Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Reading Coates, Part 2: the Dream, the Body and the Blame

This is the second installment of my Reading Coates posts, offering some reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me in light of our summer reading group's discussion of the same.  You can read Part 1 here.

Before I jump right into Chapter 2, I want to take a moment to comment upon what I suspect is a common experience among people who participate in reading groups, namely, that the quality of discussions in a reading group tends to increase exponentially with each session after the first.  (There should be a law that states this.  Is there a law?  If not, I want to claim it as Johnson's Law.)  Often, I think this phenomenon is a consequence of the inevitable dropping-out of members after the first reading group session, such that the second and following sessions are always better since those who do not have the time or interest to commit themselves to it have been culled.  More often, though, I think the discussions get better because (1) you begin reading the text with your group's discussants in mind and (2) by the second session, you have a significantly better understanding of what will make for a productive conversation with those specific people.  Anyway, Johnson's Law held true once again for our group's second meeting yesterday and I was still mulling over our conversation late into the evening last night.


Chapter 2 of Between the World and Me (BWM) is significantly shorter than the first, but I was glad to see that the literary device of Coates' letter to his son was extended. It's slightly less pronounced than it was in the first chapter-- I often found myself feeling like the figure of Coates' son was slipping away as a real, extant human being-- but he returns and is reiterated at crucial moments, which keep the text anchored in that relationship and prevent it from slipping off into treatise territory.

Again, Coates is just an absolutely magnificent writer.  There's an urgency and an economy to his prose that somehow manages to also retain its poetry, remaining just on this side of didacticism or reductive utilitarianism. But don't for a minute let that incline you to think BWM is not packed full of ideas.  Complex, difficult, contested and contestable ideas.

Without further ago, some reflections on Chapter 2 and our discussions of it.

Black lives, black bodies, American heritage
Coates' focus on the meaning and valuation of black lives through the management, control, incarceration and elimination of black bodies is unwavering in chapter 2.  This is entirely consistent with his existential materialism that I found so compelling in Chapter 1, but it is articulated in Chapter 2 in a far more historically-grounded and socio-political manner, rather than the sort of grand metaphysical claims about "preferences of the universe itself" that we saw earlier.  The chapter begins with Coates' recounting of his own body, as did the first chapter, but here his body is in danger and afraid, in the backseat of a police car.  About halfway through, Coates tells the story of a run-in with a white women who literally shoved his son's body out of her way, the fear and rage and (both cultivated and instinctual) intensity with which he reacted to her dismissive (but no less threatening for its dismissiveness) attack on his black boy's body.  The life-shaping "event" of Chapter 2 is the death of Coates' college friend Prince Jones, an "exceptional" young-adult black man whose murder-by-cop was anything but.  And throughout the chapter, Coates engages in an insistent and unrelenting correction of revisionist American history, reminding us over and over that American heritage is nothing other than the assault, rape, plunder, torture, detention and extermination of black bodies.

There are episodes in Chapter 2 that rise up almost like dream sequences-- Coates in New York, Coates in Paris, Coates at the battlegrounds of historic Civil War sites-- but the soundtrack of those near-idyllic experiences are still composed in the key of Prince Jones.  The black body is endangered. There are no exceptions. Protect the black body.  I mentioned in our reading group yesterday that the further I get into BWM, the more it resonates with the work of Frantz Fanon (rather than Baldwin). This was especially true of Chapter 2, which could have easily shared the same title as the fifth chapter of Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks: "The Lived-Experience of the Black" (sometimes loosely translated as "The Fact of Blackness").  We all spoke briefly to what we viewed as Coates' "intellectual heritage" in our session yesterday, i.e., in what tradition or lineage we situate him in our own minds.  For me, BWM falls solidly in the black existentialist tradition, but with a greater emphasis on structural analysis, a lesser emphasis on (traditionally conceived) subjectivity and agency, and a more complex understanding of intersectionality.

On that last (intersectional) point, I'll just note (in passing, but not because it doesn't deserve its own discussion) what I found to be an especially poignant few pages near the end of the chapter, where Coates talks about how even when he was poor and struggling, even when he didn't have things, he needed, he always had people.  I won't recount the whole passage here, so let this serve as a teaser: we would all be better off thinking about, and talking with each other about, the fact that the person who has nothing, but who has someone to call who will help her out, is far better off than the person who has all she needs, but has no people to call her own.

