Exploring Sub-Saharan African History

 I am currently taking a brief course, “Sub-Saharan African History to Colonialism,” to learn about such history “from many angles: anthropological, historical, geographic, cultural, and religious. From human origins through the populating of the continent, the great civilizations, the slave trades, to the beginning of European domination.” Offered by the University of Minnesota’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), the course’s instructor is Tom O’Toole, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology of Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University.

Why does this Euro-American septuagenarian take this course? Foremost, I know virtually nothing about this history and want to know more. I also realize that I have various direct and indirect connections with Africa.

The most immediate precipitating cause is reading the discussion of the names of African and African-American intellectuals and historical figures that were discovered at Howard University by African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates and recounted in his book “Between the World and Me” and my realizing that I did not know virtually any of these people. This book also has prompted me to research and investigate my own notions of race, including my recent posts about statements from the American Anthropological Association about race’s non-scientific basis and historical and cultural background. Further posts about notions of race are forthcoming.

I learned more about one of these figures of African history this spring when my 10th-grade grandson wrote a History Day paper on Mansa Musa, who was a 14th century Emperor or King of Mali. Moreover, one of my sons knows more about this history from his having studied African history and Swahili at the University of Minnesota and from spending a semester in Kenya with a program of the National Outdoor Leadership School and then a week on his own living with a Maasai tribesman in that country.

Coates also legitimately castigates the U.S. history of slavery and its lasting impacts on our country. This has underscored my interest in the importation of slaves from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. This was part of Lawrence Hill’s fascinating novel “The Book of Negroes” (“Someone Knows My Name”), about which I have written. Moreover, I have visited Matanzas, Cuba and Salvador, Brazil, which were major ports of importation of African slaves to work on sugar plantations in those countries.

I have a number of friends from West Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana) and visited Cameroon on a mission trip from Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. There I learned about the country’s having been a German colony (Kamerun) in the 19th century and then having French and British administration under League of Nations mandates after Germany was stripped of its African colonies by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. Forty-plus years later Cameroon became an independent country with the joinder of the Francophone and Anglophone territories. Yet life today in the country is still affected by the language and cultural differences from the French and British governance and less so by the previous 30-plus years of German rule.

I also have visited Namibia, Botswana and South Africa focused primarily on observing their magnificent wildlife and nature, but also the prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders were imprisoned during the years of apartheid. In addition, I had the opportunity to see and hear Mandela speak at a 2003 celebration of the centennial of the Rhodes Scholarships held at Westminster Hall in London and to see him escorted through the Hall’s audience, only 10 feet from me and my wife, by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

The visit to South Africa also included stopping at Cecil Rhodes’ Cottage and Museum at Mulzenberg overlooking False Bay and the Indian Ocean at the southwest corner of the country. (My interest in Cecil Rhodes, the Founder of the Scholarships, and his 19th century involvement in South Africa and Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) stems from being a Rhodes Scholar who was “up” at Oxford, 1961-1963, and from my gratitude for being a beneficiary of his largess.)

While co-teaching international human rights law at the University of Minnesota Law School, I learned about the International Criminal Court, whose initial cases all came from Africa, thereby prompting some resistance from African leaders who thought this was anti-African discrimination. (I have written many blog posts about the ICC.) Previously I had been a pro bono lawyer for two Somali men’s successful applications for asylum in the U.S.

Other indirect connections are provided by three Grinnell College classmates. One became a professor of African history. Another served in Africa with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, where he met his English wife serving in a similar British program and where they both frequently return to participate in a project of preparing and distributing audio textbooks for blind students. The third classmate, also in the Peace Corps, served in Mali, where he was involved in smallpox eradication. In addition, one of my Grinnell roommates from Chicago now lives in South Africa.

All of these direct and indirect connections with Africa provided additional motivation to learn more about its history. In a subsequent post I will attempt to summarize the key points of this brief exploration of African history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anthropologists’ Statement Regarding the Historical and Conceptual Background to the Concept of Race  

In 1998 the American Anthropological Association (AAA) adopted an important statement on race that represented “generally the contemporary thinking and scholarly positions of a majority of anthropologists.” [1]

The AAA statement contains a scientific component, which was covered in a prior post. Now we quote the statement’s discussion of the historical and conceptual components of race.

