Sunday, July 5, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates is Working at the Height of His Powers in His New Essay 'Letter to My Son'

This image of a conquering, imperialistic, American kaiju or Elephantmen seemed an appropriate accompaniment.

At present, Ta-Nehisi Coates is working at the height of his powers. He is Macho Man versus Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat at Wrestlemania 3.

When I grow up I want to be able to write like Coates does in his new long-form essay "Letter to My Son" which is now up at the Atlantic:

An excerpt:

"Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.

There is nothing extreme in this statement. Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. This defiance is not to be much dwelled upon. Democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are specimens of sin, so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune.

In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational. At the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean.

In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. As for now, it must be said that 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."

Damn. Please do take your time to read the whole essay. It is lethal verbage and conjuring from the awesome Ta-Nehisi Coates.


joe manning said...

That bird of prey armed to the teeth is the appropriate American birthday symbol. What is the nature of such a propaganda machine that was able to turn the 60's peace movement into a bunch of war mongers?

Its a heavy burden to have to explain to your kid that he/she is subject to endangerment by custom and by law. The NFL player Adrian Paterson comes to mind. He was indited for child abuse for hitting his child with a switch. But its like Coates' father said you either beat him now or have the cops beat him later.

chauncey devega said...

A very creative propaganda machine. No comment on beating kids with pieces of trees from me. Peterson's upbringing and life skills could benefit from some counseling and better training. But the idea of unfortunately having to punish black kids to the extreme to protect them from a racist society still holds.

James Scaminaci III, PhD said...

His essay is a perspective on life, as an individual, as a race, that white people do not see and many will not understand.

As I read the essay, a musical refrain came into my head, not knowing where it came from or why. It was Dylan's and Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower." "There must be some way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief....So let us stop talking falsely now, the hour's getting late."

With all political issues the question arises, what is to be done?

Coates suggests the answer is that "I would like to tell you that such a day approaches when
the people who believe themselves to be white, renounce this demon
religion, and began to think of themselves as human. But I can see no
real promise of such a day. We are captured, brother, surrounded by the
majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only
home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an
escape on our own."

As you have written, this is a struggle between those who see themselves as human (Black and white) and those who see themselves as white, or, as not traitors to their race.

As I move back and forth between the roles of writer and activist, I see how really tough it is to challenge this "demon religion." On just the symbolic level, removing the Confederate "stars and bars" (not the battle flag) from county buildings and lands is a real battle. There is layer upon layer of myths all designed to hide the most barbaric reality of white supremacy and slavery.

Not all white people here in Pensacola have bought into this, though given the high percentage of Republican and conservative Christians, most or many do--especially the color-blind version of racism. And, as we've seen with the example of Paul Thurmond, not all whites who have a Confederate and segregationist background are fully invested in this white supremacy.

But, immediately after this issue was reignited at the local level by our only Black county commissioner who wanted the county board to pass an ordinance permanently banning all Confederate flags, the usual suspects of white people went to Graffiti Bridge in Pensacola and painted the Confederate flag on one side and the American flag on the other side. And, the Confederate flag was soon painted over. And then that was painted over in a counter-paint strike. One white woman who stood on a Confederate flag in the initial political demonstration against the flying of the flag received death threats and vile Facebook posts. And, like other places, the pick-up trucks drove around with Confederate flags waving in the breeze as they drove along the streets and highways.

And, we will try to make the ban permanent on Tuesday.

But removing this symbol of slavery and white supremacy, the twin values of the Confederacy, but in reality, the twin values of America since its colonial days, is only one percent of the problem. This "demon religion" has a powerful hold on the white consciousness here. Violence or the threat of violence is always just below the surface--directed at whites and Black folks.

What is to be done? I wish I knew. In the meantime, organizing, protesting, and challenging on the local level as best we can. In our tiny piece of territory, there is basically the young Black activists, the old-line civil rights organizations, and the Democratic Party, with a smattering of Black preachers. But community mobilization? For ordinary folks, politics is a spectator sport which barely elicits the urge to vote.

Gable1111 said...

Coates is definitely at the top of his game with the letter, a birthright to his son.

Whiteness has all the attributes of a religion. "Christianity" as practiced within that realm is but another attribute, as is "conservatism" and republicanism, along with others. I've noticed the structural, hierarchical nature of it playing out in passing ("its my turn!") which requires there be a lesser "other" to give it's perceived value to its worshipers.

It was that "religion" that caused Northerners who sacrificed hundreds of thousands of their own in bitter, hateful battles, to insist that these traitors were merely "brothers in0arms," reducing the war to a family feud and tolerating these traitorous flags and rewriting of history to cast them as "honorable."

joe manning said...

Yes, Peterson doesn't deserve any love. But the White right forces Blacks to use corporeal punishment to protect their children from them, and then when they do it they get prosecuted.

joe manning said...

We must get past the notion that war is intrinsically honorific.

Wild Cat said...

Not much I can add. A brilliant passage. I hope this small press Coates is working with can distribute and publicize the book properly. I'm especially heartened to see he has revisited the massacre and exploitation of African American bodies in Ferguson, clarifying what I found troubling in an earlier essay of his.

joe manning said...

Like C.Wright Mills says democracy is inoperable without an informed alert public.

Black Sci-Fi said...

Dear Chauncey,

I agree that everyone should have the desire to become better, if not the best, at what we do. For you that is being an equal wordsmith to Coates.

