We are living through a moment of national reckoning. Ugly revelations daily unravel the pieties we normally tell ourselves about America’s special character, leadership and destiny. The ship of state heaves in choppy waters, its Ahab-like captain driven by wretched obsessions. Yet the crisis is not limited to one particular political figure or any single social struggle. Rather, one feels a sense of collective dislocation, a momentous shift as Americans of all backgrounds and political persuasions feel instinctively that they are experiencing the breakup of a world they had taken for granted, the loss of assured privileges, the end of safety. Conservatives see themselves fighting a last-ditch battle for the very soul of the country — rushing the cockpit to avert catastrophe. Liberals shake their heads and mutter that they no longer recognize the country at all. Progressives swing between visions of romantic liberation and a panicked despair fearful of internal dissent. Against this backdrop of disarray, the coalition of right-wing ideologies we call Trumpism has swiftly and successfully captured a political party, the public imagination and the summits of executive power, with as yet unforeseeable long-term consequences.
Many have wondered in this bewildering and fractious atmosphere about the resurgence of interest in the life and work of James Baldwin. It’s been electrifying, and not just for critics: his books are once again best-sellers. Four years ago, the New York Times expressed dismay on the ninetieth anniversary of the writer’s birth at how “in recent years Baldwin’s presence has diminished in many high school classrooms.” True enough, but in the previous year Vintage Books had done its part to counter the trend by reissuing Baldwin’s novels in paperback. The revival gathered steam in 2015 with the founding of a scholarly journal, the James Baldwin Review. The release of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro made it seem that Baldwin had explained Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick decades in advance. Later this year, the love story of a black couple struggling against despair in Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, will be brought to the screen by Barry Jenkins, the acclaimed director of Moonlight. But above all, the center of this groundswell has been the publication of Between the World and Me in 2015, in which Ta-Nehisi Coates drew inspiration from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time to reinvigorate a style of address that he could not believe had been so carelessly discarded.
Why Baldwin now, and with such passion? Has he become the doppelgänger of the principled Barack Obama whom voters had thought, or hoped, they had twice elected? Has the renewal of street protests since Trump’s election stirred up memories of Baldwin and the radical Sixties, as Peck’s film suggests? Undoubtedly these were proximate contributing factors. But then why weren’t the ghosts of other public figures similarly awakened? It seems that Coates got it right when he noticed something about Baldwin’s rhetorical presence and power, which had been neglected or discounted for all the wrong reasons.
The Baldwin renaissance shows that there’s a deep yearning in our society not only for sensate, intelligent, moral reasoning, but also for the prophetic witness unique to the black radical tradition. By tapping into it, Coates cleared the air in a public sphere crowded with shrill and shallow analysis. Even when people openly disagree with him, as I have, they respect and perhaps fear the rhetorical power that crackles in his prose like fire behind a furnace door. They recognize that he is carrying the torch of the black intellectual, and though they may seek to deny it, they know in their hearts that its flame is the essential, foundational ingredient of our country’s moral and political imagination.
In this symposium we are being asked to think about the role of the intellectual today. I want to place the emphasis on the practice of the black intellectual, and do so by engaging (as I have in the past) with Coates’s writings, and specifically his evaluation of Trump’s election. I hope it will be clear that I intend to discuss his work in a spirit of camaraderie and admiration. Nothing bothers me more than a “battle royal” between black male writers. (It’s hard to think of a case that doesn’t involve two men.)
