Important Criminal Justice Work Continued by Equal Justice Initiative

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), based in Montgomery, Alabama, is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

This work continued in 2016.

It “won relief for nearly a dozen condemned prisoners on death row facing execution.” It “won reduced sentences for more than a dozen people who were sentenced die in prison when they were children” and it “continues to represent scores of other condemned juveniles.” It has “fought against horrific prison conditions and abuse within jails and prisons” and is “challenging the extreme sentences that continue to be imposed on low-level offenders and people who are not a threat to public safety,” In 2016 it “won the release of more than a dozen people who were unfairly sentenced or convicted” and is “continuing [its] work to reform the criminal justice system.”

EJI also has education and activism projects “to challenge America’s history of racial inequality.” As discussed in an earlier post, EJI has announced plans for a national memorial for victims of lynching and a museum on racial injustice.

More details on these important accomplishments are provided in EJI’s Annual Report 2016, which I received in last week’s mail, but which apparently is not yet available on EJI’s website.

EJI’s Executive Director is Bryan Stevenson, a powerful and dedicated lawyer, author and speaker, who meets the challenge that President Obama made to Howard University graduates last May.

I urge all citizens who are interested in criminal justice reform to support EJI with your charitable donations. This is even more important now when, according to a New York Times report, President-Elect Donald Trump has made comments about private prisons working better than government-operated prisons and detention facilities resulting in huge increases in the stock prices of the corporations that own and operate the former.

 

 

 

Evaluating Ta-Neshi Coates Through the Prism of President Obama’s Howard and Rutgers Universities Speeches

President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University was examined in a prior post. Key points in Obama’s speech for this purpose are the following:

  • “Be confident in your heritage.  Be confident in your blackness.”
  • African Americans have a “particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle.  That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.  We cannot be ignorant of history. . . . We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”
  • “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . . [C]hange requires more than righteous anger.  It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”

Now we evaluate a prominent contemporary African-American, Ta-Nehisi Coates, through the prism of that speech and of a related presidential speech at Rutgers University.

Although President Obama in his speech specifically commended Coates, a Howard alumnus who did not graduate, for writing “a book that wins the National Book Award” and “the new run of ‘Black Panther.’” Obama did not attempt to determine whether Coates satisfied the above charge to the class. If Obama had done so, I believe he would have concluded that Coates did not meet this version of the challenge.[1]

Coates’ major work to date, “Between the World and Me,” clearly demonstrates his confidence in his black heritage, his overwhelming awareness of injustice, unfairness and struggle and his passion for change. In this sense he meets at least this part of the Obama challenge.

However, Coates fails in this book to go beyond righteous anger. He does not have a strategy or program for change. In fact, his book eschews any such program as destined for failure. And when he addresses one possible program for change– reparations for past racial injustice in a separate Atlantic Magazine article–he fails, in my opinion, because he weakly concluded that Congress should adopt a bill to establish a commission to investigate the issue and because he apparently makes an erroneous assessment of a Chicago class action lawsuit involving contracts for deed. The more detailed basis for this negative assessment is set forth in an earlier post. [2]

In addition, Coates in an interview by Charlie Rose demonstrated a facile reading of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” According to Coates, this saying is a demonstrably false reading of history and a false prediction of the future and, therefore, meaningless. But the saying was never intended to be a history lesson or a future prediction. Instead, It was intended to be inspiration to continue the struggle for justice for those who were so engaged. Indeed, President Obama understood it correctly when in his speech at Rutgers University he said,

  • “But progress is bumpy.  It always has been.  But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation’s hallmark.  I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ . . . I believe that.  But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own.  It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.” (Emphasis added.)

Perhaps Coates is off the hook with Obama’s concession that there is no one way to be black and there is no litmus test for black authenticity or as 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us, there are different gifts to different people for the common good (verses 4-11) and there are many parts to one body and all work together for the common good (verses 12-31). Thus, perhaps Coates’ gift is to express anger over racial injustice and to leave it to others to figure out what to do about that injustice and to work to overcome it.

