As promised, the following is Johanna’s response to yesterday’s aptly-argued prequel. Enjoy!
From: GUSMAN, Johanna
Sent: 19 December 2016 14:15
Subject: RE: Some airplane reading for you
I agree, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ strength of writing comes exactly from that combination of sharp socio-political commentary mixed with enviable levels of personal vulnerability (can you even imagine having such high levels of self-awareness? I feel like what he can dissect in one paragraph would take me a lifetime to achieve…). But I am going to push you on some points. When the political discussion centres on race, particularly race relations within the U.S., I do not find focusing the discourse on grievance and victimhood so worrisome. In fact, I find it refreshing and necessary.
It is not a matter of being sympathetic towards ‘understandable grievances’ that Coates and his cohorts feel—it’s a matter of finding empathy for the systematic abuses that have plagued and continue to plague an entire population since the founding of this nation. And calling for/eliciting feeling is an important way to go about this, particularly considering that history has not only silenced, but often completely erased the ability for that population to view these issues through the lens of their own struggle—a point that Coates always makes.
When you speak of oppression, especially from the viewpoint of the oppressor, it is exactly the ‘felt experience’ and the need for collective redress that gets stamped out because the rhetoric is often watered down to reflect only one side of the equation. It trivializes the experience. Slavery is not simply a ‘grievance’. The criminal justice system not merely ‘circumstance’. But phrasing them as such is used as a tool for forced conformity to the expected outcome that most appeases the oppressor. The oppressed should no longer be angry or grieve or feel victimized because the oppressor is no longer angry, grieving or willing to accept the fact of victimization. White America does not, and in fact cannot, understand how these facets of racial trauma actually factor as trauma, even to this day, because control of the discourse has always been theirs and not those who are grieving, not those who are victims.
Bridging this gap between our horrendous legacy and its continued effects with the experience and feelings of those who actually have to live with the consequences is necessary and it is what Coates does best. When I read ‘Between the World and Me’, I ended it with the thought: ‘Yes. Those are the words that explain how it feels to be black in America.’ When he speaks of the sanctity of the black body, and the right that America has endowed itself with to break the black body, it helps to make that experience real, even to those that are not members of that population. It connects people who would otherwise not understand and implores them to do something about it because empathy goes much further than you’d think. If you want to see real improvements via policy as well as tangible change in safety and material circumstance, I would argue that you will not get anywhere without empathy. At the risk of sounding too cliché and kumbaya-like, I have to remind you that law can only go so far; it is people’s hearts and mindsets that need to transform in order to bring about true change.
While I agree with you that identity politics can be troublesome as it tends to polarize instead of unite, I push you to dig deeper as to why that is. Let’s take your progressive college campus example. Assuming that I accept your supposition that these cohorts are ‘all pretty woke and deeply committed’ (because obviously I don’t, but we can discuss this point further in another email), this still only constitutes a privileged minority, not the vast swathes of the American population that need to understand this on an individual level. It was not the progressive college campuses that voted for Trump, it was the majority of uneducated Americans that did. And one of the most frustrating parts for me is that they feed off of identity politics (e.g. the adoration of the Confederate flag, the obsession with gendered bathrooms, etc.), just not those with which they cannot identify.
This is because identity—particularly the ability to not only identify oneself but to place identities on others according to oneself—is all part of the power struggle. This is why Coates’ ability to reclaim his own identity and pave the way for others to do the same, is so very powerful. This is why the issue of ‘black lives matter’ is even a fucking issue. I am glad that reading Coates gives you an uncomfortable feeling and I encourage you to unpack that for yourself.
Yes, as a nation we have got to find a way to make real progress to collectively confront racism and all of its ugliness. There are many differing opinions as to the right way to go about this. Yes, it’s shitty that Obama as a president couldn’t do more. There are many differing opinions as to why he couldn’t. But I am of the opinion that giving the power to those who have the least of it will go much further than trivializing their experience and efforts to improve it. If anyone has the right to make targeted interventions and improve real-world outcomes, wouldn’t it be those who actually have to live in the real world—not the world as defined by others, particularly when the other is their former and present oppressor?
Hahaha, I feel privileged (not unlucky) to be the first person you have digested this piece with and I do hope that we can be in the same place at the same time to discuss and reflect over beer sometime soon. I hope this makes some sort of sense to you. To end on a chill note, watch this and really get ‘woke’: https://youtu.be/s6MVjwnNIg4
I like that you get me to write more,
*Featured Image: January/February 2017 cover of The Atlantic Monthly.