Reactions toTom Friedman’s “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations”

Tom Friedman’s new book’s basic thesis: now everyone on the planet is living in a simultaneous age of accelerations of changes in technology, globalization and planet earth and we all are challenged in how we can and will respond to these changes.[1] After summarizing the major points of the book, the conclusion will offer some critical comments.

Summary of the Book

Most of the book describes those changes, but nowhere is there an express “guide to thriving” in this age. Instead the reader has to pick up recommended habits and changes that are sprinkled throughout the book. Here is what I assume are the elements of such a guide.

  1. Understanding the Accelerating Changes. This is Part II of the book. Increasing technology emphasizes developments in artificial intelligence and global dissemination of these improvements. Increasing globalization includes “trade in physical goods, services and financial transactions” and “the ability of any individual or company to compete, connect, exchange, or collaborate globally.” Increasing changes to planet earth include climate change, reductions in biodiversity, deforestation, biogeochemical flows, ocean acidification, overuse of freshwater, atmospheric aerosol loading, introduction of man-man chemicals and materials and increasing human population.
  1. Understanding the Effects of These Changes. This is supposed to be the primary focus of Part III of the book. The major one I found is Friedman’s assertion that there are now international inversions: allies can kill faster than enemies; “enemies” can pose greater risks by weakness rather than strength; there is a rising risk of frail states becoming failed states; and jihadists are “super-empowered breeders” of disorder or “breakers.” Most of this Part instead discusses possible responses to the accelerating changes and effects and his conclusion that “we have no choice but to learn to adapt to this new pace of change” (p. 198).
  1. Identifying and Implementing Responses to These Changes.

Responses to changes to planet earth: we need “a compounding commitment to stewardship, a compounding wiliness to act collectively to do compounding research and make compounding investments in clean energy production and more efficient consumption, along with a willingness, at least in America, to impose a carbon tax to get compounding investments in clean power and efficiency, plus a compounding commitment to women’s education and an ethic of empowerment everywhere.” (Pp. 183-84)

In addition, nations need to learn and adapt, to be agile and adopt heterodox, hybrid, entrepreneurial, experimental measures (Pp. 298-325) and to reverse centralization of governments and increase their decentralization, and the U.S. with its federal structure is designed to do just that. (Pp. 325-27) The last point is repeated in Chapter 7 (P. 201).

Goals for innovation from Chapter 7:“[R]eimagining and redesigning . . . society’s workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics and communities—in ways that will enable more citizens on more days in more ways to keep pace with how these accelerations are reshaping . . . [our] lives and generate more stability. [W]orkplace innovation to identify exactly what humans can do better than machines and better with machines and increasingly train people for these roles.” (Emphasis in original) “[G]eopolitical innovation to figure out how we collectively manage a world where the power of one [person], the power of machines, the power of flows, and the power of many [persons] are collapsing weak states, super-empowering breakers and stressing strong states. [P]olitical innovation to adjust our traditional left-right political platforms . . . to meet the new demands for societal resilience in the age of . . . accelerations. [M]oral innovation . . .to reimagine how we scale sustainable values to everyone we possibly can when the power of one [person] and the power of machines become so amplified that human beings become almost godlike. [S]ocietal innovation, learning to build new social contracts, lifelong learning opportunities, and expanded public-private partnerships, to anchor and propel more diverse populations and build more healthy communities.”

All individuals need a plan to succeed that includes lifelong learning and “self-motivation to tap into new global flows for work and learning.” This is a new social contract where people are hired based upon an individual’s skills, not credentials. “Most good middle-class jobs today—the ones that cannot be outsourced, automated, roboticized, or digitized—are likely to be . . . stempathy jobs,” i.e., “jobs that require and reward the ability to leverage technical and interpersonal skills.”

U.S. National Government should limit national political campaign spending and length of campaigns; stop state gerrymandering; and impose ranked-choice voting for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Chapter 10 also contains a list of at least 20 suggested changes to federal laws and policies without explanatory comments and without saying whether and how they are related to changes to the earth. All of these changes will require government “to create every possible regulatory and tax incentive for every company to provide, and every worker to get access to, intelligent assistance, intelligent assistants, intelligent networks, and intelligent financing for lifelong learning.” (P. 241)

  1. Reflecting. This is the title of Part I of the book, where Friedman says, stopping “to pause and reflect . . . is a necessity” because it enables you to start “to rethink your assumptions, to reimagine what is possible, . . . reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs [and] . . . reimagine a better path [forward].”

