Revisiting “Between the World and Me”

And have brought humanity to the edge of

oblivion: because they think they are white.

–James Baldwin

[This was first posted in 2015, but the current social climate has persuaded me to re-post this, and perhaps some other pertinent posts, as a response to what I hear out there.]

In his 1984 essay “On Being ‘White’… and Other Lies,”* James Baldwin laid the creation of the racist society that threatens our very existence at the feet of those waves of European immigrants who left behind their separate national/cultural identities to come to “America” and become white.

In his new work Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates picks up where Baldwin left off, explicating the idea, describing in heart-breaking personal detail this deeply rooted cancer, and painting a richly textured vision of what it’s like growing up black in America today, the America of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Written as a letter to his adolescent son, this book pierces to the heart of the moral bankruptcy that is being revealed in greater detail with each passing news cycle.

To say this book is profound, deep, pivotal is almost understatement. This book is a samurai sword cutting off the head of the monster that has arisen from the festering evil pit of “white supremacy”. It makes as clear as seems possible exactly how and why this situation has come to pass, exactly how horrendous it is, and lays out a vision of what just possibly could be a way through to a future for humanity.

Coates articulates so clearly the perspective, the experience, the human tragedy of Black America that it seems to me that anyone who reads this book would experience at least a crack in the armor of hate and apathy that perpetuates this evil situation. He allows one to get inside – as nearly as possible via the writers’ craft – how it feels, the fear and insecurity, the anger and loathing that permeate our streets. With the added dimension of the father’s deep sadness and fear for his son, that most deeply human quality of love and instinct for protection, he buries his message deep in the heart.

Tony Morrison says this book is “required reading” and that Coates fills the intellectual void left when Baldwin died nearly 30 years ago. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I believe it could open the hearts and minds of even the most mean-spirited, small-minded, low-life racists and haters, and if it could truly become required reading for our next generation, we might have a chance.

As you feel Coates’ love for his child, this so-familiar human emotion, his deep humanity comes through, and you understand in this deeply visceral way that his color, his appearance, his “race” is such a small and superficial aspect of who he is that one can only see, however dimly, what an absurd notion is “race.”

But this book goes far beyond debunking racism, far beyond a simple diatribe on the evils of racist white society. It provides a deeply honest inquiry into what it takes for one man to be free, a lyric anthem to the meaning of the struggle, and a truly profound vision of humanity at its heart.

Coates also makes it clear that the black people of America are not the sole victims of the flawed vision of life, which he calls The Dream, but that this habit of thought, this conception of the human role on the earth is creating a violent, authoritarian nightmare that is laying waste the people of the earth and the Earth itself.

“The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands.” [p. 98]

“The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”[p. 111]

“Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of human beings but the body of the Earth itself.” [p. 150]

Coates’ vision for a transcendent future is not an overly hopeful one. But it likely is the best we have. “I do not believe we can stop them,” he says of The Dreamers, the “white” power elite who are destroying black people and the world. He goes on, speaking to his son, Samori, who is named for the late 19th century Guinean who resisted the French colonial powers:

“…because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”

If we who call ourselves white can step off this stage, shed this absurd notion of whiteness, abandon the destructive pursuits of the ill-conceived ‘dream’, and learn to struggle, to find the meaning in the struggle alongside those who have suffered so much and know its lessons, then perhaps there’s some light at the end of that long dark tunnel we’ve made. Perhaps we’ll find our way together to a new story that includes everyone and everything.

[*For a PDF of Baldwin’s essay, visit Collective Liberation]

http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Baldwin_On_Being_White.pdf

Ta Nehisi… again

Ta-Nehisi Coates may be the best social analyst and writer currently working in the American press. I am once again astounded at the clarity and honesty he brings to bear on the Obama presidency in his recent — long! — article in The Atlantic, My President Was Black.

Witness this passage, in which he says Obama’s speech to the DNC in 2004 belongs to:

… the literature of prospective presidents—men (as it turns out) who speak not to gravity and reality, but to aspirations and dreams. When Lincoln invoked the dream of a nation “conceived in liberty” and pledged to the ideal that “all men are created equal,” he erased the near-extermination of one people and the enslavement of another. When Roosevelt told the country that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he invoked the dream of American omnipotence and boundless capability. But black people, then living under a campaign of terror for more than half a century, had quite a bit to fear, and Roosevelt could not save them. The dream Ronald Reagan invoked in 1984—that “it’s morning again in America”—meant nothing to the inner cities, besieged as they were by decades of redlining policies, not to mention crack and Saturday-night specials. Likewise, Obama’s keynote address conflated the slave and the nation of immigrants who profited from him. To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased.