“Historical research has shown that the idea of ‘race’ has always carried more meanings than mere physical differences; indeed, physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them. Today scholars in many fields argue that ‘race’ as it is understood in the [U.S.] was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered Indian peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor.”

“From its inception, this modern concept of ‘race’ was modeled after an ancient theorem of the Great Chain of Being, which posited natural categories on a hierarchy established by God or nature. Thus ‘race’ was a mode of classification linked specifically to peoples in the colonial situation. It subsumed a growing ideology of inequality devised to rationalize European attitudes and treatment of the conquered and enslaved peoples. Proponents of slavery in particular during the 19th century used ‘race’ to justify the retention of slavery. The ideology magnified the differences among Europeans, Africans, and Indians, established a rigid hierarchy of socially exclusive categories underscored and bolstered unequal rank and status differences, and provided the rationalization that the inequality was natural or God-given. The different physical traits of African-Americans and Indians became markers or symbols of their status differences.”

“As they were constructing US society, leaders among European-Americans fabricated the cultural/behavioral characteristics associated with each ‘race,’ linking superior traits with Europeans and negative and inferior ones to blacks and Indians. Numerous arbitrary and fictitious beliefs about the different peoples were institutionalized and deeply embedded in American thought.”

“Early in the 19th century the growing fields of science began to reflect the public consciousness about human differences. Differences among the ‘racial’ categories were projected to their greatest extreme when the argument was posed that Africans, Indians, and Europeans were separate species, with Africans the least human and closer taxonomically to apes.”

“Ultimately ‘race’ as an ideology about human differences was subsequently spread to other areas of the world. It became a strategy for dividing, ranking, and controlling colonized people used by colonial powers everywhere. But it was not limited to the colonial situation. In the latter part of the 19th century it was employed by Europeans to rank one another and to justify social, economic, and political inequalities among their peoples. During World War II, the Nazis under Adolf Hitler enjoined the expanded ideology of ‘race’ and ‘racial’ differences and took them to a logical end: the extermination of 11 million people of ‘inferior races’ (e.g., Jews, Gypsies, Africans, homosexuals, and so forth) and other unspeakable brutalities of the Holocaust.”

“’Race’ thus evolved as a worldview, a body of prejudgments that distorts our ideas about human differences and group behavior. Racial beliefs constitute myths about the diversity in the human species and about the abilities and behavior of people homogenized into ‘racial’ categories. The myths fused behavior and physical features together in the public mind, impeding our comprehension of both biological variations and cultural behavior, implying that both are genetically determined. Racial myths bear no relationship to the reality of human capabilities or behavior. Scientists today find that reliance on such folk beliefs about human differences in research has led to countless errors.”

“At the end of the 20th century, we now understand that human cultural behavior is learned, conditioned into infants beginning at birth, and always subject to modification. No human is born with a built-in culture or language. Our temperaments, dispositions, and personalities, regardless of genetic propensities, are developed within sets of meanings and values that we call ‘culture.’ Studies of infant and early childhood learning and behavior attest to the reality of our cultures in forming who we are.”

“It is a basic tenet of anthropological knowledge that all normal human beings have the capacity to learn any cultural behavior. The American experience with immigrants from hundreds of different language and cultural backgrounds who have acquired some version of American culture traits and behavior is the clearest evidence of this fact. Moreover, people of all physical variations have learned different cultural behaviors and continue to do so as modern transportation moves millions of immigrants around the world.”

“How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The ‘racial’ worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. The tragedy in the [U.S.] has been that the policies and practices stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African descent. Given what we know about the capacity of normal humans to achieve and function within any culture, we conclude that present-day inequalities between so-called ‘racial’ groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances.

Conclusion

 As indicated in a prior post, controversial comments about “white” people in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” have prompted me to read and think about the notion of the “white” race and to concur in his conclusion that there is no such race.

This AAA statement about the historical and conceptual components of this subject along with its discussion of the scientific component are two reasons for my concurrence. I discovered this statement at an exhibit about race that was organized by the AAA with funding from the National Science and Ford Foundations and that was on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota [2] Other reasons for my concurrence will be discussed in future posts.

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[1] Am. Anthro. Ass’n, AAA Statement on Race (May 17, 1998).