Supposedly he realized this when a guest was late for breakfast at a restaurant, thus giving Tom a few minutes to reflect and relax and then to thank the guest for being late (and thus providing the first part of the title of the book). I was put off by his converting this trivial incident into a significant one that is in the title of the book. Friedman is a serious man of the Jewish faith, which like other religions emphasizes regular prayer and attendance at worship services to provide the opportunities for such reflection, but no mention of that or of his recommitting to a regular practice of reflection at the start of the book. In Chapter 11, however, he says, “we make God present by our own choices and decisions. Unless we bear witness to God’s presence by our own deeds, He is not present. You cannot be moral unless you are totally free. All religions have some version of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

  1. Identifying and Honoring Your Anchor. “We each need to be anchored [and enriched] in a topsoil of trust that is the foundation of all healthy communities . . . [and to] enrich it in turn.” For him that is Minnesota and St. Louis Park, where he grew up and where he obtained the values he holds today: “I am a socially liberal, deeply patriotic, pluralism-loving, community-oriented, fiscally moderate, free-trade-inclined, innovation-obsessed environmentalist-capitalist,” and “America can deliver a life of decency, security, opportunity, and freedom for its own people, and can also be a bulwark of stability and a beacon of liberty and justice for people the world over.”

Conclusion

Although I am not qualified to assess Friedman’s discussion of technological change, a recent Wall Street Journal article takes a less grandiose view of technological innovation.[2] It says, none of the technological change “has translated into meaningful advances in Americans’ standard of living.” Moreover, “outside of personal technology, improvements in everyday life have been incremental, not revolutionary.”

The book, in my opinion, was very poorly organized and edited. And it suggests that the U.S. responses to the accelerations should rest on the shoulders of thousands of local governments while inconsistently compiling a long list of things the federal government should do, many of which appear to be unrelated to responding to the accelerations.[3]

After a rather manic discussion of this book on the Charlie Rose Show last November, Friedman made a more effective presentation last December at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum.[4]

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[1] Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations Farrar, Straus & Giroux, new York, 2016).

[2] Ip, The Economy’s Hidden Problem: We’re Out of New Ideas, W.S.J. (Dec. 6, 2016)..

[3[ Here are two of the many reviews of the book: Micklethwait, The Message of Thomas Friedman’s New Book: It’s Going to Be O.K., N.Y. Times (Nov. 22, 2016); Vanderkam, Everyone Has an App Idea, W.S.J. (Nov. 21, 2016). Unsurprisingly Friedman uses some of the book’s ideas in his New York Times columns; here are two such columns: Dancing in a Hurricane, N.Y. Times (Nov. 19, 2016); From Hands to Heads to Hearts, N.Y. Times (Jan. 4, 2017).

[4] Charlie Rose Show, Tom Friedman (Nov. 21, 2016); Westminster Town Hall Forum, Tom Friedman (Dec.13, 2016).

 

Bryan Stevenson’s Amazing Advocacy for Justice      

 

Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson

Now based in Montgomery, Alabama, Bryan Stevenson is conducting amazing advocacy for racial justice in many different ways: as an attorney for individuals who have been victimized by the U.S. criminal justice system; as the founder of a non-profit human rights organization (the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)) devoted to those causes; as an author and speaker; and as the creator of various ways to honor his predecessors who strove for justice and the victims of injustice. Let us review these ways in which Stevenson demonstrates his advocacy after looking at his biography.

Stevenson’s Biography

 He was born in 1959 in Milton, Delaware and grew up in a poor rural community. Attending a “colored school” for his early years, he graduated from a racially integrated public high school and then Eastern College (now Eastern University), a Philadelphia “Christian university dedicated to the preparation of . . . students for thoughtful and productive lives of Christian faith, leadership and service.” He then attended and obtained a J.D. degree from the Harvard Law School; and a Masters in Public Policy degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Stevenson is an attorney and the Founder and Executive Director of EJI, which specializes in advocacy for children in adult prisons, death-row inmates, prison and sentencing reform and combating race and poverty (. He also is a Professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law.

