there is both remarkably little, thanks to the limited availability of guns in Norway and the fact that Norwegian police until last year did not carry arms. But this much is similar: In Norway, as in the USA, most white citizens either cannot or simply do not want to know how it feels to be a problem. And consequently, we are told over and over again that racism in Norway simply does not exist, by almost inevitably and always all white debating panels

which all too often take it upon themselves to define for those absent-affected by actual racism and discrimination how racism is to be understood and delimited. One of the greater achievements of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book is precisely to render this how it feels to be a problem and the fears it generates among those deemed to so be imaginable to all readers. To look, to feel and to listen: The South African poet Antjie Krog puts it eloquently in her remarkable 2009 book There Was This Goat : “We also listen to stories in order to become, for one brief moment, somebody else, to be somewhere we’ve not been before” (Krog 2009, page 19).

 In some of the more interesting reviews of Between The World And Me, Coates has been criticized for rendering the fears of black American women more or less invisible. And true enough, this is a book written by a male author and narrator, and women, when they appear as repositories of meaning, mainly appear as sources of love and affection for and mourning over fearful or dead black males.

But in a sense this criticism strikes me as being a bit beside the point, in that it is this book Coates has wanted to write and not that other book. A more serious criticism, I think would be to think about the ways in which Coates refuses to take heed of the linking of black struggles in the USA with black struggles elsewhere which W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Malcolm X all represented. It is in a sense a very American book written by a very American writer that Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, and this – it seems to me – risks playing into the classical theme of US exceptionalism. For to the extent that Coates reflect upon the world outside the USA at all, it is in the form of a small detour to France and the charms of living in Paris, which he after all finds so alien as to be uninhabitable. A reflection here, I suppose of Coates’ distaste for the ‘be black and be proud’ racial essentialisms and ‘back to Africa’ memes of his father’s generation, the histrionic consequences of which are so ably parodied in The Beautiful Struggle.

I must admit that one of many reasons why Coates’ Between The World And Me appeals so strongly to me is its refusal of any racial essentialism. For Coates as for me, ‘race’ is what comes after racism, not antecedent to it. Here, Coates part ways not only with W. E. B. Du Bois, but also, it seems, with his father. Without asserting this openly and candidly, on the issue of ‘race’, he does perhaps come closest to the liberal position articulated over the past decades by Prof Kwame Anthony Appiah, for whom ‘race’ is essentially nothing more than a social construct, albeit it with very real and tangible consequences. Here is how Coates phrases it in a key passage: “There was nothing holy or particular in my skin; I was black because of history and heritage. There was no nobility in falling, in being bound, in living oppressed, and there was no inherent meaning in black blood. Black blood wasn’t black; black skin wasn’t even black” (Coates 2015, page 55). Critics have charged that Coates’ Between The World And Me offers way too little in terms of prescriptions for a future politics for black Americans.

And granted, one may in the light of precisely what followed after the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1950s and 60s with David Levering Lewis have doubts as to whether a politics of ‘transcending race’ has much to offer for the future.

As for me, as long as it is as good as the one on offer from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ in Between The World And Me, a cry of rage, a note of protest, and a counsel of despair will suffice for now. Even if it makes it seem as if that promised land which Martin Luther King Jr. held out in his last speech before he was murdered on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee many years ago seem further off than ever. And even if it can not in and of itself make us whole.





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