 [2] The race exhibit has been, and will be, on display at other museums across the U.S., and its website has lots of very useful information on the subject. I urge everyone to see it.

Anthropologists’ Opinion That Race Is Not a Scientific Concept

In 1998 the American Anthropological Association (AAA) adopted an important statement on race that represented “generally the contemporary thinking and scholarly positions of a majority of anthropologists.” [1]

The AAA statement contains a scientific component, which will be quoted in this post. The other component—historical and conceptual—will be discussed in a subsequent post.

“In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species.”

“Physical variations in any given trait tend to occur gradually rather than abruptly over geographic areas. And because physical traits are inherited independently of one another, knowing the range of one trait does not predict the presence of others. For example, skin color varies largely from light in the temperate areas in the north to dark in the tropical areas in the south; its intensity is not related to nose shape or hair texture. Dark skin may be associated with frizzy or kinky hair or curly or wavy or straight hair, all of which are found among different indigenous peoples in tropical regions. These facts render any attempt to establish lines of division among biological populations both arbitrary and subjective.”

Conclusion

 As indicated in a prior post, controversial comments about “white” people in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” have prompted me to read and think about the notion of the “white” race and to concur in his conclusion that there is no such race.

This AAA statement about the scientific component of this subject is one reason for my concurrence. I discovered this statement at an exhibit about race that was organized by the AAA with funding from the National Science and Ford Foundations and that was on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota. The exhibit also covered some of the historical background to the concept of race that will be discussed in a subsequent post.[2]

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[1] Am. Anthro. Ass’n, AAA Statement on Race (May 17, 1998).

 [2] The race exhibit has been, and will be, on display at other museums across the U.S., and its website has lots of very useful information on the subject. I urge everyone to see it.

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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).

 

 

Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book, “Between the World and Me,” and his 2014 article, ”The Case for Reparations,” continue to draw attention and criticism. This blog already has criticized both the book and the article.[1] Here are additional reflections on these writings.

“Between the World and Me”

In November 2015 the New York Times named the book as one of the 50 notable nonfiction books of 2015. A week later the editors of the Times Book Review proclaimed that it was one of the 10 best books of the year with these words: “Structured as a letter to his teenage son, this slender, urgent volume — a searching exploration of what it is to grow up black in a country built on slave labor and ‘the destruction of black bodies’ — rejects fanciful abstractions in favor of the irreducible and particular. Coates writes to his son with a clear eyed realism about the beautiful and terrible struggle that inheres in flesh and bone.”[2]

Also in November the book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for 2015. The citation stated the book is “a brutally honest portrayal of the plight of the African-American male in this country. Composed as a letter to his adolescent son, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes with chilling bleakness and precision about racism in America. This is no simple account of racism, but rather a concise attack on a system which has consistently rendered black lives worthless. Incorporating history and personal memoir, Coates has succeeded in creating an essential text for any thinking American today.”[3]

Coates dedicated this award to the memory of his friend, Prince Carmen Jones, a young black man who was killed by a policeman, saying, “I have waited 15 years for this moment. I’m a black man in America. I can’t punish that [policeman]. I can’t secure the safety of my son. I just don’t have that power. But what I do have the power to do is say, “You won’t enroll me in this lie. You won’t make me part of it. We are not enrolled in a lie. We are not part of it.'”

In January 2016 the National Book Critics Circle made the book one of five nominees for its 2015 award for criticism. The actual awards will be announced on March 17, 2016. [4]

Jonathan Orbell, a self-described white evangelical Christian and graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary, says the book “offers white evangelicals yet another opportunity to reflect on issues that have gone unaddressed in our congregations for far too long. . . black Americans’ subjugation to a regime of brutal and systematic racial injustice. “[5]

Not all comments about the book were laudatory. Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review and columnist, called the book “profoundly silly at times, and morally blinkered.” Coates “has to reduce people to categories and actors in a pantomime of racial plunder to support his worldview. He must erase distinctions and reject complexity.” In his view, Coates “gives the impression of denying the moral agency of blacks, who are often portrayed as the products of forces beyond their control.” The book “feels nihilistic because there is no positive program to leaven the despair and the call for perpetual struggle.”[6]