In 1995 he received a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which said that in his “drive to expose biases under which capital punishment is imposed, Stevenson has articulated how its use is linked to race and class discrimination and to systemic defects in criminal procedures.”

In 2000 Stevenson was awarded Sweden’s Olof Palme Prize. The award stated he is “a courageous representative of all the individuals, women and men from the entire world, who have maintained tirelessly that the right to life cannot be controverted, that the death penalty is an ultimate form of torture, and that the state does not have the right to kill its citizens.”

Stevenson, the Attorney

In 2015 EJI attorneys won the release of innocent people on death row or in prison for life. They also were successful in obtaining new trials for people illegally convicted and relief for those unfairly sentenced. They have documented and challenged abusive conditions of confinement in state jails and prisons. They have continued to fight against prosecution of children in adult courts and to obtain new sentences for individuals who have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were children.

EJI’s work does not end when a client is released from prison. It provides them with re-entry assistance, including housing, employment, training and support. Its Post-Release Education and Preparation Program has been recognized as a model for such programs by various state officials.

Stevenson The Author

 Stevenson’s 2014 best-selling book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” provides interesting accounts of some of the significant cases in which he and EJI have been involved to provide context for a general discussion of particular problems in the American criminal justice system.

For example, Chapter Sixteen, “The Stonecatchers’ Song of Sorrow,” opens with brief discussions of Stevenson’s 2010 victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, when it decided that it was unconstitutional to impose life sentences without parole on children convicted of non-homicide crimes, and in 2012 when the Court held the same was the case when the crime was homicide. The chapter’s footnotes provide citations to these Supreme Court decisions and other mentioned cases.

Chapter Twelve, “Mother, Mother,” is another example. It recounts the trial and unjust conviction of a mother for murdering her stillborn child and sentenced to life without parole. Stevenson and EJI then entered her case and eventually obtained her release from prison. This case is then used as a platform to discuss the many problems created by incarcerating women with more details in footnotes.

The book also tells of instances in which Stevenson is touched, emotionally and spiritually, by clients who are in prison.

In the Introduction, for instance, Stevenson as a 23-year old law student was panicked and nervous when he visited a Georgia death-row inmate, who was immediately happy to learn that he would not have an execution date the next year and then gently led Stevenson into a three-hour general conversation. When the inmate was being returned to his cell, he started singing a black spiritual hymn: “I’m pressing on, the upward way. New heights I’m gaining, every day. Still praying as, I’m upward bound. Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” Stevenson confesses that this hymn was “a precious gift” and that the prisoner gave him “an astonishing measure of his humanity” and an altered “understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.”

This and other experiences with death-row prisoners that summer constituted “proximity to the condemned and incarcerated [that] made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful” and led to Stevenson’s being “committed to helping the death row prisoners.”

In addition, the book concludes with the “Author’s Note,” in which Stevenson seeks to recruit others to the cause of racial justice, He says, “there are endless opportunities for you to do something about criminal justice policy or help the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.” An invitation then is extended for the reader to contact EJI for more information.

This book has received great reviews, has been a New York Times Bestseller and has won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, an NAACP Image Award and the Dayton Literary Prize for Nonfiction.

Stevenson The Speaker

A prior post mentioned Stevenson’s then forthcoming presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum. I attended this event even though I had never heard of him and thought his presentation would be a legal analysis of the changes needed in the American criminal justice system. Instead it was an emotional, passionate call for such reform and more of a sermon than a legal discussion. At the halfway point, the moderator, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, said that in his many years as the moderator of the Forum he had never heard such a moving presentation.

Nine months later I watched his televised conversation with Charlie Rose. “An Hour with Bryan Stevenson,” Charlie Rose Show (Aug. 19, 2015), when he was just as impressive. Here are some of his pithy, insightful comments:

  • “Everyone is more than the worst thing he or she has ever done.”
  • “No matter what you’ve done, your life matters or has value.”
  • “All lives matter.”
  • “All lives have equal value.”

Another example of Stevenson as a speaker is his TED Talk of March 2012,“We need to talk about an injustice.”

