Ta-Nehisi Coates and identity
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer much written about. Having engaged a little with his essays, I was lent Between the World and Me by a friend. I was unsurprised by who. Coates is very much the ‘correct’ writer of the left currently, and as a fit and proper member of the liberal left (as well as a Londoner of very mixed Afro-Caribbean-European descent) I felt I ought to engage.
First, the bit that has been done to death as a “correct preface and before launching into critque, the part that’s obvious; Coates is a candid, thoughtful and unique voice. A very good writer, a significant 21st Century American voice. It may be too early to say whether he will be canonical, but the signs are he will. I am not a literary critic, but I wanted to offer a personal response to his writing, or rather his literary preoccupations, to see if there is anything half-universal in my particular thoughts about his thinking.
Like the science fiction author who becomes obsessed with the intricacies and technicalities of the genre, Coates may always be ‘great’ within a subcategory, rather than using that prism to place his own particular within the universal, and that universal in his particular. His fixation on the lens through which he sees the world – blackness – rather than how he sees through that lens and what he looks at are the limiting factor. The feeling that Coates is a ‘Black Writer’ very explicitly in that order dogs me continually when I read his work. I feel as though I ought to feel more – as a liberal, as mixed-race man, but I was just left with the uncomfortable sense that many of the grandly extrapolative commentaries on his work are universalising a writer who is so particular to his time and place, and the history of the USA, as well as his own experience. What I find most difficult is that in Coates is that he accepts ‘Blackness’ completely and internalises it wholly before ever putting pen to paper. The irony here is that by never questioning that first assumption, he fosters the fatalism which constantly stalks his work
That Coates’ address blackness as a monolithic bloc is where I struggle most. Despite passages when he is at his most lyrical, describing the multi-shaded, multi-storied, multicultural mix of the ‘The Yard’ at Howard University, he so often slides back into a monochrome world view, where he fixates on ‘blackness’ and on ‘black’. He is able to acknowledge this visual heterogeneity, but fails to fully comprehend the consequences of that with respects to culture, history and society. In this singular and one-dimensional view of ‘black,’ he reflects America’s greatest failure. The precondition of all of his work is that he has accepted the external and artificial ‘othering’ of nonwhiteness; his acceptance of this imposed definition underpins all that he writes; it preoccupies his words and perhaps his dreams; haunted by the ghost of another’s treason.
The motif of ‘black bodies’ in Between the World and Me perfectly encapsulates this internalisation. Of course he is right in that government has alienated these bodies, that the state has challenged individuals’ rights to govern their own, that the threat of force hangs over all of them. Yet what is so tragic is the resigned acceptance of this. Rather than understand that it is a contested space, one that is being unevenly but inevitably – and rightly- won back, he despairs as if it is lost. The increasing awareness of the slights, the bias, the towering structural travesties that history has built to subjugate black bodies points towards the likelihood of their destruction. Arguably White Militancy reflects how successful and ultimately inexorable this victory is. Or perhaps not being American, I am naive. Ironic it was always America that so many pointed to as a beacon of opportunity and of optimism. Coates is indeed one of 21st Century America’s finest voices; he is also one of it’s saddest truths. Every artist is flawed, but when the hand wringing liberals, the latter-day descendants of Langston Hughes’ Park Avenue dinner party hosts, ‘correctly’ accept universality in his particularity they are in danger or reinforcing the othering they claim to fight.
All identities are constructed, but ‘blackness’ has a long and particularly dark history, which has been better explored by many many others. But fundamentally, it is the ‘othering’ by European’s of nonwhite peoples that went alongside colonial expansion and became a core part of the racist/racialist theory and thinking that came to dominate by the 19th Century. As a European invention, it was adopted and internalised to varying degrees by people upon whom it was forced. It is interesting drawing on my own experience, having been lucky enough to be paid to briefly unpick a number of different cultures in my past career, how this varies. As a commercial market researcher, I used to hop place to place working out how best to flog anything from face cream to football boots. I remember one project where we were working on a campaign for Guinness called ‘Made of Black’ that drew a not-too-subtle line between the brand’s long heritage of being brewed and consumed in (primarily West) Africa, and one of it’s more obvious visual attributes within the beer category. In Lagos, this ebullient, assertive campaign, riffing on contemporary culture across the African continent was incredibly well received. Yet the following week in Addis Ababa, in a country that was never truly colonised, there was criticism – they wanted to know why we were showing this to them, ‘what was this Black Black Black’ they said. ‘We are Ethiopians, we come in many shades, and we are all Ethiopians. Those West Africans that were colonised are Black’. I imagine the darker skinned, ‘black’ Emiratis I met the next week in the UAE (to find out how best to redesign air conditioning units) would have found it equally puzzling, and not just because they (ostensibly) don’t drink.
