Yes, I understand that Coates is an avowed atheist. But he was born and raised in a culture that has been formed by Christian thought and ritual practice. It is easy enough to disavow both Christian scripture and ritual practice. But there is no way to escape patterns of mind that have seeped into the culture through centuries of practice.
The particular pattern that Coates is enacting in The Case for Reparations is the Fortunate Fall, felix culpa in Latin. The idea is (not so) simple: When Adam and Eve exercised their free will and ate of the tree of knowledge, they fell into sin. By taking physical form as Jesus Christ, God gave humankind the opportunity to transcend original sin and thereby to reach a higher level of existence than that enjoyed by prelapsarian Adam and Eve.
What’s Going On?
Coates’ article is a long one and unfolds in ten chapters. Near the end of the third chapter, “We Inherit Our Ample Patrimony”, he mentions a bill, HR 40, that has been repeatedly introduced into Congress over the last quarter century. It calls for a study of the reparations issue:
That HR 40 has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential. If we conclude that the conditions in North Lawndale and black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America’s crosshairs, then what are we to make of the world’s oldest democracy?One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.
Observe two things about this passage: 1) it begins in Congress with HR 40 and 2) it ends with the founding fathers, in this case, two of them who are explicitly implicated as slave-holders.
Near the end of very last chapter, “There Will Be No ‘Reparations’ From Germany” there is another passage that is framed the same way:
A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. 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. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.
This time the founders are mentioned as a group and there is no recognition that they had permitted slavery in the new nation, had permitted the Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution, much less that some of them were slave owners. What happened? Why the inconsistency?
And it seems that lots of people have either missed that inconsistency entirely or not thought it worthy of mention. I checked over a dozen articles and blog posts that quoted those lines and found only one that picked up on it, Stu Bykofsky at Philly.com:
Coates says, “Reparations - by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences - is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.” That's it?No. He adds: “The payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”The founders’ wisdom? The guys who permitted slavery?
In a way I can understand why someone might not mention this inconsistency. When I first quoted that passage in a post I didn’t mention it either as it seemed to me that dealing with it would just delay matters. But I re-thought the matter and inserted a paragraph a bit later. So maybe others just didn’t think the inconsistency mattered.
And in some sense it doesn’t. It doesn’t contradict the evidence Coates has presented, the facts and figures, the histories of individual misfortune, and the actual argument itself. All that still stands.
But the question remains, why that inconsistency? A mere slip-up? Why, when he pointed out two of the founders as slave holders in one place, did he gloss over it in another? And what about his editors at The Atlantic?
One could, I suppose, argue that he’s invoking the founders for their wisdom, and wisdom isn’t necessarily moral perfection. So they could be wise and slave-holders at the same time.
But if that is the case, what’s the value of their particular brand of wisdom for the point Coates is making? The point he’s making is that, by confronting the injustices visited upon African-Americans, the country can at long-last be worthy of those very founders. He’s reaching for moral uplift, for some higher good to come of all the pain and injustice.
Somehow, being worthy of slave-holding founders just doesn’t strike the right note, does it?
A Sermon in Disguise
I can only guess at what’s going on, but here’s my guess. Take that phrase, “the founders” (or, alternatively, “the founding fathers”). It is mostly used in appreciation and reverence for their various virtues in founding a great nation, etc. As such, it is more closely linked to warm-fuzzy feelings and to vague notions of democracy and equality than to a list of names, much less to the personal histories attached to those names.
At this point in his article Coates is very near the end and is going for the uplift. The specific names of the founders simply didn’t enter his mind, much less the unpleasant biographical details. And perhaps the same is true for his editors and, apparently, his readers as well.
Note, in particular, that in the first passage I quoted, the one from his third chapter, he doesn’t use the phrase “the founders”. He mentions their names, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, along with the names of specific slaves, Sally Hemings and Oney Judge, respectively. He’s writing in a different register.
Why, you might be thinking at this point, do you make such a big deal out of this if it doesn’t matter to the argument?
Because it gives us a clue to the underlying mechanisms and motivations. It suggests that Coates isn’t summoning facts, figure, and individual histories to make a case for reparations. Rather that he’s using the case for reparations for another purpose.
What’s that purpose?
Why moral uplift of course. And not moral uplift in the indefinite future when Congress passes HR 40 and hearings are held, reports filed, recommendations made, perhaps even legislation passed, and so forth. No, the moral uplift Coates is going for is in the here and now, in the hearts and minds of readers to work their way through his 16,000 or so words and feel somehow better, albeit in a discomforting way, for having faced an ugly aspect of America’s past and, yes, present.
In effect, Coates has taken his readers through an enactment of the Fortunate Fall, just as John Milton did in Paradise Lost in the 17th Century, and just as President Obama did in his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney and sermon on racism when he said of Darren Roof Storm:
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. […] An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.He didn’t know he was being used by God. Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group – the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court – in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond – not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.
And there we have it, big-hearted generosity, thoughtful introspection, and self-examination, all virtues prompted by terrible murders in consequence of the nation’s original sin. Obama then goes on, many paragraphs later, to imagine “a roadway toward a better world.” And, in consequence of these terrorist murders, we’re ready to take our first steps on that road.
As logical argument it’s not terribly convincing. But then it’s NOT a logical argument. It’s a sermon, and the ways and purposes of sermons are different from those of logical arguments.
So I submit is the case with The Case for Reparations. There’s logical argument in it, as well as facts and figures, and personal histories. As logical argument those personal histories are all but irrelevant; they’re only individual data points. You need a lot of individual stories to add up to centuries-long historical injustice calling for Congressional action. The only way to look at them all is to turn them into data points, which blocks our ability to empathize. But those histories put flesh on the facts and figures and give us, the readers, something to identify with.
They provide the foundation for Coates’ real argument, which isn’t an argument at all. It’s a re-enactment, a simulation if you will, of the Fortunate Fall. That’s not something that can be done with or in facts and figures. It can only be done in the human heart.
That line about the founders’ wisdom is where Coates’ narrative flow reaches its zenith. But there are five more paragraphs, paragraphs of the facts and figures type. They serve to give his treatise the sense of being about those facts and figures and the argument for justice that follows from them. They serve to disguise the fact that this argument for justice is in fact something else
It is a case for living on in the fact of injustice. That is, it is a sermon. That’s what sermons are for, at least many of them. It gives you the courage, the energy, the grace, you need to continue your daily life in the face of adversity. It is sermon for those who no longer entertain religious belief. A sermon for atheists but stitched on a Christian pattern.