I disagree with your particular premise because you can't know, as I do, that YOUR contribution is equally valuable, voiced uniquely through your experience and aspirations, and more to the point, noble.

You, in your own way and in you OWN voice make meaningful contributions by being a herald of truth. You cover a lot of ground, bro.

Coates is great.
So are you.......

Gable1111 said...

Indeed, since that casts war itself as the end goal.

Gable1111 said...

Jefferson said that too, and I believe that is the root cause of why, effectively, we don't have a democracy anymore.

The excuse that people are "too busy" falls apart when you look at what they're busy with. It comes down to priorities and unfortunately society supports them being oriented towards anything other than understanding history and what's going on currently.

James Scaminaci III, PhD said...

Pensacola is located in Escambia County. Outside of the city, I am told, is very reactionary and rural. Even strange whites, I've been told, get watched closely in those communities. I've yet to venture outside of Pensacola. Pensacola has the naval base, some tech industries, and lots of tourism. The criminal element divides the Black community between east versus west. The white ministers appear to be strong Baptists. Only a smattering, a handful, of Black ministers are politically involved. There is a progressive white community and a pretty strong LGBTQ community. I will see more Tuesday night and will eventually tour Escambia County.

chauncey devega said...

In the abstract I get that impulse. But I know lots of folks who have been quite successful in navigating the challenges of life in this country as a black person who were not beaten with trees, belts, and other objects about their behinds and genitals like Peterson's child.

Black folks have had so much violence visited up on us, that sadly we are too quick to reproduce it on each other.

chauncey devega said...

How kind of you. We are all doing our own thing. Coates is playing his instrument, I am playing mine. He is cool folks, based on my limited interactions with him. Using my wrestling analogies we are both in different territories--his much larger--but folks also get to travel because there is money in new opponents. Would be fun.

SW said...

What a poignant letter. A force for truth.

joe manning said...

Maybe Florida is slightly more Old South than Texas which may explain the Confederate flag waving that you described, and that I didn't see much of here. But both states have the same type of rural reactionaries. Lots of Baptists too.

joe manning said...

Jefferson said much the same thing but his idea of who should get to vote was much more limited than Mills who spoke of the mass voter franchise. The fact that we have a Republican House and Senate and conservative presidents, whether D or R, indicates that folks are pretty satisfied with the status quo and see no need to vote. An uninformed electorate is small and conservative. An informed electorate is large and progressive.

joe manning said...

Yes, there's never an excuse to hit a child. Its sets off a vicious cycle of violence from one generation to the next. To let families discipline their children however they see fit is an obsolete tradition. Its an appropriate subject for public ed. I must try to message Coates for further clarification.

balitwilight said...

Tanehisi-Coates is a remarkably powerful yet subtle and empathetic writer. Some of his subtlety can be seen in the confusion over whether he endorses corporal punishment of so-called-"black" children. (A careful reading show that he does not).

What strikes me the most about Coates' letter is that he has staked an increasingly radical position against the feverish no-mans-land of American racism: the sustaining Big Lie itself, which is the prison of "race". Coates' Baldwin epigram is the first clue to the theme of this essay: "And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white."
Coates uses a variation on the phrase "people who BELIEVE they are white" no fewer than 16 times in this essay. He calls out the Dream of being white. Coates says "My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft". (Racecraft is a term-of-art for the fraudulent and pernicious construction of "Race" - which IS racism). Indeed, Coates' last two sentences to his son in this letter exhort him not to "descend into his own dream". That dream is the prison of "blackness" that "white" people constructed and delight to sustain because it reifies their own fraudulent and silent tyranny of "whiteness". Imagine the alternate history in which Germans since 1945 continued accepting the classification of one another into "Aryan Race" and "Non-Aryan Race". That is America (and much of the world) today.
I was attuned to these things in Coates' essay because of what has become my own radical belief: The Civil War destroyed slavery and the Civil Rights era destroyed legal segregation. A new struggle is needed today: a Nietzche's hammer to destroy the man-behind-the-curtain of "race" itself. It will be harder than the other two battles, because even the forces of enlightenment have been sedated or seduced, or succumbed. "Whiteness" is a 17th century lie that was created for oppression. So was its false-binary-opposite "Blackness". The wicked lie in the latter is more painful to come to terms with, because it has (as Coates recognises) defined a people forged by fire and justifiably proud of their endurance. But come to terms with it we finally must. I was surprised, and gratified to see Coates refer to "race" in the terms of a false god, a religion. I have believed for a long time that the next battle in civil rights in America must be a battle for Race Atheism. "White" people - either by enlightenment or by social shaming - must be stripped of "Whiteness". The concept of "White People" must be recognised to be as pernicious as "Aryan People". After all - who are the Untermenschen opposites of "Whiteness"? "Black people" must come to terms with the folly of embracing a nightmare-prison that their enemies constructed for them 400 years ago as eternal exile from the melting pot that is home to the rest of America. We have run a very long experiment - even since the 1960s. I believe the results are in. The only way out is the radical de-legitimisation of racecraft itself. Those who think this means "colour-blindness" are misguided. The radical work IS the reclamation of actual skin-colour variation, as well as ALL blended ancestries, equally - fully -into the melting pot of America. As Coates mournfully recognises, it is the so-called-"White" people dreaming their nightmare-dream, who hold the surest key to unlocking the melting pot. But the rest still can resist.

seeknsanity said...

The man is pure genius. I've already emailed his article to several people, with instructions that it should be read as a family.