In my twenties after I’d attended enough weddings to pay for my tuxedo I realized that the next few decades of my life would go something like this. Attending weddings, celebrating childbirths, commiserating divorces, attending funerals, then repeat.
I’ve lost seven friends and colleagues since January 2013, with the last two coming this past March. Add in a few seminal diasporal figures I didn’t know personally (writer Chinua Achebe, boxer Ken Norton, musician George Duke, actor Jim Kelly, sociologist Stuart Hall, DJ Frankie Knuckles) and it’s clear I’m deep in this latter stage. I knew it was coming. I predicted it.
Still, I wasn’t prepared.
Over the past couple of weeks writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait have been “debating” Obama’s tendency to speak down to black audiences. Coates first asked why liberal writers tripped on Paul Ryan when Obama used nearly the same argument. Chait then responded by suggesting that Obama’s call for blacks to be more responsible was reasonable, that Obama’s arguments are very very different from Ryan’s, and that contemporary black poverty can be partially explained by culture. Coates rebuts by suggesting black culture is not independent of white supremacy. Chait responds finding Coates’ new pessimism deeply troubling. Coates notes in turn that this “new pessimism” is based on a realistic understanding of American history. Chait responds by suggesting Coates’ misread him.
Here’s Melissa Harris-Perry giving a better overview and interviewing Coates about the argument.
I believe Coates’ general argument–that we cannot talk about culture without acknowledging the functional work it performs, we cannot talk about culture without thinking through the political ideas, institutions, and interests that shape it, and we cannot deal with American life and achievement without wrestling with the realities of white supremacy–is correct. More particularly, the most important thing we can study and understand in examining in poverty is NOT culture but are the structures that produce poverty in the first place. In one of this first pieces, Chait cites Reconsidering Culture and Poverty by Small, Harding, and Lamont, using their review to suggest there’s evidence that culture contributes to poverty:
For instance, via Jamelle Bouie, this paper surveys some of the best research evidence of the detrimental cultural outgrowths of concentrated urban poverty on parental expectations, sexual behavior, the willingness of students to engage in beneficial activities, and other things. Culture is hard, though not impossible, to quantify, which does not mean it doesn’t exist.
There’s enough evidence of upward mobility, of people moving out of poverty, to suggest culture might be doing at least SOME work. However the authors themselves say “ultimately the greatest barrier to middle-class status among the poor is sustained material deprivation itself” (p. 9). There is no empirical evidence to suggest that culture plays a measurable role in producing or reproducing poverty in America. Chait’s ideas about America, about culture, about politics, are par for the course amongst American liberals black, white, Latino, Asian American, and Native American.
I’m not doing the debate justice. It’s worth reading, and in fact worth teaching. And it’s spawned a number of responses that are insightful in and of themselves. Tressie MC uses the debate to critique white progressivism. Ross Douthat presents a thoughtful conservative response. Mychal Denzel Smith uses it to examine functional black rage. But I was particularly interested in Andrew Sullivan’s response, a compilation of reader comments. This particular comment struck me (and Coates as well):
The TNC of 2010 who wrote that great piece seemed like the kind of guy his father was. Tough. Strict with his kids. And all because he knew the world out there really is wicked and unfair, but that ultimately you can make it if you pay attention to what’s going on around you. Anyone can rise above it and find their way to a decent life.
I’m now left wondering if that TNC still exists. Does he tell his son to just quit or move to some other country because there is no hope for the U.S.? I would ask him myself, but he does not post his email address, he stopped using Twitter, and the question would surely get deleted by a moderator if I posted it in his comments section. Sad. I hope he comes out of this funk because I do think he’s an outstanding writer who has a lot of good things to say.
If you were to ask a range of people who’ve known me in my adult life, to share one piece of information about me that gives them some insight into who I am they’d likely mention my Detroit roots. But technically, I didn’t grow up in Detroit. I grew up in Inkster, a poor predominantly black suburb of Detroit. Even though I moved away from Inkster in 1984 I continued to come back right up until my best friend was murdered in 2001, not two weeks after the attacks on 9/11. After that I stopped.
Until facebook opened up to the public. It took a few years, but the next thing I know I’m connected with folk I’ve known since kindergarten and before. One of them stood out. She, like me, was shy and quiet throughout grade school, and like me didn’t really begin to come into herself until high school. Because she wasn’t deeply connected to any of the high school cliques–she wasn’t an athlete, she wasn’t a prep, she wasn’t a gangster, she wasn’t one of the beautiful ones–she became the most important person in the network.
She died in a car crash, having fallen asleep at the wheel.
When the anonymous commenter wonders about Ta-Nehisi’s funk, about the pessimistic viewpoint that white supremacy is permanent he does so ignorant of American history and our contemporary condition.
My friend was one of the working poor. She had two jobs and was pretty much on a double time grind making ends meet. I had the opportunity to speak at her funeral. I tried to do her justice, but the one thing I didn’t say and couldn’t say given the venue (and our contemporary condition), was that her death was in effect caused by a political system that increasingly forces us to grind and hustle and punishes us for not being able to do so.
She didn’t carry herself as if this were a burden. If you’d talked to her you wouldn’t have known she had two jobs. She lived every day as if it was that last day and in doing so fully embodied her name (which meant “life”). Knowing that her odds of being lifted up out of her condition was about as likely as winning the Lotto. Knowing she’d be working those two jobs until she couldn’t work anymore. Every day my friend made a choice to live, to love, to work, only to sleep, rinse, and repeat.
We all die. Every single one of us. That knowledge doesn’t stop us from living. It doesn’t stop us from laughing. It doesn’t stop us from trying to produce, from trying to create a better world for ourselves and our progeny. In fact, for many of us that knowledge fuels our work, it CAUSES it to laugh. CAUSES us to produce. CAUSES us to try to create a better world. The tragic in this way inspires us. When the anonymous writer asks whether Ta-Nehisi tells his son to quit, he does so ignorant of the fundamental role tragedy plays not just in black life but in ALL of our lives. Every single relationship I have from this day forward is going to end in tragedy at best, with one of us saying a final goodbye to the other. Why continue?
Because this is life.
White supremacy is not inspirational. It literally aspires to nothing. But the fight against white supremacy? For those of us approaching middle age looking at our children on one side and the abyss on the other? I couldn’t think of any battle more heroic and more worth fighting. Eyes wide open.