The path of the black intellectual is unenviable, often appearing at cross-purposes with one’s self-understanding. It has been in a state of “crisis” since at least 1967, if one goes back to Harold Cruse. Or it is “an uncanny site of contradictions,” in the evocative words of Hortense Spillers, who no less than bell hooks has remained one of the leading black intellectuals of the last thirty years. However defined, the path is fraught on all sides. Will white readers sample you as the “black spokesman du jour,” the latest remedy for soothing their conscience? And how will you do right by a world of dire circumstances and life-threatening urgency that you are as ill-equipped to transform as most anyone, even though you might be (slightly) better positioned to speak about it? Cruse had some clear answers:
The special function of the Negro intellectual is a cultural one. He should take to the rostrum and assail the stultifying blight of the commercially depraved white middle class who has poisoned the structural roots of the American ethos and transformed the American people into a nation of intellectual dolts. He should explain the economic and institutional causes of this American cultural depravity. He should tell black America how and why Negroes are trapped in this cultural degeneracy, and how it has dehumanized their essential identity, squeezed the lifeblood of their inherited cultural ingredients out of them, and then relegated them to the cultural slums. They should tell this brainwashed white America, this “nation of sheep,” this overfed, overdeveloped, overprivileged (but culturally pauperized) federation of unassimilated European remnants that their days of grace are numbered.
This is a tall order, but also a genuine challenge. The black radical tradition in this country has never merely asked for redress or understanding, or as I have argued in these pages, strictly monetary reparations (see “Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?”). The tradition questions the nation’s self-understanding, and in so doing claims for itself — the tradition, not the person who happens to invoke it — a moral authority based on witness, suffering, perseverance and vigilance. All the disagreements in a living current of thought need not distract us from that clear understanding of a common goal, a desired destination.
I believe Coates is absolutely right about the pervasive power of race as a mobilizing force in American politics, one whose potency has never fluctuated since the founding of our slave-holding republic. In “The First White President,” published in the tenth month of Trump’s presidency, he argued that Trump had successfully seized on the “eldritch energies” of white redemption politics, a strategy with roots in the violent overthrow of Reconstruction by Jim Crow law and lynch-mob terrorism. Trump cast himself as a new redeemer who in similar fashion would remove the anomalous stain of the first black presidency on white honor. Lacking any history of public service and boasting a staggering record of repugnant words and deeds, Trump made the restoration of white power his unique qualification. As Coates wrote, Trump is “the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific — America’s first white president.”
But Trump’s mobilization of the politics of white grievance and ressentiment isn’t shocking or unprecedented, for him or the country. That dog-eared playbook, as Coates himself noted, is almost a cliché of American politics. More impressive and foreboding was Trump’s ability to trash an unspoken requirement of American politics: at the very least, it had been thought, a semblance of moral rectitude and responsibility was a prerequisite for entry to the highest office in the land. Trump was able to circumvent this barrier in two ways: by mocking the rhetorical conventions of prevailing political discourse, recasting them as weak and dissembling, and by couching his bid for power explicitly in utilitarian terms. Trump is all about ends; he scarcely seems to comprehend means. A lie is just a tactical move made on the way to winning—which in Trump’s middle-school-coach-slash-wise-guy-from-Queens style of delivery means something like what Charlie Sheen intended in his infamous coked-up interview rants: “Defeating the naysayers … you’re either winning or you’re losing, there’s nothing in between.”
Coates is right that Trump’s election can only be understood through the prism of race, in the light of our nation’s wrestling with its “original sin,” to employ a favored euphemism of the Obama years (a prim phrase for the consequences of a 250-year chokehold). And he is also right to argue that the violation of the symbolic order of whiteness by the election of the nation’s first black president has been a decisive factor in contemporary politics. (The Baldwin renaissance attests to this as well.) Coates is the only major public intellectual to have argued this point forcefully, and to have made it stick. When people look back and ask how thinking people grappled with the Trump presidency, “The First White President” will be in the conversation; Coates’s work will be required reading.
That said, there are positions of Coates’s that are worth debating, not in the interest of dismissing them, but in the hopes of pushing beyond the impasse that his work gravitates toward, which raises our anguish only to leave us fatally stranded. Without wading too deep into what I think is ultimately an unproductive argument over “identity politics” within the liberal left, I nevertheless think a salutary reckoning between the interests of black Americans and those of the Democratic Party is long overdue. We can’t afford to continue endorsing a Clintonite triangulation that pays lip service to loving black people when it is expedient but, because it is enthralled to moneyed interests, continues to serve a class that contains virtually none of us. This also means supporting serious and robust efforts to reform the ideological orientation of that party.