While one might expect Coates to engage in apologetics for Obama, it doesn’t happen. Though he is honest in his baseline admiration for the man and the work he’s done, he steadfastly holds the Presidential feet to the flame:

Obama’s greatest misstep was born directly out of his greatest insight. Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.

These excerpts, though disconnected and probably disorganized, serve to show the remarkable depth of analysis and penetrating gaze that Coates brings to the subject. He also unfailingly puts it all into a social/economic context that makes it both understandable and sad. And he is unflinching in calling out the deep-seated racism in American history and society.

The mark of that system is visible at every level of American society, regardless of the quality of one’s choices. For instance, the unemployment rate among black college graduates (4.1 percent) is almost the same as the unemployment rate among white high-school graduates (4.6 percent). But that college degree is generally purchased at a higher price by blacks than by whites. According to research by the Brookings Institution, African Americans tend to carry more student debt four years after graduation ($53,000 versus $28,000) and suffer from a higher default rate on their loans (7.6 percent versus 2.4 percent) than white Americans. This is both the result and the perpetuator of a sprawling wealth gap between the races. White households, on average, hold seven times as much wealth as black households—a difference so large as to make comparing the “black middle class” and “white middle class” meaningless; they’re simply not comparable. According to Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University who studies economic mobility, black families making $100,000 a year or more live in more-disadvantaged neighborhoods than white families making less than $30,000. This gap didn’t just appear by magic; it’s the result of the government’s effort over many decades to create a pigmentocracy—one that will continue without explicit intervention.

……

When I asked Obama about this perspective, he fluctuated between understanding where the activists were coming from and being hurt by such brush-offs. “I think that where I’ve gotten frustrated during the course of my presidency has never been because I was getting pushed too hard by activists to see the justness of a cause or the essence of an issue,” he said. “I think where I got frustrated at times was the belief that the president can do anything if he just decides he wants to do it. And that sort of lack of awareness on the part of an activist about the constraints of our political system and the constraints on this office, I think, sometimes would leave me to mutter under my breath. Very rarely did I lose it publicly. Usually I’d just smile.”

He laughed, then continued, “The reason I say that is because those are the times where sometimes you feel actually a little bit hurt. Because you feel like saying to these folks, ‘[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it? Do you think that the only problem is that I don’t care enough about the plight of poor people, or gay people?’ ”

……

The thought experiment doesn’t hold up. The programs Obama favored would advance white America too—and without a specific commitment to equality, there is no guarantee that the programs would eschew discrimination. Obama’s solution relies on a goodwill that his own personal history tells him exists in the larger country. My own history tells me something different. The large numbers of black men in jail, for instance, are not just the result of poor policy, but of not seeing those men as human.

The most recent Congress boasted 138 members from the states that comprised the old Confederacy. Of the 101 Republicans in that group, 96 are white and one is black. Of the 37 Democrats, 18 are black and 15 are white. There are no white congressional Democrats in the Deep South. Exit polls in Mississippi in 2008 found that 96 percent of voters who described themselves as Republicans were white. The Republican Party is not simply the party of whites, but the preferred party of whites who identify their interest as defending the historical privileges of whiteness.

…..

One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.

I encourage everyone to read this wonderful piece of journalism.

I liked the article so much, I subscribed to The Atlantic. And sent them a letter saying I did it because I liked the article. Hope they appreciate it!  🙂

Coal Karma

There is a certain degree of karmic fruiting involved in the whole threat of toxic coal ash dumping in this little southern community.

I say this with trepidation and apologies to friends and neighbors involved, as I don’t mean to make light of the threat or the struggle to prevent it, but only to put it in the larger context. And certainly I’m not saying it in the sense that this county, this community, has done something to specifically deserve this fate. (Though our leaders could have been more astute!)

No, the choice of spots to dump on is pretty random in the rolling engine of destruction, the Leviathan that is big-coal/big-utility/big-disposal.

In the bigger picture, however, the cultural context of late-stage capitalism in the U.S., we all have brought this on ourselves, gorging ourselves on the material world without thought of the consequences for the past several centuries. In a capitalist system ruled by profit, if we want cheap energy for the vast array of “labor-saving devices”, entertainment, recreation, travel, business – and all in air-conditioned comfort – then we must burn coal, split atoms, dam rivers, drill and mine. All those things that are insult to the Earth and anathema to life.

Why have we done this?

