Monday, August 10, 2015

Coates, Baldwin, Obama and Expressive Culture

A couple of weeks ago I had a post in which I used game theory and the story of the emperor’s new clothes to talk about Ta-Nehisi Coates, Malcolm X, Game Theory, and Expressive Culture. In that post I suggested that Coates is like the boy who pointed out that the emperor is in fact naked, a comparison I’d also used in an open letter to Steven Pinker in which I suggested that, in general, imaginative literature plays that role in social groups.

The function we are talking about is that of providing common or mutual knowledge, knowledge that everyone has and moreover everyone knows that everyone else knows it. In the case of the story of the emperor’s new clothes the mutual knowledge is a simple fact, the emperor is naked (despite his pretense to the contrary). Coate’s The Case for Reparations is not so simple.

In this post I want to compare Coates on reparations with James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region of My Mind” (New Yorker Nov 17, 1962) and Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. None of them are works of fiction, but they are quite different documents.


Before that discussion, however, I want to look at a paragraph from W. E. B Du Bois. This is from his essay “Strivings of the Negro People” and it was published in the magazine where Coates is now a senior editor, The Atlantic Magazine, but it was published over a century ago, in August 1897. This is the paragraph where Du Bois introduced his concept of double-consciousness:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not with to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.
How does this double-consciousness inform and frame the three pieces we’re examining?

James Baldwin

Let’s start with Baldwin’s piece. It’s an autobiographical essay in which he opens with his adolescence in Harlem and moves to a visit he had with Elijah Muhammad as a mature adult. That is to say, this is one man speaking about his personal experience. To be sure, this one man is brilliant, perceptive, and a wonderful writer, but it is one man’s view of the world. That’s what we’re participating in when we read this essay.

That one man happened to be African American in a country that has had a long history of oppressing African Americans and he published that essay at a time, 1962, when the Civil Rights movement had been in the news for several years and still had its major triumphs ahead of it. It was a time, moreover, when the Nation of Islam was also in news, frequently in the person of the brilliant Malcolm X. Finally it was published in a venue, The New Yorker, whose readership was mostly white. (Caveat: I don’t know this for a fact; I’ve not seen the magazine’s demographics. But, really, is there any reason to suspect otherwise?)

Baldwin was explaining himself to white people. But of course, not just himself. His people? No, that’s no quite right. Maybe white readers cast him in the role of spokesperson, and I’d imagine he felt that kind of pressure, but what he was doing goes deeper than that. However you want to put it – I’ll leave it up in the air – there was much more at stake in that essay than one man’s view of the world. It’s not simply that white people reading that essay got to see a world they had little experience of, but that they got to see and feel how the inhabitants of that world saw and thought about them. The essay may have been about black people, but it was a critique of white America.

Baldwin, it seems to me, has taken this double-consciousness and turned it on white America. Within the space of his essay Baldwin has created a space that is his, and from that vantage point he tells truth to, well power, but to those who are listening. He concludes:
If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!
And there came ot be fires in the streets.

Barack Hussein Obama

Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney is quite different. For one thing, it is not an essay, personal or otherwise. Nor is it merely a written text. It is a text that was written to be performed in public. And it was written in the form of a black vernacular sermon and performed in the immediate presence of an overwhelmingly black audience, but the televised record could be seen by anyone.

Since Obama is the President of the United States that sermon has certainly been seen by many who were not directly present. Many of those viewers will have been white, and many will also have been non-American. Obama knew this when he prepared the sermon; that is, he prepared the sermon with that in mind.

As for the sermon itself, that’s what it was, a sermon, not an essay. While there was a personal remark or two in there – early on Obama referred to a time when his hair wasn’t “visibly” gray – those were incidental to the discourse. The focus was on Pinckney, the black church, African America, all in relation to the nation as a whole.

Moreover, given that James Baldwin had been a preacher in his youth – he talks about this in his essay – one can imagine that he might have been capable of giving such a sermon himself. Indeed, he might have been capable of giving a better one. But there is nowhere that sermon could have been given in the America of 1962 nor, obviously, could a black man have been elected President at that time, or at any time in the century. And yet the occasion of Obama’s sermon was much the same as the occasions of sermons delivered in Baldwin’s time, the murder of innocent black people by white racists.

Barack Hussein Obama, of course, is acutely aware of being a black man in America. The very fact that he is President has forced a kind of hyperawareness upon him. I would imagine that that hyperawareness informed his decision to assume the role of a preacher and to speak in a black vernacular to which he had not been born. But once in that role, once he began speaking, there would have been no room for double-consciousness, for such doubleness is death to performance. In that role in those moments he WAS Power and what he spoke WAS Truth.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates’ essay on reparations is a third kind of discourse. Much of it is given to facts and figures about black oppression, with specific attention to housing issues in the 20th Century. This information is exemplified in a series of specific stories about specific people facing specific challenges and losing. None of these stories are told in great detail, but there is enough specificity so that one can identify with the people. Coates is not writing entirely out of his own life, as Baldwin did, but he is not presenting sterilized facts. He is a journalist telling a story. And that story is woven around the theme of reparations. An injustice has been committed and so reparations must be made.

It’s a very different kind of discourse from the other two, as they differ from one another. And yet, I wrote another essay in which I argued that The Case for Reparations is, in fact, a sermon in disguise, Felix Culpa: The Judeo-Christian Underpinnings of Coates’ Reparations Argument. For the recompense that Coates was looking for is not so much the writing of checks to African Americans as a simple public reckoning: “But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane.”

But that’s not where that paragraph ends. As I pointed out in the felix culpa post, it ends with this very peculiar phrase: “the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.“ Some of those founders held slaves and, as a group, they permitted slavery. Coates certainly knows this, for he called both Washington and Jefferson on it earlier in the article.

I can’t help but wonder if Coates’s slip was an attempt at consciousness unified though having spelled out the injustice in considerable detail and still managing to remain sane. Writing that article was a way of bridging the gap, if only temporarily. He too has his message for the world, and it is that he is alive and writing.

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