Although Coates has said that his book was not written for “white” people, `I have to say that as a “white” septuagenarian, I initially and vigorously disagreed with Coates’ ranting that others and I “have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white,” that “’race’ [was] a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world” and that “the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white [was achieved] through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of blacks; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you [Coates’ son] and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” (Pp. 7-8)

Yes, I always have regarded myself as white, checked the box “White” or “Caucasian” on many forms without a second thought and found myself identified as “white” on a 1940 U.S. Census form. But I never have done any of the awful things that Coates says were done to elevate my belief in being white.

Nevertheless, Coates’ rant has been nagging and causing me to conduct further research and reflection. I, therefore, now think that Coates is correct on this important point, which I will explore in subsequent posts. Thus, perhaps Coates is satisfying, in his own way, the Obama criteria for African-American men, and indeed for all of us, to be honorable citizens of this great country.

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[1] Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 13, 2015); Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 3, 2016).

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 18, 2015). See also Ta-Nehisi Coates Discusses the Age of Mass Incarceration, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 17, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evaluating Bryan Stevenson Through the Prism of President Obama’s Howard University Speech

President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University was examined in a prior post. The key points in Obama’s speech for this evaluation are the following:

  • “Be confident in your heritage.  Be confident in your blackness.”
  • African Americans have a “particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle.  That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.  We cannot be ignorant of history. . . . We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”
  • “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . . [C]hange requires more than righteous anger.  It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”
Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson

Now we evaluate a prominent contemporary African-American, Bryan Stevenson through the prism of that speech.

Although not a Howard alumnus, Stevenson, as discussed in another post, is an African-American attorney, author and activist for social justice, especially for today’s African-American men and women and for their ancestors who were enslaved and persecuted. He has successfully argued cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts for prison inmates and written and spoken for changes in our criminal justice system. In addition, he has organized and established the Equal Justice Initiative (CJI), a significant human rights/civil rights law firm in Montgomery, Alabama that is being joined by  a museum honoring the victims of slavery and lynchings.[1]

In so doing, Stevenson is demonstrating confidence in his own heritage, his own blackness, as President Obama urged the graduates. Stevenson also shows his awareness of injustice, unfairness and struggle that he combines with a strategy of change through the courts and public opinion. He meets the standards set forth by President Obama.

Give thanks to God for this good man!

 

 

 

 

Praise for President Obama’s Recent Civics Lessons 

Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, has high praise for President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University that was covered in a prior post. Bruni sees the speech as “a pointed, powerful civics lesson” for all of us to consider because Obama was “issuing challenges to groups—African-Americans, college students—from whom he has drawn strong support and with whom he has real credibility “ and because he speaks with “accuracy and eloquence . . . [in] diagnosing current ills.”[1]

Bruni also has high marks for similar words this year from Obama in his final State of the Union Address,[2] his speech to the Illinois General Assembly[3] and his remarks at a town hall session in London.[4] Another Obama speech that touched on these subjects came just last Sunday at Rutgers University.[5]

Emphasizing that Obama in the Howard University commencement address was giving a “pointed, powerful civics lesson . . . to all of us—to America,” Bruni says Obama was chiding some young people “for demonizing enemies and silencing opponents. He cautioned them against a sense of grievance too exaggerated and an outrage bereft of perspective.” In Obama’s words, “If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, ‘young, gifted and black’ in America, you would choose right now. To deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice.’”

“Enough,” Obama was saying, “with a kind of identity politics that can shove aside common purpose. Enough with a partisanship so caustic that it bleeds into hatred Enough with such deafening sound and blinding fury in our public debate.”

Here Bruni referenced Obama’s “wise and glorious” February 2016 speech to the Illinois General Assembly. There Obama said, “We’ve got to build a better politics — one that’s less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas.” Otherwise, he warned, “Extreme voices fill the void.”

