The discussion of Coates’ new book: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book has launched a thousand discussions.
On Monday, we may start to discuss those discussions. We may wait a week.
For today, we thought we’d offer a weekend reading assignment. It’s drawn from this long excerpt from Coates’ book—an excerpt posted by The Atlantic, where Coates is a national correspondent.
In the lengthy excerpt, as in the rest of the book, Coates is writing to his 15-year-old son. As he starts, he describes his appearance last November 30 on the CBS program Face the Nation, although he doesn’t specifically name the show.
Right at the start of the lengthy excerpt, Coates describes what happened that day. Inevitably, the day’s events filled him with gloom.
On the brighter side, the events also didn’t occur:
COATES: Son,Quite plainly, Coates is describing his appearance on Face the Nation. The unnamed host to whom he refers is Norah O’Donnell.
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
There is nothing extreme in this statement. Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. This defiance is not to be much dwelled upon. Democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are specimens of sin, so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune. In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational. At the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term people to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. As for now, it must be said that the elevation of the belief in being white was not achieved through wine tastings and ice-cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land.
That Sunday, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of a 12-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about “hope.” And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm late-November day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream...
Coates appeared in one segment that day. He appeared along with James Peterson, a professor at Lehigh. For the videotape of that program, click here. To read the transcript, click this.
Warning! Unless you have a vivid imagination, you won’t encounter the gloomy events Coates describes.
In what way is Coates’ account of that program inaccurate? We’ll direct you to two basic points:
First, O’Donnell didn’t ask Coates “about his body” that day—at least, not in any way those familiar words would normally be taken to mean. In the first question to which Coates refers, this is the entirety of what O’Donnell said:
O’DONNELL (11/30/14): Ta-Nehisi, I want to ask you about something you wrote this week. You said, “What clearly cannot be said is that violence and nonviolence are tools and that violence, like nonviolence, sometimes works. Taken together, property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America.”In our view, there’s nothing gigantically “extreme” about those quoted remarks by Coates, although they’re stated in a way which is sure to produce disagreement. By normal standards, there’s also nothing in that question about poor Coates’ body.
What did you mean by that?
Watching that tape or reading that transcript, very few people would think that O’Donnell had asked Coates “about his body.” Within the text we’ve posted above, Coates’ claim to the contrary helps fuel his sense of gloom and despair.
We’ll grant you—at one point, Coates says that the unnamed host “did not mention [the subject of my body] specifically.” In truth, she didn’t mention his body at all, at least as that term is conventionally understood—and Coates never explains, in the long Atlantic excerpt, what he means by his apparently poetic formulation.
It’s easy to generate an air of gloom and despair if you get to describe events which didn’t occur except in the world of your own inner poetics. But as he continues discussing his experience, Coates makes a second statement—and in this case, his account of what occurred is just flatly false:
“That Sunday, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of a 12-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about ‘hope.’ And I knew then that I had failed.”
Poor Coates! After undergoing this experience, he emerged into the late-November gloom and tried to walk off his despair.
Unfortunately, the host of that popular show didn’t do what Coates describes in that passage. She didn’t ask Coates about “hope,” or about anything else, as she displayed that “widely shared picture.”
O’Donnell did display that photo at the end of the segment. As she did, she turned to Peterson, not to Coates, and this is the question she asked:
O’DONNELL: I want to end on this photo that has gone viral. It’s of a twelve-year-old, Devonte Hart, who was in tears. It was at—at a Ferguson protest rally in Portland, Oregon. And you can see this officer, Sergeant Bret Barnum, who is white, hugging this child. It has been shared more than one hundred and fifty thousand times on Facebook. What does that say to you, that photo, and what—and how it’s been, been shared so many times on Facebook?O’Donnell said nothing about “hope.” Beyond that, she wasn’t speaking to Coates.
It was Peterson, in his reply, who introduced the idea that people are “hopeful,” while saying that people are also “maybe a little bit naive about a better relationship between the African-American community and the police forces that are charged with protecting them.”
You can see that occur on the tape. It can also be found in the transcript.
Over the course of the past eighteen years, we’ve become increasingly discouraged by a type of “privilege” which dominates our flailing American discourse.
It’s a “privilege” our leading “journalists” seem to feel they possess by some sort of divine right. It’s the right to invent, rearrange and embellish facts to make preferred stories work better.
No one asked Coates about his body that day, except in some poetical way only he understands. No one asked him to speak about hope at all.
For that reason, the fictional question he describes couldn’t have sent him from the studio in a state of despair. Simply put, the story he tells his son and his readers simply didn’t occur.
This doesn’t tell us whether Coates has written a good and helpful book. That said, we liberals have entered a strange new season in the past few years, especially in the general area of race.
Increasingly, we’ve entered a season in which we seem to feel free to invent, embellish and ignore basic facts as we tell our stories to the world. We do this again and again.
Coates may have written a very good book. We’ll withhold our judgment on that. But this shit wasn’t cute when Dowd was doing it.
Is it likely to be helpful now?
Once again, those links: To read the transcript, just click here.
To watch the tape, click this. The segment with Peterson and Coates starts about nine minutes in.
Final point: Your lizard brain is going to tell you that we are wrong and Coates is right.
We’re going to give you the same old advice: Try not to listen to lizards. Lizards are constantly wrong!