Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

  • Found in Translation

    How language brings us together—and drives us apart.

    A Soviet officer during World War II (RIA Novosti via Wikimedia Commons)

    Around the time I came to The Atlantic, and just after my first book was published, I started seriously doing television and radio for the first time. It was not then uncommon for people to comment on my accent, my syntax, and my all-around need to "Think Of The Children" whenever I spoke. I never came up worrying about any of this. There's a kind of black household where speech is obsessed over, where grandmothers make you deposit a nickel for every "ain't" and "finna," where aunts respond to "Where they at?" with "right behind that preposition."

    I actually never understood that one. 

    When I started writing it was as an MC. After Rakim, my greatest influences were the rhythms inherent in the common speech all around me. There were drums, as Zora Neale Hurston would say, tucked into these voices, and I have tried since those days as a five-foot MC to bring those same drums to anything I write. I never had much reason to "speak proper," as very few poets, and very few print journalists, cared about such things. In general, I thought that what was "proper" on the basketball court was not what was "proper" in a job interview, and that was not what was "proper" for writers, like me, and that, still, would never be proper for the lawyer approaching the bench. I believe my son should learn "standard English," much for the same reason I believe he should learn "standard French" and "standard Spanish." On the whole, knowledge beats ignorance every time. 

    The other day, I watched an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee for the first, and regrettably last, time. (Jerry, how I used to love you.) The episode featured the Francophone comedian Gad Elmaleh. At one point Elmaleh said to Seinfeld, "I don't understand baseball and I know you would never explain me how it works." In many African-American homes, Gad would have been out of a nickel. I found it amusing. In French, to ask someone to explain something, you can say, "Expliquez-moi"—which literally reads in English as "Explain me." There was nothing wrong about Elmaleh's actual thoughts, nor the message he was trying to convey. He was not speaking bad English, he was speaking in French grammar and using English words.  And this—like a man driving to the hoop in coat and tails—was amusing. 

    This has been one of the small great lessons in studying French. People don't so much speak bad English, or bad "any language," as they resort to their familiar clothes, activity be damned. When the Ukrainian says "Why always Boris?" instead of "Why do they always call me Boris?" he is not being immoral, nor corrupting the children, so much as he is telling you something about his native tongue. And when the African-American tells you, "My wife been done gone" he too, is carrying other languages, though we are not yet sure which. But packaging matters to us, and language is but a specimen of this fact. 

    I was reading some pages from Anne Applebaum, the other day, on perceptions of the Russians as they drove the Germans back through Poland and then into Germany at the end of World War II.

    Dig this:

    When describing what happened, many spoke of a “new Mongol invasion,” using language tinged with xenophobia to evoke the unprecedented scale of the violence. George Kennan was reminded of the “Asiatic hordes.” Sándor Márai remembered them being “like a completely different human race whose reflexes and responses didn’t make any sense.” John Lukacs recalled “dark, round, Mongol faces, with narrow eyes, incurious and hostile.

    Kennan thought that Soviet brutality had no parallel in modern Europe. The Red Army certainly was brutal, but not unparalleled. In under a decade, Hitler murdered some 11 million people. I'm not sure that his victims ever saw much sense in their executioners, either. And one need not go back to the time of Asiatic hordes to find devastation in Europe. It was Count Tilly,  hailing from modern-day Belgium, who gave us the phrase "Magdeburg Justice," an episode born in a conflict at the very heart of Europe which served to reduce the German population by as much as one quarter. A consistent theme in my reading is that of a "Western Europe," where brutality is logical, if immoral, and "Eastern Europe," where brutality hints at something inexplicable, Oriental, dark, and primitive. I think I know something of that.

    If you get a chance, check out this video of Pussy Riot on The Colbert Show. It's cool to watch the translations back and forth. (I suspect they have some English skills also, but prefer to speak in Russian.) The humor is never lost, which is to say the thoughts are never lost and are, on some level, the same. Humor sometimes depends on culture, but culture is not inexplicable and the thoughts undergirding humor do not pause for geography.

    Why do we impute morality into language? I suspect for the same reasons we need to see the Russian "hordes" as Asiatic aliens, and Stalin, not simply as evil, but as evil that defies comprehension. But if you look closely, there is always science, there is always a method. Applebaum's great success is that instead of offering a litany of Soviet evils, she explains them. Soviet communism functioned like missionary Christianity—a veneer of respectability for a ruthless imperialism. And reading this, I can see how I too might have been swept away.

    Yesterday it was a chapter where Applebaum discusses the secret camps in the Soviet Union where international communists were educated. The international communists felt privileged by the allure of clandestine knowledge held in the inner sanctums of the party. I thought, "That could have been me, too." And, as I've said before,  I think that's the point of it all. To find yourself there, in another language, in another place, and feel the fragility of your morality, to feel the common nature in even your most treasured thoughts.

  • 'In God We Trust—but We Have Put Our Faith in Our Guns'

    Florida teenager Jordan Davis was shot by Michael Dunn after an argument over music. His mother, Lucia McBath, talks about losing her son and her fight against Stand Your Ground laws.