I agree with Coates that Bernie Sanders clumsily handled issues like political correctness and identity politics on the campaign trail. But painting Sanders as simply one more fixture in the constellation of white power, as Coates does in “The First White President,” is glib and dishonest. Coates’s dismissal of Sanders’s assertion that “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from” is particularly ill-considered. Coates implies that the senator, whom he eventually endorsed, wanted his party to address only or primarily white workers, a claim Coates himself does not seem to actually believe. And Coates knows that what Sanders meant is by and large true, not least because Coates has talked to plenty of black working-class Democrats who have themselves long been disillusioned with the Democratic Party’s rhetoric. Their support of Obama, as Coates perceptively chronicled, often came despite a rhetoric that alienated them. Obama’s commencement speech at Morehouse, arguably the rhetorical nadir of his presidency, was a thin and uncharitable performance that spoke to a massive divide between the hopes of the class that put him in office and the change he proposed to deliver once in power.
Yet the bitter and increasingly uncertain loyalty of blacks to the Democratic Party is an issue that is notably absent from “The First White President.” It’s true that, by demographic share, more black men than white women voted for a white woman to become president; but it’s also true that in key states, notably Michigan, the low turnout of black voters may well have made the difference and cost Clinton the election. Black votes matter, and pointing to black and brown voter share for Clinton as evidence that they are content with the party’s messaging is like mistaking a hostage for a dinner guest. Coates only mentions in passing the bitter disillusionment and disgust in the black community with the Democratic Party across several administrations. Many black Democrats have historically voted for their candidates out of a sense of duty, fidelity, distant hope and fear of what the alternative might bring. During the Obama years, their disappointment could be mitigated by the satisfaction of voting for a black president. But many did so for just that sense of satisfaction, not because they truly believed he would improve their lives.
And what are working-class whites supposed to make of the Democrats? Coates’s frustration over the national obsession with them as the main protagonist of American politics is justified. But it would be equally foolish to pretend that the largest demographic bloc in the U.S. population can simply be dispensed with by fine-tuning an electoral calculus or abolishing the electoral college. Any sincere and realistic political project will have to talk to those people, and not just talk at them — they have to be appealed to, won over; that’s what the art of politics is about. Reconstructing and uprooting racist mindsets may not be a humanly achievable goal. But to imagine that this leaves us hostage to a fate we can do nothing about drastically underestimates the thick and complicated field of social relations. Women radicalized by the rise of Trumpism are identifying common concerns across racial lines; on a range of issues the young (most notably in Black Lives Matter protests) increasingly demonstrate a racially integrated front; the working poor, black and white, and concerned environmentalists all share an interest in securing a right to clean public water, clean air and quality health care. The best answer to white supremacy is to go about creating what it fears. It’s to do the work of building solidarity, even in the form of antagonistic cooperation; to link struggles and build up popular-front movements that speak to the interests of the downtrodden and disinherited, who though unequal in their access to the American creed (a fact whites are all too often papering over with banalities like “all lives matter!”) nevertheless have more to gain by uniting against the powerful than they do from pointing fingers at each other.
Should the Democrats be ashamed of the way they speak to these people? In a word, yes. “Deplorables” is not a word one uses to address the hopes, frustrations or fears of working-class people, white or black. It is straight out of the lexicon of upwardly mobile snobbery and was justifiably perceived as such when Clinton used it at a banquet dinner at Cipriani. Coates isn’t wrong to chide certain white liberals, but can he really fail to see that this kind of overt contempt and explicit class warfare has political implications and electoral consequences too? Are we supposed to understand that the election was a referendum on race to the exclusion of the appalling lack of empathy and basic honesty in the rhetorical playbook of the political party claiming the moral high ground? Why isn’t the honest reckoning Ta-Nehisi Coates calls for one in which all of these things are on the table?
