My previous post in this series didn’t go quite where I wanted it to go. Scratch that, as I didn’t really know where I was going – which happens a lot and is a feature of the process, not a bug. But, though I like what I wrote and stand by it, there’s something more I was looking for. Time to try again.
First I want to drop in a passage from an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates where he tells us why he decided to write his book. Then I want to present passages from the three pieces by Baldwin, Obama, and Coates:
James Baldwin, “Letter from a Region of My Mind” (New Yorker Nov 17, 1962)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic, June 2014.
Barack Hussein Obama, Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, Delivered June 26, 2015.
Finally, I offer some remarks on the rhetorical machinery behind the scenes.
Coates on Why He Wrote the Book
"Between the World and Me": Ta-Nehisi Coates' Extended Interview on Being Black in the US, Wednesday, 22 July 2015 00:00.
AMY GOODMAN: You write it as a letter to your son, Samori. Tell us why.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I hate to disappoint you guys, but mostly as a literary technique, I began Between the World and Me after I finished the draft of "The Case for Reparations," and I was actually somewhat frustrated with that piece, because it’s a very, very empirical piece, very, very much based in the tools of journalism, reportage, very, very evidence-based. But I thought, at the same time, it made what it meant to live under a system that made reparations essential in the first place abstract. There was a distancing effect about talking about people as numbers, you know, about talking about people across history.
And what I wanted to do with this book is to give the reader some sense of what it meant to live under a system of plunder as an individual, to express that, to take it out of the realm of numbers and to take it directly into, you know, individual people. How does it feel every day in your life to live under such a system? How do you cope with that? How is it warping? What is it perverse? What sort of effects does it ultimately have on you? And how do you, you know, as much as possible, make your peace with it?
In the context of this post, what Coates is saying, in effect, is that he wanted to write like James Baldwin. He wanted to write personal observations about being black in America in the 21st Century, CE.
Three Rhetorical Stances: Baldwin, Obama, and Coates
Baldwin’s story is a first-person narrative. The other two are not. Here’s a passage:
In the same way that the girls were destined to gain as much weight as their mothers, the boys, it was clear, would rise no higher than their fathers. School began to reveal itself, therefore, as a child’s game that one could not win, and boys dropped out of school and went to work. My father wanted me to do the same. I refused, even though I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handymen. My friends were now “downtown,” busy, as they put it, “fighting the man.” They began to care less about the way they looked, the way they dressed, the things they did; presently, one found them in twos and threes and fours, in a hallway, sharing a jug of wine or a bottle of whiskey, talking, cursing, fighting, sometimes weeping: lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was “the man”—the white man. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long. The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.
Coates’s piece has narration, exposition, and argumentation. None of it is written in the first person (recall his reason for wanting to write a book). Here’s the opening two paragraphs:
CLYDE ROSS was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired—the protection of the law.
In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state. “You and I know what’s the best way to keep the nigger from voting,” blustered Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippi senator and a proud Klansman. “You do it the night before the election.”
While Obama’s sermon does have a first-person line or two, it too is impersonal. But it is very different in tone and force from Coates’ article. Obama is not making an argument; he’s not trying to convince anyone of anything. He assumes that he and his audience share deeply in a fundamental outlook on the world. It’s his job to articulate and affirm that.
Here’s a passage from near the middle:
When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, services happened here anyway, in defiance of unjust laws. When there was a righteous movement to dismantle Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from its pulpit, and marches began from its steps. A sacred place, this church. Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country; a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all. That’s what the church meant.
We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.
Notice the rhythm of his speech. Notice, for example, the repetition of “when there” in the first paragraph and “and act” in the second. That insistent rhythm is doing something that’s not being done in the other two passage. It marks a way in which a sermon is different from a first-person autographical essay and a third-person expository argument.
How Do Those Rhetorical Stances Work?
I note first of all, that every writer assumes a certain sympathy with and understanding with the audience. Maybe more, maybe less, but the assumption is there. This is true even when an argument is being made. But writers work with this sympathy in different ways.
Baldwin asks us to see the world as he sees it. He invites us to look over his shoulder, to tag along with him when he visits Elijah Muhammad. If you’ve never been in James Baldwin’s world, or one like it, now is your chance to see what it feels like. If you already know that world, Baldwin organizes it for you, presents it to you in a way that allows you to examine it at arm’s length, albeit a rather intimate arm’s length.
Coates tells you nothing about his world. But he presents you with a certain account of certain aspects of America, past and present. His object is to provide evidence through which he can push your sympathy to the point where you will agree, yes, reparations are in order, there is a public reckoning to be made. The nature of that reckoning is not at all clear, but there is something to be done, and it must be done in full view of the nation.
At the very least, the nation must accept slavery as “our nation’s original sin”, to use President Obama’s phrase. The formulation dates to an 1820 letter from James Madison to the Marquis de Lafayette. Madison is writing about the possibility of admitting the territory of Missouri to the status of statehood in the nation. He ends one paragraph with a reference to the “dreadful fruitfulness of the original sin of the African trade.”
Somehow, Coates is arguing, we must come to see and accept slavery and racism, not as an aberration, but as somehow intrinsic to the nation’s founding. Only then can we begin to, to what?
Such a realization is what James Baldwin was arguing for back in the 1960s and later. And now the nation’s President, a black man, has incorporated that realization into a sermon delivered on the occasion of murderous violence rendered in the name of that sin. Baldwin and Coates allow for readers who need to have the argument – that racism is intrinsic to the nation – spelled out for them. Obama is speaking for an audience that has once more witnessed the action of that sin in their world. No argumentation required.
And yet his task, as the Preacher in Chief Pro Tem, is to transform tragedy and grief into affirmation. That requires a different set of rhetorical tools, one for which a personal point of view is irrelevant. Barack Hussein Obama, the private individual, doesn’t even exist as he speaks. It is only the Presidency that speaks, and so, by proxy, the nation. In that magisterial impersonality we are all present as our imaginations allow and our hearts desire.
These are three different kinds of discourse. But the President’s discourse differs from the other two more than they differ from one another. His discourse is ceremonial. Baldwins’ and Coates’ is not.
But Obama would not have been in a position to deliver that discourse if it hadn’t been for Baldwin and many others who have gone before. And if and when the reckoning Coates seeks should happen, the President’s sermon will have been a turning point in the unfolding of that moment.