Ta-Nehisi Coates & the Dying of the Light

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My friends have all heard my various critiques of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and by now they’re probably amused with the fervor with which I attack him. This is a fight that I am losing— and if I’m being honest, quite comprehensively. The black community has raised up Mr. Coates as the James Baldwin of our generation and they see him as an essential –no, indispensible, leading, and irrefutable- voice of the black struggle. I know better, though. If this is where the black struggle is now, then we have reached a point of crisis.

At another time when my work obligations are not so overwhelming, I’ll piece together a comprehensive critique of Coates, but for now allow me to focus on one particularly troubling vein of thought that runs throughout his writing: nihilism. A core tenet of Coates’ worldview is that whites –and by extension America, the country they run for “plunder”- are irredeemably committed to white supremacy. There’s nothing blacks can do about it, and frankly nearly no chance that whites will ever take it upon themselves to change. To this point, he offers the following:

“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 begin 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.”

This refusal to believe in the possibility of improvement is problematic on several levels, but I’ll point out just two. First, it completely ignores history. Though Coates positions himself as a wise interpreter of history, his autodidactic approach and training betray him; his projection of history is at once incomplete and absurd. How does he know that things cannot get better for the black man? His answer: “The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.” If this statement was merely an assertion that racism is and has always been a core aspect of American history, then Coates and I could agree. However, his belief that there is no hope for substantive progress on race requires him to mean something more here; specifically, it is to suggest (and at points he says explicitly) that there has been no meaningful progress. Or, at its most generous reading, that the progress has been so de minimis as to not inspire confidence that things can reach a genuine point of justice.

On its face, this can’t be true. By just about any means by which one could track the progress of the American black man –economic, electoral, levels of integration, state violence, etc.- beginning in about the 1920s you can chart an upward swing in the status of black people in America. Are we there yet? No, absolutely not. Does our progress to this point necessitate that we will continue to improve? No, and that’s sort of the point. Coates takes an oddly ultra-orthodox structuralist approach that demands that structures never change; he believes that America having thusly been we must ever be. No person who views the full sweep of history can accept such nonsense. In fact, if there is a single rule that seems to govern history it is that things are impossible until they are inevitable. Coates sees only a world that is impossible, but I understand that change is inevitable. Not inevitably good, mind you; indeed, the direction of the change depends on how we as a people steer the engine of change. Which brings me to my second disagreement with Coates.

On an emotional level, I cannot understand why so many black voices are rejoicing at what Ta-Nehisi Coates is selling. His is a profoundly dark message. The Dream has failed. White Supremacy reigns unconquered, and there is nothing you can do about it except find a way to negotiate your own personal happiness. Though he was wrong in some aspects of his descriptions of Coates’ work, Cornel West was absolutely right when he characterized Between The World And Me as “fear-driven self-absorption leads to individual escape and flight to safety.”  The darkness of Coates’ nihilism is never more unsettling than in his passage on 9/11. He offers the following, on page 86:

We arrived two months before September 11, 2001. I suppose everyone who was in New York that day has a story. Here is mine: That evening, I stood on the roof of an apartment building with your mother, your aunt Chana, and her boyfriend, Jamal. So we were there on the roof talking and taking in the sight- great plumes of smoke covered Manhattan Island. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who was missing. But looking upon the ruins of America, my heart was cold. I had disasters all my own. [emphasis mine] The officer who killed Prince Jones, like all the officers who regard us so warily, was the sword of the American citizenry. I would never consider any American citizen pure. I was out of sync with the city… I could see no difference between the office who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighter who died. They were not human to me. Black, white or whatever they were, they were menaces of nature, they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could- with no justification- shatter my body.”

There you have it. Coates does not contextualize this further or explain that this was but a passing –and in retrospect shameful- perspective. No, this is in fact perfectly of kind and tone with his thoughts on the nature of racism, of America, of whites, and of the possibility of a community based upon love and respect. It is profoundly sad and it is unabashedly ugly. This is how hopelessness and nihilism destroy the soul and rot our basic humanity. To look upon the deaths of 2,977 people, 215 of whom were black folks that Coates claims to love, and feel nothing but contempt for the people who died is to plumb the very depths of human callousness. But again, these are the fruits of nihilism. To abandon hope in the capacity for good in any group is to take the first step in rejecting their humanity.

And lest I be accused of requiring some rah-rah-Go-America! patriotic flag-waving from every American, let’s be clear just what a low bar for human decency it is to express deep sadness at the death of real human beings. Take a moment to listen to Yassir Arafat or read the statement of Louis Farrakhan:

“I, on behalf of all the members of the Nation of Islam and on behalf of many millions of Muslims here in America and throughout the world, lift our voices to condemn this vicious and atrocious attack on the United States. In this very dark hour in American and world history.”

When you find yourself looking unreasonable and inhuman when stacked up against Arafat and Farrakhan, then you have likely found yourself on the wrong side of an argument.

This is our new James Baldwin? This is not the tradition of struggle, of hope, of love, and of basic goodness that has been at the heart of the black experience. This is a disturbed man selling a distorted vision of the black experience twisted into ugliness by fear and hate. I reject it categorically and emphatically. We are better than this.

I know that he has sputtered recently, but I still believe powerfully and profoundly in the notion of love and humanity in the face of hatred that Cornel West describes. Black America has adopted the broader American political habit of picking teams and blindly defending that team. And, Prof. West isn’t on the team that the black media intelligentsia have told us to adore, but I remain convinced that his vision for America’s future and the black man’s place within it still rings true.

In the face of catastrophe, I refuse to surrender my humanity. I refuse to abandon hope. I refuse to stop fighting. I reject nihilism and remain doubly committed to making America the best version of itself. Coates has no coherent vision of justice because he cannot see anything beyond his own suffering and certainly nothing beyond that of his own race. For every Negro that falls into that tar pit, our race is reduced and we creep a step closer to something petty and useless. That is a dark path, my friends. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light…

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