Another pointed criticism of Coates was leveled by a columnist for the New York Post, Kyle Smith, who accused Coates of “harboring . . . suspicion, fear, mistrust, distaste, and unease about [all] whites.” Yet “Coates has found himself crowned America’s leading civic thinker.”[7] Coates himself is baffled by this positive reaction by many white readers. He said, “I don’t know why white people read what I write. I didn’t set out to accumulate a mass of white fans.” Indeed, he said he did not want “the burden [of explaining the ills of black people to white people]—it alienated him. And so he writes with a tone that is blunt, authoritative and unapologetic” while harboring “no malice toward white people, and that he speaks to them from the heart.” [8]

An African-American writer living in Paris, Thomas Chatterton Williams, says Coates left out “an essential part of the story of black life today – the only black life I have ever known. . . . The capacity of humans to amount to more than the sum of a set of circumstances is ignored. The capacity to find gratification in making a choice – even if it’s the wrong one – is glossed over.” Williams concludes, “The crisis of the black intellectual now, if there is one, isn’t that he lacks the means or the platform to represent his people but that it is too easy to cleave to a sense of resentment and indignation – even now that he has found himself, after all these years and all this struggle, in a position of strength.”[9]

Coates has said that the book is a “complete rejection” of the notion that the   current plight of blacks in the U.S. “is not really tied to our long history . . . of policy directed toward African-Americans .. . [and that it] is our fault, or partly our fault. . . .[It] may well be our responsibility, but it certainly is not our fault.” The book, he said, reflects his “process of getting conscious . . . [which] was a very, very uncomfortable, disturbing and sometimes physically painful process.” Yet “black experience is big and it’s nuanced and it’s broad, and no one person should be the spokesperson for that experience, or no one person should be the oracle or be the articulator.”[10]

Darryl Pinckney, an African-American novelist, playwright and essayist, places Coates’ book into a broader perspective. Pinckney asserts, “The black struggle in the US has a dualist tradition. It expresses opposing visions of the social destiny of black people. Up, down, all or nothing, in or out, acceptance or repudiation.” According to Pinckney, Coates believes “it’s too late [for an end to America’s racial nightmare], given the larger picture. He speculates that now that the American Dreamers are plundering “not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself,” “something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas.” Coates in this book refuses “to expect anything anymore, socially or politically. Coates is . . . fed up, but his disillusionment is a provocation: it’s all your fault, Whitey. This is a rhetorical strategy of the [black writer’s] tradition but to address an audience beyond black people is to be still attempting to communicate and enlighten.”[11]

“The Case for Reparations”[12]

My earlier post argued this Coates-article was not well written; that he hid in generalizations; that his discussion of black contract-for-deed discrimination was sloppy and perhaps erroneous; that he mentioned certain scholarly discussions of how reparations might be implemented without endorsing any of them; that he failed to mention U.S. presidential l and congressional statements about reparations as well as other countries’ approaches to reparations; and that his grand conclusion was the mere urging adoption of a bill for a federal study of the issue of reparations without examining the details of the bill or the arguments advanced for the bill by its author, Rep. John Conyers (Dem, MI).[13]

Immediately after the release of Coates’ article, David Frum, a neoconservative commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, pointed out that Coates “disavows any consideration of the single most important question about the restitution he has in mind: How would it work?” In addition, Frum asserts, “Coates’s essay is built on an unstated assumption that America’s racial composition is essentially binary, a white majority that inflicts inequality; a black minority that suffers inequality.” Coates thereby ignores the probability of groups other than blacks’ making similar claims for reparations and of the many financial and political problems that would create.[14]

“Another huge problem with any reparations program [for Frum] would be who qualifies.” For example, would a mixed-race individual qualify? A new immigrant from Africa? And so on. In addition, any program would create side effects, anticipated and unanticipated.