Consider the following sentence from “The First White President”: “White workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics; they are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.” Coates is making a point about the demographic composition of the Democratic Party. But it’s unclear whether he really means to refer only to workers voting for Democrats. The interpretation we’re encouraged to accept, especially given the thrust of the rest of the essay, is that the sentence simply holds for white working-class Americans, period. Yet some of the evidence Coates cites in his own essay seems to undermine that first clause. For instance, the wide gap in educational attainment of a college degree between Trump and non-Trump white voters is quite obviously a substantial marker of a class divide. One could draw up a list of other data points including incarceration rates and geographic mobility, but it’s not really necessary, because Coates isn’t saying that a white working class doesn’t exist; he’s saying that a virtuous white working class, unmotivated by racism, is a myth, one chiefly created and perpetuated by wealthy white liberals with a bad conscience. I entirely agree.
Still, this moment in his essay is worth examining more closely. Why can’t both halves of Coates’s sentence be true? That white workers are divided from other whites by their class rank, and that they are also divided from all other laborers by their whiteness? What stands in the way of an overlapping conjunction of class and racial markers, as opposed to a story that Coates feels he needs to tell about the triumph of one over the other? The answer most readily supplied by the structure of his essay is that he’s engaged in a battle with commentators and journalists whom he sees, often quite rightly, as de facto apologists for white working-class racism; if they will overstate the case of class, he must counter with the overstatement of race. It’s understandable as a matter of tactics, and in a loud and diffuse public sphere perhaps it is necessary to get a point across.
I can’t help thinking that Coates wastes too much of his energy battling with the likes of Mark Lilla, David Frum and George Packer, who, setting aside the question of sympathies, demonstrate no understanding or serious study of the black intellectual tradition that he is advancing. What’s the reward of getting bogged down in disputes with them? Why not instead use the power of the megaphone to engage with radical projects that matter to black America? Remind the nation that children are still being washed and fed from bottled water in Flint, Michigan. Examine the efforts of Ras Baraka to bring change to the city of Newark or Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s grassroots political mobilization in Jackson, Mississippi. Shine a light on the importance of HBCUs, and drive investment and donations to them. Work together to advance mutually reinforcing causes, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, one of the most important rising voices in black intellectual life, has urged us to do, by linking guns, school shootings and the fight for black lives. Are there really no movements that broach these issues while appealing across social categories that we can encourage, amplify and learn from?
The good news is that there are. The bad news is that they must fight a culture that is so morally and intellectually bankrupt it defies satire. Even I struggled to fathom the depth of corporate America’s nihilism and depravity as I watched it loot and vandalize the speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to sell Dodge trucks during the Super Bowl, a feat that could be a gag line in a Paul Beatty novel. The moral opposite, the opponent of such spiritual death, does exist, however — and it is no coincidence that it seeks to return and renew the work King was doing when he was murdered fifty years ago at the height of a never-completed campaign to dismantle unnecessary poverty, disenthrall the state from militarism and dislodge the power of avarice and racial hatred from our politics.
The Poor People’s Campaign of 2018 has issued “a national call for moral revival” and already begun mobilizing, descending upon state capitol buildings across the country to peacefully protest and make their voices heard. Led by the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the movement has grown out of the “Moral Mondays” protests supported by the NAACP that began in North Carolina in 2013 in response to legislation proposed by the newly elected Republican governor, Pat McCrory, that would restrict voter registration, limit Medicaid expansion and deregulate the public schools. The tactics of the Poor People’s Campaign are relatively modest — so far it has attempted to deliver letters to congressional leaders and staged rallies to petition the government for redress. But the possibility of changing the discourse, of bringing the issue of poverty instead of “hardworking Americans” into focus, the repurposing and re-centering of an ethical and spiritual impulse to collective action — these are deeply significant interventions in our current climate.
On April 2, 2017 Reverend Barber delivered a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City. “When Silence Is Not an Option” paid homage to King’s April 4, 1967 Riverside address, “A Time to Break Silence.” Exactly one year before his assassination, King publicly broke with the Johnson administration by denouncing the war in Vietnam, calling for “a radical revolution of values” and warning that “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” Thundering from the pulpit half a century on, the Reverend Barber reminded his audience of this radical King and, by way of the biblical parable of the valley of the dry bones, he enjoined them to breathe life into the dry bones scattered across the country who represent “the people who believe the forces of injustice have won … people who said, ‘I never thought this could happen in my nation’ … those who are poor who have been told poverty is their own fault … African Americans who see mean and power-drunk politicians working to take away voting rights.”
