The Problem With Being Black, Cont.

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EDIT: Forgot to give Thomas the customary link to his book.

Thomas Chatterton Williams offered the following response to Dwayne's post from last week. I think people who've been around this blog for awhile can guess where I come down on this--a quick archive search will familiarize you really quickly. Moreover, having talked with many of you for some time, I know where you sit. Behave yourselves. Acting like an ass only gives people an excuse to ignore your logic.

Here's Thomas:

Oscar Wilde once quipped that he never read a book he was going to review, "because it prejudices you so." Dwayne Betts must be buried in Wilde these days because he certainly hasn't cracked my memoir, Losing My Cool. Were he to have read the book, however, his guest post last week about my ideas with regard to blackness would surely have been different--perhaps not approving, but at the very least informed. And this, I think, would have benefited the readers of this blog, who responded with interest and intensity to his post and what they were led to believe were my thoughts. Unfortunately, what could have been a serious, open and rewarding conversation about the direction of contemporary black culture (is it misguided or on the right path?) and the relationship between artist and audience (can there be great art without great audiences or is that beside the point?) was instead reduced to a game of telephone. 

Mr. Betts is a moving and, I think, earnest writer, but he is far from a careful reader or thorough critic. His post begins as a commentary on my book (as he understands it not by reading it but by hearing me discuss it on NPR) and turns into a critique of an essay that I wrote two years ago for the magazine n+1. For some reason, he conflates the subjects of the book and the essay, which, though related, are really not the same. In response, I will address the two separately.  

Mr. Betts writes with regard to the NPR interview (and by way of that, with regard to my book):

"The troubling thing about being black is that in the end there is always someone willing to hold your blackness accountable for your failures. For most, this kind of thinking unwittingly sets up a dichotomy or reinforces a dichotomy of blackness and whiteness. So for me, listening to Williams I felt that for him if hip hop = blackness, than [sic] his father's love = whiteness."

 

The view that he attributes to me, however, is precisely the opposite of my own. In fact, the guiding thread through all of my work up to this point could faithfully be rendered as something like: blackness ≠ reason for failure; blackness ≠ hip-hop; a father's love/scholarship/great art ≠ whiteness. I go to lengths to make this clear.

In Losing My Cool, I argue repeatedly that it is a terrible lie, which has been foisted on us and sold to us for decades now, that hip-hop culture equals black culture, that being authentically black means keeping it real. My argument in the book is not an interrogation of blackness, which is to say race, it is an interrogation of the black street culture that is overwhelmingly glorified and worshiped throughout black America in the hip-hop era, which is something else entirely. 

But putting the book aside, even in his treatment of my short essay, which, presumably, he has read, he's missed some important shades of meaning, isolating and stripping statements of their context. The essay, which was occasioned by Arnold Rampersad's wonderful biography of Ralph Ellison, sets out to explore Ellison's lifelong obsession with debunking the racist idea that the black experience was somehow an inferior one. In discussing this, it must first be remembered that as far back as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, there has been a divisive debate within the black community about what exactly it ought to mean to be black in the United States of America. On one hand (Washington's), there is a deep-seated tradition of anti-intellectualism and pragmatism; on the other hand (Du Bois's), there is a distinguished minority tradition of cultivation through cultural education and achievement at the highest level. Ellison was very much a descendant of Du Bois.

With that said, Mr. Betts takes issue with the following sentence of mine: "Because the terrible truth is that black America has never--not even during the Harlem Renaissance--produced a whole class of mature cultural elites working and consuming at the very highest standards." To which he responds:

Williams' article takes its title, "What Do We Who Are Slaves And Black Have To Do With Art," from Dubois 1926 NAACP speech, Criteria of Negro Art. I read the article wondering if I'd been witnessing and reading the same tradition of black literature and culture as Williams. John Edgar Wideman, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, Richard Wright, Paul Laurence Dunbar, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillepsie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis--these folks don't get mentioned at all.

My argument, however, has been oversimplified to the point of distortion. I wrote that sentence not because I hate black people and prefer white people. I wrote it, on the contrary, because I have read enough about American history to realize--as W.E.B. Du himself pointed out--that given the brutalities of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, structural and institutional racism, and a slew of other horrors, art would seem, and in certain ways probably was, a terrific luxury for a great many blacks. It would have been extraordinary if it didn't seem like that.