The next day, Coates responded to Frum’s criticism by arguing that reparations for African-Americans would not expand to other groups because the actual reparations for Japanese-Americans who had been interred in World War II did not expand to other groups. Coates concludes his response with these words:

  • “The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history. . . . In other times banishment has been our priority. The mature citizen, the hard student, is now called to choose between finding a reason to confront the past, or finding more reasons to hide from it. [Frum] thinks [the congressional bill to create a study commission] … commits us to a solution. He is correct. The solution is to study. I submit his own article as proof of why such study is so deeply needed.”[15]

Rich Lowry in his previously mentioned article also has harsh words for Coates’ opinion on reparations. Lowry asks the rhetorical question of whether any recipient of “a modest, roughly $1 trillion program of reparations, which would be more than $20,000 for every black person in the country, regardless of his or her family’s personal history or current financial circumstances” would be transformed. Lowry’s answer to this question is a resounding “No.” Instead, Lowery says, “For poor blacks to escape poverty, it would still require all the personal attributes that contribute to success. So Coates is selling snake oil. Even if he got his fantastical reparations that he has poured such literary energy into advocating, real improvement in the condition of black people would still require the moral effort that he won’t advocate for.”

Coates responded to these criticisms by meekly saying he was offering a “case” for reparations, not a “plan” for such a program and that he had mentioned–without endorsement–several plans proposed by academics. Now he points to what he calls an “excellent paper” on the subject by Sandy Darity, a Duke economist and “tireless reparations proponent.” [16]

Last month the issue of reparations resurfaced with Bernie Sanders’ comment that he did not favor reparations for slavery because there was a nil chance of congressional approval and because it would be “very divisive.” [17]

Coates responded by saying that all of Sanders’ own proposals for economic and financial reform had a nil chance of congressional approval. Moreover, “[o]ne of the great functions of radical candidates [like Sanders] is to war against equivocators and opportunists who conflate these two things. Radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue.”

Conclusion

I do not find Coates’ responses to these criticisms convincing. I still am uninspired with his writings and arguments. I do not think his many awards are justified.

In contrast, I applaud the amazing work for social and racial justice being waged by Bryan Stevenson, an African-American attorney and advocate. As discussed in an earlier post, Stevenson has obtained release from prison and death row for African-Americans who had been unjustly convicted. He also is creating various ways to remember and honor victims of lynchings and other crimes and to inspire others to join the effort for social and racial justice.

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

[1] Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” (Aug. 13, 2015); Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations (Oct. 18, 2015).

[2] 100 Notable Books of 2015, N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review (Nov. 27, 2015); The 10 Best Books of the Year, N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review (Dec. 3, 2015.

[3] Nat’l Book Foundation, 2015 National Book Award Nonfiction; Alter, Ta-Nehisi Coates Wins National Book Award, N.Y. Times (Nov. 18, 2015); Dwyer, Adam Johnson, Ta-Nehisi Coates Win National Book Awards, NPR (Nov. 19, 2015).

[4] National Book Critics Circle, National Book Critics Circle Announces Its Finalists for Publishing Year 2015 (Jan. 18, 2016); Manly, National Book Critics Circle Announces Award Nominees, N.Y. Times (Jan. 18, 2016).

[5] Orbell, Why Christians Need Coates, Sojourners (July 29, 2015).

[6] Lowry, The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Politico (July 22, 2015).

[7] Smith, The Hard Untruths of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Commentary (Oct. 1, 2015),

[8] Coates, Ta-Nahisi Coates On Why Whites Like His Writing, Daily Beast (Oct. 25, 2015).

[9] Williams, Loaded Dice, London Rev. of Books (Dec. 3, 2015).

[10] Ta-Nehisi Coates On His Work And The Painful Process Of Getting Conscious, NPR (Nov. 23, 2015).

[11] Pinckney, The Anger of Ta-Nehisi Coates, N.Y. Rev. of Books (Feb. 11, 2016).

[12] Lowry, The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Politico (July 22, 2015); Martin, Ta-Nehisi Coates on His Work and the Painful Process of Getting Conscious, NPR (Nov. 23, 2015).

[13] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations (Oct. 18, 2015). Kevin Drum, a liberal American blogger and columnist, was similarly unimpressed with Coates’ mere calling for a study of the issue of reparations. Drum, Should Bernie Sanders Support Reparations? Mother Jones (Jan. 19, 2016).

[14] Frum, The Impossibility of Reparations, The Atlantic (June 3, 2014).

[15] Coates, The Radical Practicality of Reparations, The Atlantic (June 4, 2014).

[16] Coates, The Case for Considering Reparations, The Atlantic (Jan. 27, 2016).

[17] Coates, Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations? The Atlantic (Jan. 19, 2016).