Speaking out in defense of those who have lost hope, and indeed about conditions and situations deemed supposedly hopeless, is our moral responsibility:
Silence is not an option because we must have a living word … not just an analysis of the pain, but a word that points us toward the kind of subversive hope that gives people the possibility to fight up out of valleys of dry bones. We must dare to raise the question: Is America possible? … And then we must say yes, and join our place among the generations before us who faced and had to raise the same questions against odds that were much greater than the ones we face today. If they said something in the face of slavery, if they said something in the face of Jim Crow, if people said something in the face of the Holocaust, if they said something in the face of apartheid, surely we can say something and sound a living word.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is not wrong about the white redemption politics of Trump or the importance of racial animus and its role in his rise to power. Nor is he wrong to say that it’s also the central dialectic of American history, conditioning and revealing our most intense contradictions, our most vicious crimes, our unique endurance, our character and our fate. But his analysis always seems to end precisely where I think we ought to begin: where the tradition of black radical organizing and subversive hope has taken up the burden that the white leaders of this country have, since 1787, simply kicked down the road. What of our magnificent insistence that we will pull this country into righteousness and justice by our own hands, by our own words and deeds and witness, by any means necessary? Not out of naïve optimism about the grand intellectual project of the Enlightenment; not out of a sentimental faith in the innate goodness of our former masters; not out of a facile comfort in providence or a self-loathing desire to improve ourselves; not because the universe necessarily bends in a hopeful direction, whatever that might mean.
Our tradition impels us and gives us confidence quite simply because our souls look back in wonder; because we are endowed at birth with that special vertigo inherited from our foremothers and fathers; how they got over; how they came through “the blood-stained gate”; how they made a way out of no way; what it cost to be alive; to be unbroken in spirit; to know the value of freedom; to know one another’s beauty in a world ceaselessly mocking and denigrating its dignity; and yes, to laugh like Zora and sharpen our oyster knives: the price of the ticket paid.
A little over a century ago, W. E. B. Du Bois prodded white America: “Your country? How came it yours?” He continued: “Around us the history of the land has centred for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst.” That “we” is a proud black people whose labor and indomitable determination made the very notion of American greatness possible.
One should never underestimate the force of black love for this country. Not for its flag, or its army, or its anthem, or even its supposedly hallowed parchments and pageants; but the love for the people — the everyday people of America which is so obvious in the gift of our music, our irrepressible desire to see people free to be themselves, free from bondage of every kind. It is, as Baldwin understood, a love that is greater than the sum of all the violence directed against it, the rash of slander and injustice that ever threatens to break out and destroy the black soulfulness that proves the foundational lie of American slavery and the mentalities slavery bequeathed.
The pragmatic question today is how to return the great force of this tradition into our political body, into our political culture, our rhetoric, our candidates, our meetings and conversations, our workplaces and relationships. We have a moral language and a popular tongue at our disposal — but we need to learn to use it again. The language of our politics should come from the street, not from think tanks, think pieces or the academy. Our ordinary words are already spiritual and moral; we can carry them into the public square and be respectful and confident, open and engaged, not fearful, controlling or defensive. And for those who doubt whether this can come to pass, or believe mine is simply another empty rhetorical exercise, I would ask you to look to the Poor People’s Campaign of 2018; listen to the folks who are assembled under its banner; consider their backgrounds; listen to how they talk; listen to the Reverend Barber sermonize; ask yourself if you really believe these people assembled in moral indignation are wrongheaded; ask yourself what would be possible if ever such a movement swept like a prairie fire through the nation.
I do not doubt the specter of white supremacy is a clear and present danger. But I also know the song-lit race that American slavery ignited carries an even more powerful and precious light, and it cannot be put out.