As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in his recent work Between the World and Me, [see my post], the same mentality that created and perpetuated the plunder of colonialism, slavery, and racism is behind our current ecological crisis:

Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of human beings but the body of the Earth itself.” [p. 150]

In another post, I noted:

Both [Coates and James Baldwin] maintain that the same forces that have driven black people into slavery have created the degraded forms of life now ruling the ghettos and the suburbs alike, and promise to destroy all that is lovable in human life as well as threaten the very biosphere – at least the parts of it that we depend on. Baldwin sees our only salvation in “transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.” [p. 81]

So this threat of toxic destruction looming over small rural communities throughout the southern U.S. could be seen as the ultimate karmic retribution for our sins of racism, consumerism, plunder.

I believe that only as we can rise above these past divisions and join together will we be able to avoid this immediate threat and the long-term threat our way of life poses to life on the planet.

Related posts:

https://shunyatasapprentice.com/2015/09/30/the-fire-next-time/

https://shunyatasapprentice.com/2015/09/18/as-though-she-were-normal/

https://shunyatasapprentice.com/2015/09/29/on-between-the-world-and-me/

Baldwin!

Damn!

Don’t know how I went so long without reading Baldwin’s fiction.

My recent look into his essays, sparked by reading Ta-Nehesi Coates’ wonderful Between the World and Me, led me to read Go Tell it on the Mountain.

What a mind-blowing novel! His characters and the intricately woven, powerful story are so captivating, and the whole impact of it just so devastating, that I don’t know why he’s not more popular. Wait. He’s a gay black guy who wrote in the 50’s. Maybe that explains it.

With such a sympathetic telling of the story of these “sanctified” (and otherwise) black people in early 20th century America that you’d swear he was one of them, rather than a lapsed saint who left the church after a spectacular beginning as a young preacher, Baldwin manages to reveal more of the psychology and sociology behind that world than could be explained in a raft of doctoral thesis papers.

Like much great literature, it manages to capture in its art many of our hard-won understandings from the patient study and analysis in the social sciences.

I’m sure he must be prominent in literature classes, as his mastery of prose is so magnificent and his finely crafted language carries multiple levels of sub-text.

He has an impeccable ear for the dialect, and I find myself carried back to my days in the Southern Baptist environment in which I grew up. Many of the phrases and the cadence of the language reflect what I heard in my youth here in the South.

But it’s the fascinating insight into the psychological and sociological realities underlying the practice of this ecstatic version of Christianity that make this book so truly astounding. With some of the most imaginative writing I’ve ever read, Baldwin carries us deep inside the psycho-sexual fantasies with which conversion experiences, “slain in the spirit” swoons, sermons and other church goings-on are richly imbued.

Though there are a few characters who stand back looking askance at all this tom-foolery, for the most part, Baldwin tells the story lovingly and uncritically – though below the surface, the implications are clear.

Of course, though also done with a light touch absent any bitterness, there is a strong social story showing the effects on the characters of the black diaspora, of the racism that pervades their lives both south and north, and the desperate lives to which so many were driven.

In addition, you see clearly the role of the church and the Christian teachings in supporting these people caught in truly abysmal social and economic circumstances – as well as their exploitation by those in seats of power.

It is a truly astounding little novel, and I highly recommend it as holiday reading! I plan to continue through his early novels and short stories in the Library of America collection I have, so I’ll share reactions to others as I feel led by the Lord… wait, as I feel motivated!

The Fire Next Time

That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and control my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me…

–James Baldwin

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me – about which I blogged earlier this week – sent me back to reread James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which I had not read since 1999. And there, on page 27, is the quote above with its unattributed reference to the same line from Richard Wright which gave Coates his title.

Wright’s poem of the same name, from White Man Listen! (1957), says:

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing,

Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms

And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me….

These lines have drawn me in to the many points of similarity in the two writers, and especially reminded me of how much power and depth there is in James Baldwin.

Coates has drawn much inspiration from Baldwin, and seems poised to fill Baldwin’s role as a leading intellectual and articulate voice for the inchoate rage now welling up among Black Americans and their friends. Coates and Baldwin both reject the church, the street, the schools, and all other forms of escape and denial as beneath us, distractions from the worthy goals of freedom and dignity.

Both maintain that the same forces that have driven black people into slavery have created the degraded forms of life now ruling the ghettos and the suburbs alike, and promise to destroy all that is lovable in human life as well as threaten the very biosphere – at least the parts of it that we depend on. Baldwin sees our only salvation in “transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.” [p. 81]

In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin lays down the philosophical basis that informs much of Coates work, the idea that white people – or people who “think they are white” as he says in the essay “On Being White… And Other Lies” – are harmed as much by racism as are black people, and that it is in order to maintain their very grasp on reality, their sense of themselves, that white people today cling to racism so tenaciously.