Of course I know there are sundry historical examples of great black artists (it is through knowledge of their achievement, in fact, that I can conclude with confidence that black cultural output in the hip-hop era is in relatively poor shape). The statement that Mr. Betts takes me to task over means nothing--or it means something very different, which is the same as nothing--if he refuses to acknowledge that what I am actually talking about is reciprocity between artist and audience, both of whom must produce and consume together to make a culture. The artist, after all, doesn't live or work in a vacuum. The basis for the statement within the essay is to illustrate the degree to which Ellison, the finest black novelist and one of the finest American novelists, in his effort to wield art as a means of rendering the Negro experience a universal one--as Borges did for the Argentine, as Joyce did for the Irish, and as Bellow did for the Jew--was estranged from his own people. And he was not alone in this fate. I go on to make the point--which Mr. Betts conveniently ignores--that the same legendary jazz musicians Mr. Betts would like to see namechecked were themselves never really in rapport with the black masses either. I write:

The poet and critic Lorenzo Thomas has noted that black artists and jazz musicians were measurably isolated from the wider African-American community and therefore subject to overwhelming outside influence from white critics: "Neither black audiences nor the musicians themselves seemed to be able to control the aesthetic or commercial direction of [jazz]." Harold Cruse described this problem most powerfully in his classic 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual:

 

"The Negro intellectual has never really been held accountable to the black world for his social role [because] the black world cannot and does not support the Negro creative intellectual. The black bourgeoisie does not publish books, does not own and operate theaters or music halls. It plays no role to speak of in Negro music, and is remote from the living realities of the jazz musician who plays his nights in the effete and soulless commercial jungles of American white middle-class café culture."


I do not bring up these points of contention to be nitpicky--on the contrary, they are the very essence of the matter. Why does a writer labor over nuance and context if it won't be respected, if a critic insists on ignoring the writing at hand in favor of a more convenient analysis of his or her own particular pet peeves and straw men?

Mr. Betts submits the following as though he has found some smoking gun on me:

"So Williams, with the quickness, writes: '[W]ereas white America has produced its William Faulkners, Frank Lloyd Wrights, Ralph Waldo Emersons, Harvard Universities, Edmund Wilsons, New Yorkers, etc., to serve as hefty counterbalances to the Lindsay Lohans, Donald Trumps, and John D. Rockefellers it creates--i.e., there is a small but healthy highbrow tradition set in place--black America is all too skewed in the direction of P Diddy and the vulgar...'"


But what's the beef? Black culture is in many ways in worse shape now than when Du Bois delivered his speech. So many of us are trapped in an intellectual kindergarten, students of a culture that is far too skewed in the direction of hip-hop, sports, entertainment and the vulgar (and this includes the bourgeoisie). I see this statement as being obvious on it's face--not because white is superior to black, which is not my belief at all, but because there is an astounding problem of proportion in contemporary black culture: for every aspiring Toni Morrison there are a thousand aspiring Diddys--worse still, the institutions that we do control and our culture as a whole overwhelmingly tend to prize and reward the Diddys at the expense of the Morrisons--let alone the Ellingtons and the Ellisons. To be sure, America as a whole suffers from such an imbalance, but not to the same extent, frankly. 

Mr. Betts's concluding point, that there is no pure white art or black art, but that there is simply American art is his best argument, and it is something Ralph Ellison strove his entire career to demonstrate, while at the same time remaining through and through a black artist. In Ellison's view, American culture itself is mongrel in nature. That is, of course, why it was so disappointing to him, and it continues to be troubling to me, that, as Americans, so many black folk fail to lay claim to the entirety of our Western tradition, which spans from Plato to Coltrane, Balzac to Baldwin.

Alas, there is a valuable, indeed an urgent conversation to be had about all this and more, but that conversation is dead before it starts in the absence of a willingness to look each other in the eye and engage one another with honesty and accuracy. I am grateful to the several commenters who were familiar with my work and able to point out the discrepancy between what I've written and what was being discussed on this blog. And for anyone who finds these questions and subjects interesting, you might also want to check out Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Arnold Rampersad's Ralph Ellison, and Ralph Ellison's Shadow and Act.



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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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