 

 

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates Discusses the Age of Mass Incarceration

The October 2015 issue of The Atlantic has Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.

He starts with an endorsement of the 1965 analysis and conclusion of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a U.S. federal government employee (and later U.S. Senator], that the government was underestimating the damage to black families by “three centuries of [their] unimaginable mistreatment [and by the] racist virus in the American blood stream” and that the government should engage in an all-out assault on the problems that held black families down.

Coates then engages in a discussion of the various reasons why this did not happen and instead why a new assault on the black family occurred and still is occurring with over-criminalization of certain behavior and what is now known as the mass incarceration of black men.[1]

This article, therefore, provides a more systematic background for Coates’ emotional perception that white society in the U.S. has been, and still is, engaged in a systematic assault on the black body and that this assault always stands between the world and Coates as discussed in his book “Between the World and Me,” which was the subject of a prior post.

Chapter VI of the article emphasizes that the adverse impact of mass incarceration is not just on the men and women in prison, but on their family members as well. This unsurprising fact is documented in a new survey by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit group that focuses on racial and economic justice issues. It found that nearly two-thirds of families that have a member in jail or prison struggle to meet their basic needs, including 50 percent that are unable to afford sufficient food and adequate housing. Moreover, as an employee of the Center said, ““Incarceration weakens the social fabric and disrupts the social ecology of entire communities through the way it disrupts families’ economic stability. Often, it leaves it broken beyond repair.”[2]

Here is a rough outline of the Coates’ article:

Chap. Title Contents
Preface Margaret Garner, “ Never marry again in slavery.” Solzhenitsyn, “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.”
I “Lower-class behavior in our cities is shaking them apart” Daniel Patrick Moynihan ‘s 1965 “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” –federal government underestimating damage to black families by “three centuries of unimaginable mistreatment [and] racist virus in the American blood stream.” Black family structure was mutated by white oppressiojn.by oppression of black men. Moynihan’s aim: muster support for all-out government assault on problems that held black families down. Instead white society saw it as reason to give up and imposed mass incarceration of black men as response.
II “We are incarcerating too few criminals” U.S. incarceration rate rose independent of actual crime, but as result of tough-on-crime laws. A 1992 U.S. Justice Dep’t report; “we are incarcerating too few criminals, and public is suffering as result.” But other countries experience says otherwise. Adverse effect on black families. Prisoners are excluded from employment statistics. Parental incarceration is associated with behavior problems & delinquency, esp. among boys. Laws impose adverse consequences after release from prison. Reduction of rehabilitation programs in prisons.
III “You don’t take a shower after 9 o’clock” Horrible life in prisons.
IV “The crime-stained blackness of the Negro” In 1868 white supremacist, society had to defend itself against “crime-stained blackness of the Negro.” Many laws against blacks during slavery. Lynchings continued until just before WWII and not ending until Civil Rights Movement. Even W. E. B. DuBois said Negroes had to correct immorality, crime and laziness. J. Edgar Hoover had same view. To stand up for black rights is often seen as condoning black criminality. Intensifying war on crime associated with white anxiety about social control.
V “The “baddest generation any society has ever known” U.S. has associated black struggle with black villainy. In Nixon 2nd term incarceration rates began historic rise; his subliminal appeal to the antiblack voter. Idea of rehabilitation abandoned with mandatory minimums and alternatives to prison. Prisons often located in all-white rural areas providing jobs to whites. Liberals like Bill Clinton supported these efforts.
VI “It’s like I’m in prison with him” Discretionary parole for lifers is nonexistent. Families of inmates feel like they are in prison with their sons or husbands.
VII “Our value system became surviving versus living” Housing discrimination keeps blacks isolated. “Compounded deprivation.”
VIII “The Negro poor having become more openly violent” Moynihan of 1965 has been proved right. He later became more critical of blacks, which is more accepted today. For African-Americans “unfreedom” is the norm. Slavery for 250 years; then Jim Crow, debt peonage and convict labor.
IX “Now comes the proposition that the Negro is entitled to damages” Now Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that mass incarceration is a problem that needs to be addressed. Herculean task. Poses the issue of reparations.

[1] This is ground already trod by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Rev. ed. 2010, 2012).

[2] Williams, Report Details Economic Hardships for Inmate Families, N.Y. Times (Sept. 15, 2015).