Ta-Nehisi Coates was on Charlie Rose the other day – a really wonderful interview which I’ll likely have watch a few more times to glean everything I possibly can from it. It’s a look inside the mind of a man who has been referred to by Toni Morrison as “…fill(ing) the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died.”
At one point, TNC took umbrage with MLK’s rhetoric about the arc of history being long but bending toward justice. To probably very poorly summarize his point: You can obviously look at the world the day MLK was murdered, and then look at today and see clear and evident progress, BUT for Eric Garner – MLK himself – and so many others – their arc abruptly stopped and there is no justice for them. No matter what “good” or progress or change comes from it there is no justice for those individuals. Progress does not equal justice, and progress is not inevitable.
I do understand that sometimes you have to dream of the world you want until it is so. This is a huge part of the African-American tradition in the United States. In music and literature, since they were forced here by whites, black writers and musicians have used “storying”, and the idea of “Elsewhere” as referenced by Kevin Young in his book The Grey Album, to imagine themselves into a different reality. The riverside, the mountaintop – these were common metaphors used to keep the dream of freedom alive. MLK and his movement continued this tradition. I’d say Malcolm X, and the Panthers, would be the juxtaposition. The Dream vs. The Reality.
TNC seems to be bucking that age old tradition for the more stark, literal interpretation of the world he sees – The Reality. He speaks of himself and his actual experiences as opposed to weaving his story into fiction or relying on metaphor. His newest book, Between The World and Me, is structured like a letter to his son. He’s not hiding, he’s being as real as it gets, no sugarcoating for White America.
Justice is made of the blood and sweat of people. Of activists either borne of the struggle or those who take up the struggle. I believe that what we need today is a Social Realism movement that breaks through ALL barriers and into all realms – art, politics, music, the coffee shop, happy hour, the boardroom, you name it. This movement would have ZERO sympathy for apologist behavior from anybody when it relates to sexist, racist, homophobic – ANY offensive behavior. It would call out this behavior, no matter the setting – not abiding by that old propriety-based trope that there is a time and a place to talk about such things. Yes, there is – the time is always and the place is everywhere.
Progress has been made and laws have been changed and people are better off today than they were in 1957, but in the hearts of white people is a void. A void that exists because they’ve never been really confronted. Never been told why they’re racist, and why inaction equals complicity. Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Matthew Shepard, Bill Clayton, India Clark – too many names and too many more being added too fast for us to live in a dream that it gets better. It doesn’t just get better. Either we make it better or it continues. It’s our choice.