The Dream
I neglected in my previous post to talk about one recurring trope in BWM, which Coates calls "the Dream." Over the first two chapters, the Dream (always capitalized in the text) is explicated in a number of ways-- as the "American" dram (the universal possibility for meritocratic success), as white suburbia (the "TV land" world of privilege and safety), as racecraft, as revisionist/exceptionalist American history, as the politics of personal exoneration (more on that below), as religious illusion (beatitudine valorization of weakness and suffering, "the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen")-- but at least one thread tying together all of these configurations of the Dream is that the Dream is in some very real sense disembodied. Or rather, it is not concerned with the body.  Least of all the black body.

And for that reason, the Dream is unbothered by the abuse, neglect, plunder and murder of black bodies. As are any who dream the Dream.

In a very real sense for Coates, "white" and "black" qua racial identities are also products of the Dream, which makes no sense at all apart from racecraft and the hundreds of years of countless agents and acts that make racecraft make sense. (From the end of chapter 1, again, Coates' existential-materialist mantra: "verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.") Coates is consistent throughout BWM in referring to "people who believe themselves to be white," at once ascribing to people who believe themselves to be white a kind of authorship of racecraft, while at the same time undermining that very authority. This is just one of the many ways that the metaphysics of race is more or less directly addressed in Chapter 2, where Coates clearly disavows any allegiance to biological conceptions of race and riffs a bit on the "common history, common strivings" conception of race without fully adopting the Du Boisian view either, Because everything in this world is so thoroughly contaminated by the Dream, and because racecraft is at the heart of the Dream, the matter at hand isn't really so much what race is as what we do (or are able to do) with it, in it, because of it.

Verbs over nouns, actions over states.

So when it comes to the Dream, or the racecrafted world, the really important matters aren't really metaphysical ones, though they still obviously involve bodies and things and states of affairs and actions over time and space.  But none of those can be posited or rejected as simple truth-claims anymore. Allow me to hazard an analogy for consideration: perhaps living in the Dream world (which is NOT an "unreal" world), the racecrafted world, is something like playing billiards on a warped table.  The game can still be played on a table like that, it will still be "pool," and it will still be governed both by the rules of the game and the laws of physics.  If you are unaware of the table's warp and your shot behaves in a manner that seem to circumvent the rules of pool or physics, you do not say that what happened was "false" anymore than you would say that he game you are playing is "not really billiards."  If you're playing for stakes, you do your best to fix the warp or, if you cannot, you accommodate for it in your behaviors. If the stakes are life-and-death, you make your adjustments quickly, you archive the consequences of those adjustments decidedly, and you make habits of the ones that keep you alive and in the game.

For what it's worth, that analogy is not meant to suggest a kind of quietism about the racecrafted world or the dangers of the Dream. Verbs over nouns, actions over states.  Sure, protest the fairness of the game, fix the table where it is possible to do so, change tables if you can.  But if your life is already staked on the outcome of the game, and you're the unfortunate one who does not know the play of the warp, you have no other option but to realize that the available resources in your verb/action bank have already been drawn down severely.

The "politics of personal exoneration"
For those who believe themselves to be white, the Dream is and has always been a profit, not a liability.  So it should seem curious that they invest so much moral, social and political energy in disavowing it.  How do we explain the visceral, reactive, unreflective and often irrational, insistence "I am not a racist!" that echos from every corner of the world of those who believe themselves to be white?

Coates answer:  "[T]hose who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration."

It's been a minute since I've read something so succinctly stated, intuitively accurate, revelatory in its formulation, devastating in its implications and, for all that, at the same time just so obviously true as this one sentence from chapter 2.

I wrote my dissertation on truth commissions, so I am not unacquainted with theories of forgiveness and reconciliation, shame and guilt, nor of the various iterations that "politics of exoneration" have taken over the course of the last half-century.  That said, I do think that we passed a road marker in the way we think and talk about race in America some years back-- not a lot of years, I don't know how many, but less than twenty-- that read something like: NO RACISTS BEYOND THIS POINT. Pace post-racial enthusiasts, I don't take that to mean that some twenty years ago we started refusing racists the right to appear in public or in our name, nor do I think there are fewer or better racists now that there were twenty years ago.  Rather, for reasons I cannot entirely explain (I've got some ideas, but they're still rough-edged), everyone, but especially those who believe themselves to be white, agreed that it was not only "not okay" to be racist in public-- by which I mean it was not okay to act under the banner of racism, to self-identify as racist, to "own" one's racism-- but also that even frothing-at-the-mouth racists were morally obligated to be morally offended by racism.  (Or, more accurately, by the charge of racism, by being labeled "racist.")  Without naming him, Coates references comedian Michael Richards' now infamous racist rant, in which Richard singled out and ridiculed black members of his audience, repeatedly shouting "Nigger!  Nigger!  Nigger!"  In Richards' public apology tour the following weeks, an entirely contrary sentiment was repeated over and over again, "I am not a racist," I an NOT a racist," "I am not a RACIST!"

