Revisiting Ta-Nehisi Coates on White Supremacy
The Status of Hope in America
The American fear of uncertainty is one that the people living within her belly strive to terminate through pragmatism, which promises quantifiable and “progressive” results. The entire “American Dream” rests on the fundamental faith that our institutions and famous (infamous we might argue) social slogan instills into each American heart: what you wish for you can have, if you would but work for it. Yet when does keeping the faith move beyond pragmatism? What happens when we abuse the power of hope? By placing Melvin Rogers, Rebecca Solnit, and Ta-Nehisi Coates in conversation concerning the present dark times in our nation, I hope to dig deeper into how “hope” is understood within our contemporary landscape. Though these individuals aren’t engaged in precisely the same debate, in an Arendtian fashion I want to construct how differing pieces of thought can engage in a productive dialogue with one another.
For Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of We Were Eight Years In Power , hope is not necessarily synonymous with –nor even exists in tandem with — progress. Many critics of his work call him pessimistic, inasmuch as he insists on the unrelenting and undying presence of white supremacy as irreducibly formative of black experience in this country. Coates sees white supremacy as the United States’ only identity, and suggests that to detach that identity from the country would be to enter into what Melvin Rogers’ describes as “an abyss.” That is to say, it is inconceivable. If the country cannot exist as an entity without white supremacy, then any chance of progress for racial equality and justice will never occur — precisely what so disheartens people when they look to Coates for comfort. Yet Coates is very clear that this is not his responsibility. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg (editor in chief of The Atlantic), Coates quipped: “History isn’t happy,” adding that he did not believe his work was pessimistic, nor was it negative but, rather, based in reality. Diverting the notion that history’s arc tends to bend towards justice, Coates’s believes “the arc bends towards chaos.” To live inside America’s truth and maintain hopefulness, then, seems to become impossible, contradictory. Though appearing negative, Coates has freed himself from the weight of hope by facing what he feels is the reality of the experience for the black mind and body in this country. Instead of distracting ourselves with the rhetoric of hope to satisfy our need for proof of progress, Coates’ bald realism allows us to move beyond beating a dead horse — that is, attempting to defeat white supremacy’s existence in America. Instead of vying for the cooperation of white America, dispelling the irrational desire for equality and mutual understanding would leave room for, perhaps, more pragmatic ways forward, such as by maintaining relationships with other minorities, or creating a safe, working polis in which only people of color can flourish. Coates provokes honesty unapologetically. How much forward have we really come? Where does the past still persist today? And what happens when we try to suffocate the already boiling-over understanding of our past, while clinging to an imagined, hopeful future? How does this juggling of both distort our efforts to repair the present?
It is with Melvin Rogers’ Boston Review article, “ Keeping the Faith , ” that one successfully moves past wallowing in guilt and even further past criticizing Coates’ pessimism. Rogers possibly has found where Coates’ strong argument falls short, just enough to combat it by reviving justice. Rogers eloquently states: “But there is a sleight of hand in Coates’ ‘black atheism’; it conflates hope with certainty, and hope becomes our fatal flaw. Yet we don’t need to believe that progress is inevitable to think that, through our efforts, we may be able to move toward a more just society. We can, however, be sure that no good will come of the refusal to engage in this work. . . It is hopeful without being optimistic.” Rogers refuses Coates’ fatalistic approach, for it completely quashes hope and faith as nuanced forces, and undermines the concept of an “American experiment.” It is too rigid. He states that black activists of the past forged their faith not in spite of but because of the dark times. Lightness and darkness can be born out of each other, because they are never completely determinative. We can be aware that our faith doesn’t comply with our current reality, while acknowledging that it employs a vision of the future to reconstruct the present. Does faith then remain blind obedience? How noble is this fight for a version of hope or how exhausting is it really for our spirits? Rogers even harkens to other critics of Coates by noting how oppressive forces such as class structure are not necessarily considered. Is Coates denying the nuances of oppression or are critics trying to dilute how much power white supremacy has? Coates writes about America’s identity and destiny as always falling in line with white supremacy, but by attributing this phenomenon as always-already fated rather than as conscious “choices, habits, and practices,” white supremacy is painted as genetically undefeatable. The defining line then is established depending on how one feels about the nature of white supremacy – is it wholly inevitable or not? We then are choosing between fate and faith.
Tying together Coates’ and Rogers’ impressions on hope, I have found solace in writer Rebecca Solnit’s words from an interview with Krista Tippett . I want to emphasize solace, because while I find Solnit’s words comforting I must recognize that they don’t necessarily offer practical solutions; I also must be cautious as a white woman myself trying to comprehend how we all must move forward together in the process of abolishing white supremacy. In her conversation with Krista Tippett, Solnit discusses her personal notion of hope and together the two of them deconstruct hope–how we abuse it and how to utilize it properly. As Rogers discusses the harm in marrying hope and certainty under the same roof, Solnit similarly states:
People in this culture love certainty so much, and they seem to love certainty more than hope, which is why they often seize on these really bitter, despondent narratives that are — they know exactly what’s going to happen. And that certainty just seems so tragic to me. I want people to tell more complex stories and to acknowledge that sometimes we win, and that there are these openings. But an opening is just an opening; you have to go through it and make something happen. And you don’t always win, but if you try, you don’t always lose.
This idea almost aligns with Coates’ in that bad is the inevitable, but then it invokes Rogers in asserting it’s bad only if nothing is done about it. To deny that dark times will come is sheer ignorance, but Solnit reminds us that historical and future “progress” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What I admire about Solnit is that she moves a step beyond thinking about the future in terms of occuring positively or negatively and just takes it for what it is, “an opening”, and however it ends the point is still to go through the portal and make something happen. In the spirit of Hannah Arendt, we have to be aware that how we perceive the present now is not identical to how future generations will make sense of our time when reflecting back, as powerfully demonstrated in her “ Between Past and Future.” Coates envisions the arc of history bending towards chaos, which could be, but Solnit cautions this absolutist thinking by reminding us: “Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends towards justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc. It’s an un-American way of thinking, but it’s an essential way, I think, to inhabit this century, in particular.” In the end, for Solnit it’s all about negotiating. Hope is active. If we choose to fight for the best-case scenario over the worst-case scenario, without employing deception, it is uncertain and actually requires us to take risks. Is this practical? Maybe, maybe not. Is it idealism? Maybe, maybe not. But there’s no denying that Solnit at least strips away the naive quality of having hope in today’s world.
How does this debate inspire us to consider our own positions, hopes, and self-deceptions? What can hope provide and at the same time hinder in us? Surely, hope needs to be flexible to the times. To know when it is needed and when it is misleading. How can we occupy one end of the spectrum entirely; what does that do to our humanity?