EJI’s Other Racial Justice Efforts

Over the last four years EJI has published major reports about the domestic slave trade, Slavery in America; and racial lynchings, Lynching in America; its third report was released in late 2015:The Anti-Civil Rights Movement. Excerpts from all of these reports are provided in EJI’s educational 2016 Calendar. For example, the month of October focuses on “Racial Terror Lynchings” with a large photograph of a crowd watching an 1893 Texas lynching and with this comment on October 5th: “1920: A mob lynches four black men in Macclenny, Florida, seizing three from the county jail and shooting the fourth dead in the woods.” EJI also has produced a film, From Slavery to Mass Incarceration.[1]

In addition, EJI has erected historic markers about the domestic slave trade in its home base in Montgomery, Alabama and is working on a national memorial in the city about American racial inequality and lynchings. Its first historical marker about Lynching in America recently was erected in Brighton, Alabama pursuant to a plan to place such markers at every lynching site in the country.

EJI’s office building in Montgomery is the site of a former slave prison and close to the city’s slave market. In late 2016 it plans to convert part of its building to a museum about the history of racial inequality in America and the connections between slavery and mass incarceration. EJI also uses its building to host programs and presentations about its work and the need for reforming the criminal justice system while similar presentations are made by its staff at colleges, universities, churches, community groups, high schools and conferences.

An insight to such programs has been provided by Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization, who along with 50 other faith leaders attended a two-day program at EJI in December 2015. Stevenson emphasized to this group these preconditions for reforming the American criminal justice system: (1) proximity to those most impacted by the system; (2) changing the narrative; (3) replacing hopelessness with hope; and (4) committing ourselves to uncomfortable things.[2]

These messages were made flesh by the Wallis group’s making pilgrimages to two sites where black men had been lynched, digging up dirt from those sites and placing the dirt in glass jars marked with the individuals’ names, birth and death years and the names of the lynching sites (part of EJI’s Soil Collection Project) and then holding prayer services in memory of the individuals. Another moving experience for the Sojourners group was spending time with Mr. Anthony Ray Hinton, who had spent 30 years in solitary confinement on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Stevenson’s concluding message for the group: “I have always had to believe in things I haven’t seen.”

Conclusion

What an amazing human being! What amazing efforts for social justice! I give thanks to God for this amazing servant!

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[1] EJI, Annual Report 2015.

[2] Wallis, It’s Never Too Late to Do Justice, Sojourners (Dec. 17, 2015) EGI, EGI Hosts Sojourners Faith Table Retreat (Dec. 16, 2015). Willis was a speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum in 2010 and will be returning on February 4, 2016 to discuss “America’s Original Sin: Racism and White Privilege,” the title of his book being published today. In a Foreward to the book, Stevenson says , “the mainstream church has been largely silent or worse“ to “our nation’s historical failure to address the legacy of racial inequality, the presumption of guilt and the racial narrative that created it.” Moreover, the church has been complicit in the refusal “to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation” and the emergence of “new forms of racial subordination.” Indeed, according to Stevenson, “Christianity is directly implicated when we Christians fail to speak more honestly about the legacy of racial inequality.”

 

 

 

 

Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”  

Between World & Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I decided to read “Between the World and Me” after reading David Brooks’ column about the book, watching Charlie Rose’s interview of the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and learning that the book was No. 1 on the New York Times hard-cover nonfiction “Best Seller List.”

Reading the book prompted my conducting research about the book and the author and then reading his earlier memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle.” The following sets forth my reactions to all of this information. As always, I invite comments of agreement or disagreement.

“Between the World and Me”

As a white male septuagenarian, I thought this book by a 40-year-old African-American man described a world totally foreign to me. The book thus was another marker of the existence of U.S. racial segregation over the last 40 years. Part of my reaction was due to the author’s using words and names of people and music that meant nothing to me. I also found it difficult to understand his obvious mélange of what had to have been black “street talk” with “standard” English.

I had the sense that the author as he was growing up lived with an omnipresent fear of violence to his black body from his father, from other young black males and from law enforcement personnel and that this fear has produced an omnipresent rage. In his words, that rage “burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”

There were only two exceptions to this fear and anger, as I read the book.