    Jordan Davis and Lucia McBath. (Courtesy Lucia McBath)

    Jury selection begins today in the trial of Michael Dunn, the man who shot and killed teenager Jordan Davis outside a Florida convenience store in November of 2012. Davis was sitting in a parked SUV outside the Jacksonville store with friends when Dunn, who is white, began complaining about their music. An argument ensued, and then ended, when Dunn fired his 9mm handgun into the vehicle. As the SUV raced off, Dunn stepped out of his car and fired again. Then he and his girlfriend drove to a hotel, checked in, and ordered a pizza. He never called the police and was only arrested because a witness jotted down his license plate. Dunn, who is mounting a Stand Your Ground defense, claimed a passenger in the vehicle had threatened him with shotgun—or a stick. The police found no gun. 

    In the wake of Jordan Davis's death, his mother Lucia McBath has become active in the fight against Stand Your Ground laws. She is currently the national spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense In America. I spoke with her recently about the impact of the death of her son.

    How aware were you of Stand Your Ground laws before your son was killed?

    I have to humble myself and say I didn't think much about them. I knew what was happening in the country. But I spent more time trying to prepare Jordan to be safe, specifically being a young black male. I monitored who he was with and what he did. And I would have those discussions with him. But I didn't know anything about Stand Your Ground until Trayvon, which I discussed with Jordan as well. Every time I saw a case like that I would just pray to the Lord that something like that would never happen to us. Jordan was in a safe environment. We were in a safe environment. Now my eyes are open. It does not matter where you raise your kids. It does not matter what your religious upbringing is. 

    Can you tell us about Jordan?

    He was always the life of the party. He had a great sense of humor. He would always play jokes on me and his dad as well. He was loved by a lot of people. He had a lot of friends and I always marveled at how quickly he made friends. He was just that kind of gracious personality. He made friends with all kinds of people. He didn't care about ethnicity or religious upbringing. He just liked people. I used to tell him, "Jordan, one day you'll be a social activist or politician because you can bring kids together."

    He had a lot of wisdom. I used to pray that God would give him wisdom and understanding. We would have these deep philosophical conversations about life and there'd be times when Jordan would say things and I would say, "How do you know?"

    But he would know and he would say, "I just know, Mom." 

    How old was Jordan when he died?

    Jordan was 17. Between his junior and senior year.

    Was he thinking of college?

    His father and mother were well-educated and we come from well-educated families. But he was an average student. He had his struggles with math. He had gotten to the point where he'd say, "I want to go to college, but I don't know if I'm cut out for it." He was leaning toward the military. My oldest nephew, Julian, went into the Marines and did extremely well. He took Jordan under his wing. Jordan kind of wanted to be like cousin Julian. He was in Air Force ROTC in high school and that seemed to fit him. He excelled in ROTC. 

    Did he enjoy athletics? 

    Toward the end of his life he had gained an interest in basketball. As a child, he loved baseball. He took Taekwondo for about four and a half years. I actually took a class with him. He loved roller-skating. He was an excellent swimmer. I put him in the water at three years old and he just took off. He was so fast. When he was younger we would run races together, and I used to be really fast as a young woman and I would beat the boys. But they got faster. Jordan got faster.

    How did you find out that Jordan had died?

    I was in Chicago with my family on the day after Thanksgiving. I had gone to the bedroom. My phone was on the dresser and it lit up with Jordan's father number. He said, "Where are you?" 

    I said, "I'm in the bedroom." 

    He said, "Where's Earl?" Earl is my cousin. He is more or less like a brother to me. 

    I said, "Why? Where's Jordan?" 

    He said, "I need you to get Earl." 

    I said, "I'm not going to get him. What's wrong with Jordan?" I think he didn't want me to hear the news by myself. 

    What happened after you were told?

    Every fear I ever had for my child, especially as he became a teenager—when they're driving, are they going to be hit? Is he going to get in trouble? Is he going to be stopped by the police?—everything I ever feared for Jordan hit me at that one moment. It was excruciating. It was the kind of fear you put out of the mind. You read about it in magazines. You see it on television and you think, "What would I ever do if that happened to my child?"

    And then all of that comes down at one time.

    Did you know then how he'd died?

    I did not know a whole lot at all. What his father conveyed to me was that Jordan had been shot, but we didn't know why. We just knew that there was a confrontation with a man. It wasn't until the detectives started talking to the boys that we knew.

    Do you understand, at all, why Michael Dunn shot your son?

    I can't understand it. I will never understand it. That will always be a question that remains open in our mind. The only one who understands it is Michael Dunn. In that dark deep-seated moment for him, I don't know where he was. It just doesn't make sense.

    How did you handle the days after Jordan's death?

    In those first six to eight weeks, my whole life was a blur. To be honest, people look at me like I'm crazy when I say this, but I know we are on this earthly plane and there is this heavenly plane and I was somewhere in between. And God was speaking to me and pointing to me all the people in the Bible who he'd used to do things. It was overwhelming. The Lord kept saying he would open doors for me, and I would walk through them, and I would usher Jordan's father through these doors. It was just overwhelming. All I could hear was that "You have something else you must do with your life."

