Saturday, February 13, 2016


Ta-Nehisi Coates
Black Lives Matter, the Oscars So White, the primaries move to predominately black South Carolina--all during Black History Month as it becomes ever more starkly clear that the existence of President Obama has brought racism back out of hiding behind codewords and euphemisms.

So some of the most stimulating writing I've read on the Internet lately has been about such issues as reparation and white supremacy, and written by black writers. The best example is, not too surprisingly, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who received a lot of attention (including a National Book Award) for his book Between the World and Me.

Coates has been named as successor to James Baldwin, and in at least one sense has taken that on, since this book owes its form to one of Baldwin's.  In the early 1960s, Baldwin's books (The Fire Next Time was the first I read) made me conscious of racial history and the costs of injustice, more deeply than any other writer or speaker or events.

  I learned also--more instinctively than consciously at first--that the experts on experiences you haven't had are the people who have had those experiences.  They may help you educate your empathy.  But imaginative projection is limited.  And there are other factors at work within you.  As I wrote more recently in a related context: Sometimes you can imagine what things look like from another’s perspective. Sometimes you can’t. You just have to listen.

That's what makes listening to these voices--for what experiences you have in common and what you don't--is so important. Apart from blatant out-front racism, and the institutional and historical meaning of these concepts in the real world, white supremacy or white privilege is expressed in this way--by not listening to those voices.  It's not just that the Oscars look past black actors when they can.  It is that Hollywood won't give African Americans their own voices, to describe their own experiences in cinematic art.

I haven't read Between the World and Me.  So I can't say that the reviews I read do or don't accurately describe or characterize it.  But I have read several of Coates articles, essays and blog posts in the Atlantic, and his voice there is not what these reviews describe.  He's a careful, logical as well as eloquent writer, and the case he makes for the idea of reparations is very strong.  His perspective allows him to find and expose aspects of history that are ignored in the standard tellings.  And he tells that history well.  (Having written about some of the same history---like post-World War II suburbia--I am made very aware of what I missed.)

 Here's a link to get started.  And a long interview with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now to get acquainted.

It was in the Goodman interview that Coates reluctantly answered the question of who he would vote for, and it was Bernie Sanders, despite a couple of columns criticizing Sanders' views on reparations.  Meanwhile, another black writer with the big megaphone of the New York Times, Charles Blow, was chastising Sanders for paternalism in relation to black voters, but making many of the same points that Coates has.

From a popular culture point of view, Rembert Brown in New York has a fascinating piece on white privilege.  All of these offer not just eye-opening points of view to non-African American readers, they are (especially by contrast with most online political and cultural writing) refreshingly substantive and well-argued, while honoring the complexity of the subject.  Though the subject matter is often painful, the writing is a pleasure to read.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

NH 2016

With his first victory (a massive one to boot) Bernie Sanders gave a succinct victory speech that hit all his right notes.  He also said very early in the speech that in a few months all Democrats (and Democratic candidates) will have to unite to defeat any of the possible--and uniformly horrific--Republican candidates for President.

In 2008, Barack Obama made his most famous speech--the now-mythic "Yes We Can" speech--in conceding New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton.  Does anybody remember what Hillary said?

In  2016, Hillary may have given the equivalent for her campaign.  Her concession was the best speech I've ever heard her make, not only in content but in delivery.  Will it do for her campaign what Obama's did for his?  I guess we'll see.