The first was when he attended Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, the preeminent higher education institution for African-Americans, which he called The Mecca with so many beautiful young black women (“jennies”), with so many black people doing so many different things, with professors from other countries and with its large collection of books and articles by many black writers and scholars. He also met his future wife there. After six years on and off, however, he dropped out of Howard to pursue a journalism career.[1]

The second was his recent trip with wife and 14-year-old son to Paris France for an escape from concerns about race while experiencing the gastronomic and cultural wonders of that great city. He also told Charlie Rose that his Paris trip was due to his love of the French language and wanting to see how France deals with its problems and to expose his son to other parts of the world. At least the first of these reasons motivated earlier black authors James Baldwin and Richard Wright, who are briefly quoted in the book on racial issues, to spend significant amounts of time in Paris.[2] This love of Paris, however, could not obscure for Ta-Nehisi the fact that the French had colonized many parts of Africa and had taken advantage of its black people.

Coates told the Baltimore Sun the book was intended to tell a black audience “’I see your pain, and you’re not crazy.’ There’s racism, and then there’s the mind-tricks people play on you by telling you that the racism isn’t real.”

The title of the book puzzled me, and its inclusion in an extract in the book’s preface from a poem by Richard Wright, an African-American author and poet, did not help. I then searched and found the complete poem and discovered it was about the impact on a black man of his discovering evidence of the past lynching of another black man. I then concluded that the book’s title meant that white men’s violence against black men always comes between Coates and his perceptions of the rest of the world. Is that right? Here is the complete Wright poem (with the excerpt quoted in Ta-Nehisi’s book in bold):

“And one morning while in the woods I stumbled 
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear–
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
my flesh.

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
my life be burned….

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun…. “

“The Beautiful Struggle”

Beautiful Struggle

Coates’ memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle,” was published seven years earlier. It covers the first 18 years of his life and, therefore, overlaps some of the time period discussed in the new book. I was surprised to discover that I thought the two books were describing two different men. Indeed, the use of the adjective “beautiful” for the earlier account of his first 18 years would not be apt for the telling of the same story, in part, in the recent book  Of course, Coates in 2015 is different from the man he was when he wrote the memoir in 2008. Now he is reacting, in part, to the horrible recent killings of unarmed black men: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, to name a few.

In “The Beautiful Struggle” we learn that unlike so many young black men in the 1970’s and 80’s Coates had parents who were educated and concerned about his education and well-being.

Although Coates said he feared his father, William Paul Coates, and thought he was a “practicing fascist” mandating books to read and banning religion, his father also was an important figure in his life. The father was a Vietnam veteran, an early member of the Black Panther Part and an early collector and re-publisher of books and other writings of black authors. His father earned a B.A. degree from Antioch College and a master’s degree in library science from Atlanta University and worked at Howard University’s Moorland Spingarn Research Center, which is one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive repositories for the documentation of the history and culture of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and other parts of the world. Thus, many of the names of black authors mentioned in “Between the World and Me” perhaps were not discovered by Ta-Nehisi when he was a Howard student, but already were known to him through his father’s work.

His father’s interest in black culture also explains Coates’ first name, Ta-Nehisi, which “The Beautiful Struggle” says is an ancient Egyptian name for the mighty Nubians in Africa.

His parents’ desire for their son to have an excellent education was exhibited when as a fourth grader he was sent to local private schools for tests and hoped-for scholarships But Ta-Nehisi was not interested and did not do well on the exams so the private school option was foreclosed.

After doing reasonably well in ninth grade at William H. Lemmel Middle School in Baltimore, Ta Nehisi pleased his parents by gaining admittance to the City’s preeminent public high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which emphasized sciences, technology, engineering and math. He, however, did not do well there and was expelled at the end of his junior year after he failed English and was in a fight with another student in the cafeteria.

Afterwards, his father said, “Ta-Nehisi, you are a disgrace to this family’s name.” For the son, that hurt because he had completely let his father down and because “I’d failed myself. No matter what the professional talkers tell you, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail.”

Earlier that year after the family had moved to a large suburban home, Ta-Nehisi participated in an African-American ritual, Ankobia, to celebrate those who lead in battle, setting the standard for courage and commitment; this ritual was organized and taught by Pan-African black American activists.