In the Illinois speech Obama also diagnosed current ills with “accuracy and eloquence,” when he noted that “while ugly partisanship has always existed, it’s fed in our digital era by voters’ ability to curate information from only those news sources and social-media feeds that echo and amplify their prejudices. We can choose our own facts,” he lamented. “We don’t have a common basis for what’s true and what’s not.” Advocacy groups often make matters worse, he added, by “keeping their members agitated as much as possible, assured of the righteousness of their cause.”

“We must expand our moral imaginations,” Obama told the predominantly African-American audience at Howard, imploring them to recognize “the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.” This thought was also mentioned by Obama in late April at a town-hall-style meeting in London, when he said that once “elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.”

At Howard, Obama insisted that change “requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want,” he continued. “So don’t try to shut folks out. Don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them.”

These recent speeches, Bruni concludes, bring Obama “full circle, from the audacity to the tenacity of hope.”

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[1] Bruni, Obama’s Gorgeous Goodbye, N.Y. Times (May 11, 2016).

[2] A Civics Lesson in President Obama’s Final State of the Union Address, dwkcommentaries.com (May 12, 2016).

[3] Another Civics Lesson from President Obama at the Illinois General Assembly, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2016).

[4] President Obama’s Civics Lesson at Town Hall Meeting in London, dwkcommentaries.com (May 14, 2016).

[5] Political and Civics Lessons from President Obama at Rutgers University, dwkcommentaries.com (May 16, 2016).

President Obama’s Challenging Commencement Address at Howard University

On May 7 President Barack Obama delivered a fascinating and challenging commencement address at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University for over 2,100 graduates with bachelor, masters, Ph.D. and professional degrees and an audience of over 25,000.[1] Below are photographs of President Obama during his address and of the graduates and audience at Howard.

Obama at Howard

cmmencement-banner

 

 

 

Although the primary addresses for the speech were the predominantly African-American Howard graduates and audience, it also is a message for every U.S. citizen and others. The following extensive excerpts of that speech will be used in a subsequent post to evaluate two prominent contemporary African-American men—Bryan Stevenson and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The President’s Address[2]

Commendation of Howard University

Not surprisingly Obama opened with commendation of Howard University, a federally chartered, private, doctoral university, classified as a high research activity institution. With an enrollment of more than 10,000 students, its undergraduate, graduate, professional and joint degree programs span more than 120 areas of study within 13 schools and colleges.

“The Freedman’s Bureau,” he said, “established Howard [in 1867] just four years after the Emancipation Proclamation; just two years after the Civil War came to an end.  They created this university with a vision — a vision of uplift; a vision for an America where our fates would be determined not by our race, gender, religion or creed, but where we would be free — in every sense — to pursue our individual and collective dreams.”

“It is that spirit that’s made Howard a centerpiece of African-American intellectual life and a central part of our larger American story.  This institution has been the home of many firsts:  The first black Nobel Peace Prize winner [Ralph Bunche].  The first black Supreme Court justice [Thurgood Marshall]. But its mission has been to ensure those firsts were not the last.  Countless scholars, professionals, artists, and leaders from every field received their training here.  The generations of men and women who walked through this yard helped reform our government, cure disease, grow a black middle class, advance civil rights, shape our culture.  The seeds of change — for all Americans — were sown here.”

Comparison of 1983 and 2016

“America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college [1983]. “

“I tell you all this because it’s important to note progress.  Because to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not only the incredibly accomplished individuals who have already been mentioned, but your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible.  I tell you this not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action — because there’s still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel.”

“We’ve got a justice gap when too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.  This is one area where things have gotten worse.  When I was in college, about half a million people in America were behind bars.  Today, there are about 2.2 million.  Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now than white men.”

Charge to the Graduating Class 

Obama then delivered a long, three-point charge to the graduating class.

“First , . . . be confident in your heritage.  Be confident in your blackness.  One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black. . . . There’s no straitjacket, there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.”

