Between the World and Ta-Nehisi Coates
During the final session of the "Generations of Struggle" series at the New Orleans Public Library on June 15, 2017, we arrived at diverging opinions about two four-letter words ----hope and love. The catalyst was Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me.
As overlapping abstractions, hope and love may inspire some African American readers to think of universal virtues, to dwell ---however momentarily ---in a realm of ideals. These readers are optimists. They believe we can hear the harmony of liberty above the cacophony of the United States of America. We can hear the harmony if we are true to our God and to our native land. The song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," co-authored by the brothers James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson, is an anthem, a hymn of faith. The same readers faithfully embrace Arna Bontemps's admonition to hold fast to dreams. Their thinking habits as dreamers align them oddly with the Dreamers, who Coates describes at one point, as people who "plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself" (150). When African spirituality is integrated with New World religiosity, these Christ-haunted readers thrive. They are romantics.
Among the readers in our group who occupy the middle of a spectrum, love and hope are philosophical possibilities not eschatological, historical givens. The readers are as judicial as Jesuits. They are tolerant. They have compassion both for readers who are locked in bubbles of faith and routine and for readers who are bubble-busters, who reject rose-colored visions of what is actual. They hear in Coates's appropriation of Richard Wright's superb lynching poem a warning against uncritical, unconditional embracing of hope and love. They are aware of how Coates borrowed and modified the form and content of James Baldwin's "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" and "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind" (The Fire Next Time. New York: The Dial Press, 1963). They do not worry that Coates is more "commercial" than Baldwin was (and continues to be). They give passionate attention to Baldwin's claim that "it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime" (19-20). They weigh that claim against Coates's assertion that "The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all" (151). They will neither pit Coates against Wright nor Baldwin against Coates in the discourse on systemic racism. They are aware that systemic racism is blind and deaf and dumb in its rejection of civility, in its embrace of barbarity. They know that the words guilt, hope, love, innocence are unstable signifiers in a human being's descriptions of existence and choices of identity.
At the end of the reader's rainbow that is remote from those who pursue either neutrality or romance are the strong readers who contend that discussions of hope and love are compulsively fractal. They are relentlessly critical of how Baldwin and Coates wrote jeremiads for the unregenerate. They do respect how Coates and Baldwin, in greater and lesser degrees, championed the need for love of Self prior to love for the Others, but they do not believe that faith transcends Darwinian action or deep knowledge about the eternal struggle to combat the corrosive properties of all that dehumanizes. They inhabit the region between the world and Coates and fill the void that plagues and limits Coates's book as equipment for living. Those readers are my comrades.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. June 18, 2017