Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Notes on coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me

“Our grievance then is not that we are not painted as angels of light or as goody-goody Sunday-school developments; but we do claim that a man whose acquaintanceship is so slight that he cannot even discern diversities of individuality, has no right or authority to hawk ‘the only true and authentic’ pictures of a race of human beings.” Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice From the South (1892)
Some of the same commentators who praise Ta-Nehisi Coates's work for addressing racism ultimately and likely unknowingly contribute to a traditional practice in the histories of white supremacy whereby one black person is elevated above the all others. Early on, when you'd hear the old-timers bemoan this "one-at-a-time" approach, you assumed they were overreacting. Now you know better. 

It is less important that Coates is "the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States," as one white commentator noted and others have regularly repeated, and instead, it matters more that he is actively corresponding to rich creative and critical domains produced by generations of black writers well over more than 150 years. Sure, Coates is one of my favorite writers, but why stretch and say he's the "single best writer" given the wide range of writings on race and racism and black people?  What gives people "whose acquaintanceship is so slight" with African Americans and black writing the authority to state who is "the single best" and what is "essential"? 

For what it's worth, Coates continually tries to resist the pronouncements among commentators that his work is better or above all the rest. He actively acknowledges sources, inspirations, and his extensive support systems, which may not have been available to others. Yet his acknowledgements only go so far. Commentators still insist that in any given realm, a single black person must be praised and celebrated above all the other presumably lowly Negroes not-as-good black writers.

Remember Joe Biden's comment from 2007 on then-presidential candidate Barack Obama? Biden said that Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." I think Biden's a good guy. But his comment revealed some troubling, short-sighted biases. In fact, he was primarily trying to communicate something about Obama to and for white people.

I've been tracking the coverage of Coates's book, and it's fascinating that some reviewers are inclined to identify themselves as white in the context of their reviews and how they presume that are reviewing the books primarily for white audiences.

In Slate, Jack Hamilton writes that

 Between the World and Me is, in important ways, a book written toward white Americans, and I say this as one of them. White Americans may need to read this book more urgently and carefully than anyone, and their own sons and daughters need to read it as well. 
During an interview with Coates, journalist, Isaac Chotiner asks, "What should I, say—an educated white guy who thinks there is too much racism—do to make change?" In the opening of his review of Coates's book, Ryan Holiday acknowledge his "biases" by informing readers that  "my father was a police officer," and "Also, I am white." How might the nature of reviews change if white reviewers identified themselves as white in the course of reviewing books authored by white people?

When The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott  tweeted that Coates's book is "essential, like water or air," I wondered about the extents to which he was presuming that the book was essential for white readers like him. Or, to think about this from a different perspective, what if reviewers assumed that black people already read and accepted the existence of racism? And what if, for decades and decades, those black people had been writing and reading books about racial injustice and talking to their parents, children, and families about the destruction of their bodies in the face of white supremacy? I don't think knowing those things would lead us to appreciate Coates's work less; instead, it would place more pressure on those of us reviewing his work to highlight his special contributions to larger, ongoing discourses without necessarily dismissing various other contributors.

I've taught African American literature for 12 years now. When my students and I cover 5, or 10, or 20 compositions by black writers, we are rarely interested in seeking out the best. Rather, the greatest reward has been our recognition that we almost have more reading to do. I enjoyed Between the World and Me, and I'm pleased to have the opportunity to re-read it with a group of my students this coming fall. Just as important, I'm also looking forward to reading more from Coates and more from many others who write on these subjects.  

• Between Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates and "Between the World and Me"
Pre-publication activities: Colson Whitehead and Ta-Nehisi Coates


Anonymous said...

It reminds me of Kanye West’s early critical acclaim. He was always separated from the group of other rappers, conscious or not. Always held as better, more complicated, more sophisticated etc. I don’t know if this is just a function of our critical norms where someone has to be THE ONE in any artform, or just in case of black artists/writers etc.

Seems to me most of the raves are coming from white people, liberal most likely. I dont know whether they truly love the book and him, or they are scared to criticise him in fear of being called a racist. At the same time, like you have mentioned, how many black writers are supported at prominent magazines that do this kind of work? For a long time it was just Coates, but I see The New Yorker has given plenty of space to Jelani Cobb to do his work as well and he was recently made a staff writer.

H. Rambsy said...

Thanks for stopping by.

Yeah, there are a few more writers at spots out there now. There's Cobb as you mentioned. Also, I'm thinking of Jamelle Bouie at Slate, kelefa Sanneh at the New Yorker, then, a little younger, we have Rembert Browne at Grantland. There are some more. But I'll tell you, I actually assumed there'd be even more at key spots by now.

I'm going to think more and delve into that whole "the one" model a little more.

Anonymous said...

Well done. I was thinking the same thing and was hoping, am hoping that Coates doesn't buy in to the hype. I'm from the Afrocentric school, and so I've read many books on race, most unnoticed by the mainstream. And of those noted, many were deemed irresponsible and not scholarly, from Francis Cress Welsing's The Isis Papers to Marimbi Ani's Yurugu. I haven't yet read Coates' new book, but I read his first and concluded that he is definitely one to keep an eye on. So, all this greatest this and that, stop it.

I like the fact, that he seems unafraid to speak truth to power and is seemingly not writing with the thought in mind, of how will he be received by the mainstream. That freedom is what made the authors writing in the height of African-centered consciousness so effective, their fearlessness of white acceptance. Yes, their were some kooky theories bandied about, but for the most part, there was solid and informative work behind done by SCHOLARS, and most of the writing centered around race.

The sad thing now is, the output of books like Coates' are few and far between, as Jacob Carruthers wrote in his masterpiece, Intellectual Warfare, we are indeed getting crushed in the war of ideas and historical truth, so anytime a soldier steps into that battle I'm thrilled but
cautious that he doesn't get trapped behind enemy lines.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I don't think this "one" thing is really a race thing. I think people are constantly categorizing, making lists like that. In sports, with GOAT debates, MVP. In music, top ten lists, GOAT debates. Even though these debates are totally academic.

IMO more about people wanting some simple narrative rather than dealing with the messy complexity of the world.

But I do agree that it has an impact on how people consume literature and what they read. After all if you watch an hour of Michael Jordan highlights on Youtube, you are not gonna be too excited to watch another hour of Mitch Richmond highlights. Whether it is true or not, the perception does matter.