What sort of funhouse mirror Dream world makes that possible?

In our reading group, it was suggested that this is one way that those who believe themselves to be white manage their "fear" of the inevitable (and, it was presumed) violent backlash that would result from taking moral responsibility for white supremacy.  To return to my billiards analogy above, it would be akin to a fear-of-the-ass-whooping-that-would-inevitably-come-my-way if I owned up to my opponent that we were were playing on a rigged table, that I knew it all along, and that I had been effectively picking his pocket the whole time.  Now, maybe that "fear" makes some sense in a pool hall, but it doesn't translate well to the racecrafted Dream world, I don't think.  Here are some reasons why:

First, if I'm straight-up hustling someone, I may very well do everything possible to keep the hustle invisible, including first and foremost NOT admitting that it's a hustle, but it is very unlikely that I would go so far as to make a point of remarking to my opponent, repeatedly and passionately, "I AM NOT CHEATING YOU!" Anyone who has ever hustled or been hustled can see that tip-off from a mile away.  So, the politics of exoneration with which those who believe themselves to be white are obsessed (and I think it's significant that Coates figures this as a psychopathology) is not your garden variety hustle.

Second, I'm always deeply suspicious of presuming the reality of and (directly or indirectly) legitimating the value of white people's "fear."  There's a myth of First Contact, repeated ad nauseum by my students and in popular discourse, that goes something like this: "Human beings are deeply, instinctively and naturally afraid of difference. Racial differences are the most dramatic (and "natural") differences between human beings.  Ergo, racism is "natural," there has always been racism and there always will be." Not only is this historically inaccurate ("racial" differences were not meaningful in this way until the 17th century, every first contact between races has not been violent), it's also counterintuitive (why would humans "naturally" select skin color or hair texture or eye shape as the most threatening differences? why not something more obviously threatening, like physical size, weight or strength? where is the anthropological evidence for that?).  One of the best debunkings of this myth, I think, can be found in Rian Malan's (who is Afrikaner) account in My Traitor's Heart of growing up in apartheid South Africa with the world-framing white narrative "keep your boot on their neck, or they will rise up and kill you."  White supremacy is not a product white fear, white fear is a product of white supremacy.

Correspondingly, I think that what Coates calls the "politics of exoneration" is not a response to white people's deep, considered realization that white supremacy is morally wrong and who, because they fear admitting as much will give sanction to those that would rise up and kill you, manufacture exonerating discourses for their own protection.  Rather, the politics of exoneration is just another Dream discourse of white supremacy.  It is not borne of guilt and fear, but rather of eminent confidence and security.  My white body is not at risk, not in constant danger, like black people's bodies are.  So, like other people who believe themselves to be white, I can worry about my soul, my character, my honor or reputation. I can count my moral credits. Obsessively.

The "blame game" is not a game for everyone. Just for the blamers.

Exoneration, especially self-exoneration, has always been a figure of sovereign power. Coates is exactly right that the obsession with blame and exoneration is truly pathological among Americans who believe themselves to be white. And the expressions of that pathology are as numerous in form as they are vacant of substance. I am not a racist. I merited or "earned" what I have.  I didn't mean to do wrong.  I didn't know.  I am sorry.  I am a good person. When one is capable of standing alone and enacting all the parts of  judgment--accused, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner-- there is very little, if anything, really at stake. Least of all a life or a body.

Looking forward
Next Monday will be our final meeting. (I think.) The third chapter of BWM is only about 20 pages long, so we've decided to each choose a review/critique/response essay to include in our considerations for the last session.  I'm also hoping we can talk about how/if we might include BWM in a course and strategies for teaching it if we do.  Stay tuned.

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