Black is a label invented by the labeller. Like Santa Claus it is imagined, a myth or a construct that has informed real behaviours, constructed entire social and economic systems. So why does Coates embrace it rather that shout that it isn’t real. One reason is that the myth has created realities, but to dispel the myth is to undermine the foundation of the edifice and perhaps create the chance to build a new one. The other is far more tragic. The American Black experience, devoid of an alternative, it’s own ‘Ethiopian-ness’ or Emirati-ness’ embraces this. So we get to ‘Black Culture’, ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black Panther,’ the ‘Black’ here simply meaning ‘nonwhite’,the black being an empty vessel created by someone else who didn’t even bother to fill it that many try to fill in a quest for meaning. This is the history of the most enduring crime of slavery. That is cut people off from themselves. From any notion of identity. Then institutionally barred them from being part of any new one. The history of ‘Black’ is the history of the greatest American Crime. Micheal Jackson’s transformation could have only happened in this America. Hip Hop, ‘Young Gifted and Black’, ‘Ebony and Ivory,’ could have only been created in this place. In fairness to Coates, he does not try to explicitly universalise, so the dangerous mistake is that of those reading. Perhaps this previous sentence is the most important so far. Perhaps this is best read as a response to Coates the Cultural Artefact rather than Coates the Author, brought about by the loan of a “correct” text from a “correct” friend.
Perhaps by this point someone reading will have already decided that I am ‘not black enough’. Divides are so often drawn along these lines. As if there is a ‘correct’ amount of blackness. These mimic and invert the very hierarchy of the plantation; once again they internalise the ‘othering’ – the lightskinned slaves in the house and the darkest bodies working the hardest toil on the field. Repackaged slave-owner logic used to ‘other’ an another from another mother.
The point of writing this, though was to reflect how little of my life I saw in Coates’ ‘black life’. ‘Black British’ is loosely defined and rarely used. Perhaps because it can mean so much it does mean so little. But whatever cohesion there is in that term comes with is variety, it’s multiplicity. I cannot identify with Coates because I have not been sat outside of history, nose pressed up against the glass looking in. Migration here came in suits and Sunday best, carrying cardboard suitcases and hopes. It came with by invitation, not with chains. It came with identities and cultures – those in themselves part-created, part agglomerated, part othered, but wholly owned. West Indian, Jamaican, the multiple religions and traditions of the Indian subcontinent. They came with stories. They came with these shields against a simple ‘othering’ which let people say “I am not the other, I am.”
My own mother, born in Jamaica and having come to the Mother Country on a boat as a child with my Grandmother, was puzzled when she moved to the US in her early 20s. The fixation with ‘Blackness’, The ‘Kunta Kinte Questing’ to look for identity and meaning, the notion that dating across ‘racial lines’ was somehow treacherous was alien. These invisible picket lines had been erected on both sides. Blackness was complicit in it’s own vilification.
I look at the US and wonder if it ever could have brought forth Ali G, the character that mocks the suburban white adoption of (predominantly black) Urban culture’; who asks “Is it cos I is black?” which in six simple syllables captures the complex interplay between Britain and the Caribbean diaspora that have helped shape it’s contemporary culture. A comedic rhetorical question imbued with Aldwyn ‘Lord Kitchener’ Roberts, The Specials and Madness’; filled with Two-Tone, Skinhead and Ska; seasoned with the syntax of Dizzee Rascal and Trevor McDonald. Perhaps the intricacies of the British class system helped blur ‘race’, helped (‘white’) band The Clash warn about ‘The Guns of Brixton’ years before the riots and empowered MC Smiley Culture to give us a ‘Cockney Translation’ only three years before NWA said ‘Fuck the Police’.
The closest I ever saw to what I thought of as an American internalisation of ‘Blackness’ was whilst at university. In the alienating environment of Oxford, where (almost) everyone, save those from the most elite public schools felt cut adrift, there were undertones of it in the ‘Oxford Caribbean and African Society” aka “BlackSoc”. The combination of these two amorphous cultural buckets was curious to me. Growing up in London, I remember some friction between the two diasporas. They both have so many diverse and different stories that to cram them together, with only their nonwhiteness in common, looked like a self-othering, in reaction to being a visible outsider in a place where everyone felt like an imposter. Maybe it was easier in BlackSoc, like the passively religious who arrive at university and become passionate Evangelicals. I don’t know, but it always struck me as non sequitous unless seen through the lens of the Coatesian worldview. Perhaps their existence itself is a warning against my own naive, instinctive smugness. After all, just as ‘not all Trump voters are racist, but all racists are Trump voters’, the same could be said about Brexit. And the recent Austrian elections Geert Wilders demonstrates how misplaced European complacency is.
Coates himself hints at a less monolithic perspective when he narrates his move to NY, yet ultimately squeezes the Latinos and Puerto Ricans into his catholic outlook. People are one or the other. Yet the failure is not his, the failure is America’s. If you feel that I believe race does not matter that the damage of institutionalised, othered, monolithic ‘blackness’ is irrelevant then I have expressed myself poorly. It matters. A lot. But it must be contested and to do so it must be fought. That is not the author’s job. It is all of ours. And perhaps that is easier anywhere else where there was life before the labelling. How do you think beyond if there is nothing before, If everything else has been erased?
I understand the Coatesian view in the abstract, placed in is socio-historical context. But it is a contested space, and because of this, I consciously choose not to share it.
I worry if I am ‘Black enough’ to share this article without reproach. Yet it is that instinctive worry that tells me I must share it.