He, therefore, experienced (and presumably enjoyed), at ages 16 to 18, the suburban lifestyle that he castigates in “Between Me and the World:” a life style “organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens.”

For his senior year of high school Ta-Nehisi attended Baltimore County’s Woodlawn High School and turned around his poor record at Poly. His grades improved. He gave a speech at a school assembly about Marcus Garvey, a proponent of Black Nationalism and the Pan-Africanism movement. Ta-Nehisi became a peer counselor and conflict resolution person. He applied to four colleges, including Howard, and was admitted to all of them and decided to go to Howard as the memoir ends.

Conclusion

The Charlie Rose interview reveals Coates as a calm, sensitive, rational, intelligent human being rather than a wild-eyed extremist who cannot get over the legitimate fears and anger of his childhood, an impression easily left by his later book.

In that interview Rose pressed Coates on whether the message of combating white supremacy or the process of writing was more important for him. Coates eventually admitted that writing was more important because he loves the challenge of writing and that eventually he might use his writing skills to do something else like writing a novel.

He also said he was deeply inspired by James Baldwin’s beautiful writing, and many have commented on Coates’ new book’s adopting the same form as Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew:” a letter to a black male relative (son for Coates and nephew for Baldwin) about violence against blacks. Coates’ comments about his love of writing and of Baldwin’s literary skills leave a lingering question: was his recent book an intentional or subconscious attempt to try to write like Baldwin? (I do not have the literary knowledge to answer that question.)

Coates also told Charlie Rose that he does not share the optimism and hope of many African-Americans and that he does not believe racial progress was or will be automatic or preordained, which was his interpretation of the famous saying of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

This interpretation of that saying, however, in my opinion, is clearly erroneous. No one can seriously believe that progress on racial issues or on any other social or political issue is automatic or preordained. Such progress or change requires a lot of work and sacrifice to advocate change and to mobilize public opinion in favor of such change. There will be disappointments or failures along the way, and that is why people in the struggle need words of encouragement and hope like these words of Dr. King. Indeed, Coates conceded to Rose that as a result of activists and pressure, there has been progress on racial issues in the U.S. since the Civil War.

In addition, Coates said he thought that President Obama’s recent eulogy in Charleston, South Carolina was the greatest presidential address he has ever heard. To see and hear it again, as in this video, still brings tears to all people of good will. Some of the President’s words also undercut Coates’ lack of appreciation for the importance of religious faith and of black churches in the struggle for racial progress. The President said:

  • “The church is and always has been the center of African-American life, a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships. Over the course of centuries, black churches served as ‘hush harbors’ where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah; rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.  They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart — and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.”

I join David Brooks in his previously cited column in disagreeing with Coates’ total rejection of the American Dream. According to Brooks, “The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow. This dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide. It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements.”

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[1] For the next eight years or so after leaving Howard, Coates was a journalist with freelance jobs, alternative weeklies, and magazines but never for more than two years at a time. In 2008, he published his memoir and then landed at The Atlantic, initially as a blogger; later, as a national editor.

[2] Richard Wright (1908-1960) is best known for his 1940 novel “Native Son” and his 1945 autobiography “Black Boy;” his poem, quoted at the end of the first part of this blog post, provides the title for Coates’ book. James Baldwin (1924 –1987) is well known for Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), Giovanni’s Room (1956 The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976). Coates on page 133 of his book quotes from Baldwin’s essay, “On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies,” a paragraph of which is contained in the Appendix to this post. Coates also quotes two other African-American poets whose full poems are in the attached Appendix: Sonia Sanchez (p.3) without Coates telling the reader the full poem is about Malcolm X; and Amiri Baraka (p. 73).