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed. [p. 21]

Baldwin is profound in his understanding of the realities of life, and warns against retribution: “I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know – we see it around us every day – the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”

His deep spiritual understanding of life is reflected also in these incredibly beautiful, perceptive and sensitive lines:

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. [p. 90-91]

He doesn’t shrink from the horrors of the American system or the cruelty of the situation, but he finds, as does Coates, some light of hope for our future. “…the white man himself is in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks – the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. … In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women.”

On “Between the World and Me”

And have brought humanity to the edge of

oblivion: because they think they are white.

–James Baldwin

In his 1984 essay “On Being ‘White’… and Other Lies*”, James Baldwin laid the creation of the racist society that threatens our very existence at the feet of those waves of European immigrants who left behind their separate national/cultural identities to come to “America” and become white.

In his new work Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates picks up where Baldwin left off, explicating the idea, describing in heart-breaking personal detail this deeply rooted cancer, and painting a richly textured vision of what it’s like growing up black in America today, the America of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Written as a letter to his adolescent son, this book pierces to the heart of the moral bankruptcy that is being revealed in greater detail with each passing news cycle.

To say this book is profound, deep, pivotal is almost understatement. This book is a samurai sword cutting off the head of the monster that has arisen from the festering evil pit of “white supremacy”. It makes as clear as seems possible exactly how and why this situation has come to pass, exactly how horrendous it is, and lays out a vision of what just possibly could be a way through to a future for humanity.

Coates articulates so clearly the perspective, the experience, the human tragedy of Black America that it seems to me that anyone who reads this book would experience at least a crack in the armor of hate and apathy that perpetuates this evil situation. He allows one to get inside – as nearly as possible via the writers’ craft – how it feels, the fear and insecurity, the anger and loathing that permeate our streets. With the added dimension of the father’s deep sadness and fear for his son, that most deeply human quality of love and instinct for protection, he buries his message deep in the heart.

Tony Morrison says this book is “required reading” and that Coates fills the intellectual void left when Baldwin died nearly 30 years ago. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I believe it could open the hearts and minds of even the most mean-spirited, small-minded, low-life racists and haters, and if it could truly become required reading for our next generation, we might have a chance.

As you feel Coates’ love for his child, this so-familiar human emotion, his deep humanity comes through, and you understand in this deeply visceral way that his color, his appearance, his “race” is such a small and superficial aspect of who he is that one can only see, however dimly, what an absurd notion is “race.”

But this book goes far beyond debunking racism, far beyond a simple diatribe on the evils of racist white society. It provides a deeply honest inquiry into what it takes for one man to be free, a lyric anthem to the meaning of the struggle, and a truly profound vision of humanity at its heart.

Coates also makes it clear that the black people of America are not the sole victims of the flawed vision of life, which he calls The Dream, but that this habit of thought, this conception of the human role on the earth is creating a violent, authoritarian nightmare that is laying waste the people of the earth and the Earth itself.

“The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands.” [p. 98]

“The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”[p. 111]

“Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of human beings but the body of the Earth itself.” [p. 150]

Coates’ vision for a transcendent future is not an overly hopeful one. But it likely is the best we have. “I do not believe we can stop them,” he says of The Dreamers, the “white” power elite who are destroying black people and the world. He goes on, speaking to his son, Samori, who is named for the late 19th century Guinean who resisted the French colonial powers:

“…because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”

If we who call ourselves white can step off this stage, shed this absurd notion of whiteness, abandon the destructive pursuits of the ill-conceived ‘dream’, and learn to struggle, to find the meaning in the struggle alongside those who have suffered so much and know its lessons, then perhaps there’s some light at the end of that long dark tunnel we’ve made. Perhaps we’ll find our way together to a new story that includes everyone and everything.

[*For a PDF of Baldwin’s essay, visit Collective Liberation]

http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Baldwin_On_Being_White.pdf

As though she were normal…

Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son recounting his early life experiences, is breaking my heart. This passage has left me shattered, breathing in labored snatches:

I fell again… for another girl, tall with long flowing dreadlocks. She was raised by a Jewish mother in a small, nearly all-white town in Pennsylvania, and now, at Howard, ranged between women and men, asserted this not just with pride but as though it were normal, as though she were normal. I know it’s nothing to you now, but I was from a place — America — where cruelty toward humans who loved as their deepest instincts instructed was a kind of law.

A wonderful book, and one I hope to share more of here…