“You can write a book that wins the National Book Award, or you can write the new run of “Black Panther.”  Or, like one of your alumni, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you can go ahead and just do both.  You can create your own style, set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality.”

“Second, even as we each embrace our own beautiful, unique, and valid versions of our blackness, remember the tie that does bind us as African-Americans — and that is our particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle.  That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.  We cannot be ignorant of history. We can’t meet the world with a sense of entitlement.  We can’t walk by a homeless man without asking why a society as wealthy as ours allows that state of affairs to occur. We can’t just lock up a low-level dealer without asking why this boy, barely out of childhood, felt he had no other options.  We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”

“And that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African-Americans who haven’t been so lucky — because, yes, you’ve worked hard, but you’ve also been lucky. . . . People who have been successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky.  That God may have blessed them; it wasn’t nothing you did.  So don’t have an attitude.  But we must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling — the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it.”

[Three]. “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . .Not just awareness, but action.  Not just hashtags, but votes.”

“[C]hange requires more than righteous anger.  It requires a program, and it requires organizing.  . . . I’m so proud of the new guard of black civil rights leaders who understand this.  It’s thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of you, from Black Twitter to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes have been opened — white, black, Democrat, Republican — to the real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system.”

“But to bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough.  It requires changes in law, changes in custom. . . . Passion is vital, but you’ve got to have a strategy.”

“And your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time.  It is absolutely true that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many barriers in this country to vote.  There are too many people trying to erect new barriers to voting.  This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote.  And there’s a reason for that.  There’s a legacy to that.”

“Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. . . . [J]ust vote.  It’s math.  If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. It’s not that complicated.”

“And you don’t have excuses.   You don’t have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap to register to vote.  You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot.  Other people already did that for you. Your grandparents, your great grandparents might be here today if they were working on it.  What’s your excuse?  When we don’t vote, we give away our power, disenfranchise ourselves — right when we need to use the power that we have; right when we need your power to stop others from taking away the vote and rights of those more vulnerable than you are — the elderly and the poor, the formerly incarcerated trying to earn their second chance.”

“So you got to vote all the time, not just when it’s cool, not just when it’s time to elect a President, not just when you’re inspired.  It’s your duty. . . .   That’s how we change our politics — by electing people at every level who are representative of and accountable to us.  It is not that complicated.  Don’t make it complicated.”

And finally, change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well.  In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.”

“[Y]ou need allies in a democracy.  That’s just the way it is.  It can be frustrating and it can be slow.  But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse.  That’s not just true in this country. . . . Go to any country where the give and take of democracy has been repealed by one-party rule, and I will show you a country that does not work.”

“And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.  This is hard to explain sometimes.  You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you.  If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.  And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged.  And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair.  And that’s never been the source of our progress.  That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.”

“But . . . [those who participated in the political process] made things better.  And you know what, I will take better every time.  I always tell my staff — better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.”

“Another Howard alum, Zora Neale Hurston, once said: ‘Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.’  Think about that.  That’s why our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule.”

“Engage.  If the other side has a point, learn from them.  If they’re wrong, rebut them.  Teach them.  Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.  And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you — you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life.  That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair.  Nobody promised you a crystal stair.  And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is.”

“James Baldwin once wrote, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’”

“Graduates, each of us is only here because someone else faced down challenges for us.  We are only who we are because someone else struggled and sacrificed for us. . . . [T]hat is the story of America.  A story whispered by slaves in the cotton fields, the song of marchers in Selma, the dream of a King in the shadow of Lincoln.  The prayer of immigrants who set out for a new world.  The roar of women demanding the vote.  The rallying cry of workers who built America.  And the GIs who bled overseas for our freedom.”

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[1] Holston, Obama Embodies Blackness, Confidence, Hope at Howard University’s 148th Commencement, The Hilltop (May 7, 2016).

[2] White House, Remarks by the President at Howard University Commencement Ceremony (May 7, 2016).

 

 

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.”

======================================================

[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).