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APPENDIX

I. Reviews of “Between the World and Me”

Bennett, Ta-Nehisi Coates and a Generation Waking Up, New Yorker (July 15, 2015)

Brooks, Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2015)

Harris, The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York Magazine (July 12, 2015),

Ip, Ta-Nehisi Coates defines a new race beat, Columbia Journalism Rev. (Oct. 29, 2014) Johnson, An Updated Racial Hustle, City Journal (Aug. 2, 2015)

McCauley, Ta-Nehisi Coates on the roots of racial violence, Balt. Sun (July 18, 2015),

Remnick, Charleston and the Age of Obama, New Yorker (June 19, 2015),

Schuessler, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Visceral’ Take on Being Black in America, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2015)

II. Other Writings by, and Interviews of, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates, American Girl, The Atlantic (Jan./Feb. 2009) (article about Michelle Obama)

Coates, Between the World and My Book Club: Your Final Critical Thoughts, The Atlantic (Aug. 8, 2015)

Coates, List of Articles in The Atlantic

Coates, My 10 Favorite Books: Ta-Nehisi Coates, N.Y. Times (July 31, 2015)

Coates, Ta-Nehisi News (Blog of the most recent and crucial events in the social, political and cultural life of the U.S.)

Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014)

PBS NewsHour, Interview of Ta-Nehisi Coates: We accept violence against African-Americans as normal (July 23, 2015)

III. Richard Wright

Biography

Richard Wright’s Poem, “Between the World and Me

IV. Sonia Sanchez

Biography: Sonia Sanchez (born Wilsonia Benita Driver, September 9, 1934) is an African-American poet most often associated with the Black Arts Movement. She has authored over a dozen books of poetry, as well as plays and children’s books. She was a recipient of 1993 Pew Fellowships in the Arts.

“Malcolm [X]”

do not speak to me of martyrdom                                                                                   of men who die to be remembered                                                                                 on some parish day                                                                                                               I don’t believe in dying                                                                                                         though I too shall die                                                                                                             and violets like castanets                                                                                                     will echo me.

Yet this man                                                                                                                               this dreamer,                                                                                                                             thick-lipped with words                                                                                                         will never speak again                                                                                                             and in each winter                                                                                                                   when the cold air cracks                                                                                                         with frost, I’ll breathe                                                                                                             his breath and mourn                                                                                                             my gun-filled nights.

he was the sun that tagged                                                                                                   the western sky and                                                                                                               melted tiger-scholars                                                                                                             while they searched for stripes.                                                                                         he said, “fuck you white                                                                                                       man, we have been                                                                                                                 curled too long. nothing                                                                                                         is sacred now. not your                                                                                                           white face nor any                                                                                                                   land that separates                                                                                                                 until some voices                                                                                                                     squat with spasms.

Do not speak to me of living.                                                                                                 life is obscene with crowds                                                                                                     of white on black.                                                                                                                     death is my pulse.                                                                                                                     what might have been                                                                                                             is not for him/or me                                                                                                                 but what could have been                                                                                                       is not for him/or me                                                                                                                 but what could have been                                                                                                       floods the womb until I drown.”

Sanchez, Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems (emphasis added)

V. Amiri Baraka 

Biography: Born in 1934, Amiri Baraka was raised in USA. Having studied Philosophy and Religion at Columbia University, he has a sound knowledge of these subjects that also reflects well in his writings. He is a well known African-American writer of fiction, drama, poetry and music. With books such as Tales of the Out and the Gone, he has received the PEN Open Book Award and is also respected as one of the most widely published African American authors of his generation. Apart from writing, Baraka is considered as a revolutionary political activist and has given lectures on various political and cultural issues extensively throughout Europe, Africa, USA and the Caribbean.

Ka’Ba
“A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and Black people
call across or scream across or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will.

Our world is full of sound 
Our world is more lovely than anyone’s 
tho we suffer, and kill each other 
and sometimes fail to walk the air

We are beautiful people 
With african imaginations 
full of masks and dances and swelling chants 

with african eyes, and noses, and arms 
though we sprawl in gray chains in a place 
full of winters, when what we want is sun.

We have been captured,
brothers. And we labor                                                                                                         to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new

correspondence with ourselves
and our black family. We read magic
now we need the spells, to rise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be

the sacred words?

VI. James Baldwin 

Biography: James Arthur Baldwin (1924 –1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racialsexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable if un-nameable tensions.[1] Some Baldwin essays are book-length, for instance The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work(1976).

Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, written well before gay equality was widely espoused in America: Giovanni’s Room (1956).[2] Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is said to be his best-known work.

“On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies”

“[The Europeans who came here paid the price of becoming “white.] And [they] have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot’s wife— looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt.” Baldwin, On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies, in Roediger (editor0, Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means To Be White at 177-180) (emphasis added).