First Race. Then Erase.
It is instructive to read Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.'s Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Crown, 2016) and to follow-up by asking what most distinguishes it from Ta'Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Both books focus on hot topics. There is a casual echo of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) in Glaude's title, and Coates's title absorbs the title of Richard Wright's powerful, accomplished poem "Between the World and Me." Both Coates and Glaude use autobiographical strategies to diagnose American ailments and pathologies, and both write as fathers who are deeply concerned about the futures their sons are condemned to live. They are aware the peculiar history of the United States of America assigns stereotyped roles to its citizens, roles that we accept, reject, or go into exile to escape. They know also that our nation is a republic not a democracy, that a racial contract occupies the space where a transparent social contact should exist, and that asking Americans to make full disclosure about anything is folly. What most distinguishes the two books is how the writers use language to inform readers about our nation's political theatre.
If environmental theories of language development were credible, it would be easy to surmise that Coates's language is rooted in the hard, urban dirt of Baltimore, Maryland whereas Glaude's language germinated in the organic soil of Moss Point, Mississippi. Environment, however, gives us no more than shallow information about how we speak and write. Consider that Coates's language (stylistically consistent with his prose in The Beautiful Struggle, 2008) is to Glaude's what a watercolor is to an oil painting.
Given that Glaude and I both spent our early years in Moss Point, ideas about the paradoxes of segregated environments are hard to divorce from what I will myself to hear in his writing. I read Democracy in Black with a prejudice of Southern associations which I can't employ in reading Between the World and Me. Certain assumptions that are taken for granted in urban communication escape my notice. Moss Point was semi-rural and down South, and things there were spelled out more clearly than they were in the near-North of Baltimore. The criteria for white hatred and black resentment were pretty damned plain. Despite his having become an esteemed American scholar, Glaude has not forgot that common sense does have virtues we ought not abandon. He puts what Jerome Bruner designated folk psychology to good use.
There is a grain of accuracy, no doubt, in Toni Morrison's proclaiming that Coates's language is "visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive," but there is greater utility in finding Glaude's language to be forensic, existentially affirmative, and reassuringly pragmatic. For many readers, Coates may have the moral charm of a 21st century James Baldwin, and that is a good thing for readers who live in the underground of the colorblind or in the gated community of whiteness. Nostalgia for Baldwin is doing well in the marketplace. Glaude, on the other hand, has mastered the complex simplicity that Richard Wright cultivated, and he uses it appropriately to give eyesight to the blind and to those who suspect that democracy is too often a cruel and endless dream. The market undervalues such unsweetened honesty. Coates's language is smart, hip, and engaging, but it conceals an absence of the gritty discipline Glaude has in reading political mindscapes and exposing how the concept of race has enslaved all Americans from 1776 to the present.
Glaude does not turn his back on redemption, but he is aware that having a Kenyan-American President is neither promise nor proof of salvation. While readers who have no memories of what the 1950s were in America (for which Mississippi was and still is an apt metaphor) might be mesmerized by Coates's cool prose in The Beautiful Struggle (2008) or in his acclaimed June 2014 Atlantic article on "Reparations," older readers in Moss Point and other Mississippi-flavored sites might be more receptive to judging Glaude's current ideas about democracy and enslavement against his earlier book In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). an eloquent meditation on "the tragic dimensions of the world of action" (49). Indeed, it might be possible, in Moss Point, to initiate a worthwhile conversation about how modern technology, globalization, and race give birth to blissful ignorance; it might be possible to smash a few debilitating stereotypes and binary (black/white) idolatries by reading Democracy in Black with healthy skepticism. I'd like to have my belief confirmed that people in my hometown are republican and catholic enough to do so.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
February 13, 2016