    It was a pregnancy. In my limited thinking I couldn't understand how Jordan's death would be used. But I began to understand that this was much, much bigger. It gave credence to what was happening in this country to us socially, just as a people. This is not the intention God has for our country. "In God We Trust," but we have put our faith in our guns. It's a false sense of protection. Violence begets violence. And I just see fear. Fear hovers over our nation like smog—fear of people who don't look you or think like you do.

    The gun industry, ALEC, the gun manufacturers, the NRA—they're using this fear to fuel the massive number of firearms. The gun industry is making tons and tons of money off the fear of this nation. There are a lot of individuals who fear some kind of civil war. People say to me, in code, "Well, the Obama Administration wants to take our guns." There is this sense that we're going toward a civil war, perpetrated by Obama's administration. This is something people are telling me. And I say, "Where are you getting these ideas from?"

    The NRA and ALEC spoon-feed fear into people's minds. In some sense we should be in fear—not of one another, but of our gun culture.

    What did you think of Michael Dunn's account?

    I knew that it was crazy, without a doubt. Jordan had never been around guns. Jordan didn't like guns. Jordan was held up one time at gunpoint. He and a friend had gone off campus to get snacks. At the convenience store they were held up at gunpoint. He said, "I've never been afraid of much in my life, but I was just praying to Jesus. I thought I was going to die over my wallet and there was nothing in it."

    Did you see the letters Dunn wrote from jail?

    It didn't take very long for me to understand his mindset and I just refused to read anymore. They were heinous to me. I couldn't give them the time.

    Have you received any apology from Dunn's family? 

    No, not at all. And I don't expect [I] will. I am praying for him and my church is praying for him. I forgave him a long time ago. I had to. It's not just about Jordan. And I would not stand and wait for him to apologize. I don't need his apology. I had forgiven him pretty much in the first 30 days. I just knew that was what I was supposed to do.

    I remember one of the first interviews we did. We talked to Lawrence O'Donnell. And after, I was walking past St. Patrick's Cathedral with my friend Lisa and I said, "Lisa, I have to go in there." And I went in and I was just sobbing for two hours. And the Lord helped me forgive [Dunn] right there. In those two hours. I came out and felt like, "Okay, I am done."

    And right after that God started talking to me and showing me things. And I thought that God could use me and use Jordan. People look at me like I'm crazy when I say that.

    What would you say to parents raising young black boys?

    Watch for him. Keep him close. Jordan had no guns. He had no drugs. There was no alcohol. They were coming from the mall. They were being kids.

  • The Champion Barack Obama

    How Black America talks to the White House

    Associated Press

    Last week The New Yorker ran a lengthy profile of Barack Obama, by David Remnick, in which you can hear the president's opinions on everything from marijuana legalization to war to racism. Obama is as thoughtful as ever, and I expect that admiration for his thoughtfulness will grow as the ages pile upon us. I have tried to get my head around what he represents. Two years ago, I would have said that whatever America's roots in white supremacy, the election of a black president is a real thing, worthy of celebration, a sign of actual progress. I would have pointed out that you should not expect a black head of state in any other Western country any time soon, and that this stands as singular accolade in the long American democratic tradition. Today, I'm less certain about national accolades. I'm not really sure that a writer—whose whole task is the attempt to see clearly—can afford such attachments. 

    More interesting to me is why this happened. If you begin from the proposition that African-Americans are fundamentally American, in a way that the Afro-French are not; and that America is, itself, a black country in a way that the other European countries are not, Barack Obama's election strikes you somewhat differently. African-American politics is literally as old as American politics, as old as Crispus Attucks shot down for his nascent country. One of the earliest and bloodiest proving grounds for "Western" democratic ideals was Gettysburg. The line that saved the Union, that ensured that "government of the people, for the people, by the people, shall not perish from this earth" was marked by the house of the black farmer Abraham Brian. On that Brian property lived the great Mag Palm, currently lost to our memory, who fought off man-catchers determined to reduce her to peonage.

    The first African-American to be nominated for president was Frederick Douglass, a biracial black man of exceptional gifts who dreamed of his estranged father as surely as the present occupant of the White House, perhaps even in this day, dreams of his. The last black Southerner to serve in Congress, before this country assented to the desecration of its own Constitution, was George Henry White, who did not leave in despair but in awesome prophecy:

    This is perhaps the Negroes' temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people—full of potential force.

    And come again, we have. 

    In a literal sense, Barack Obama's presidency was made possible by the tradition of black politics—he could not have won in 2008 without the proportional allocation that came out of Jesse Jackson's campaign 20 years before. Considering this history, and considering the valence of African-American culture and heritage in our collective lives, in the very founding of this country, in our politics, I am not sure how much comparisons with European countries can tell us.

    Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don't expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama's on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.) I don't expect to see a black woman exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again. (In the private spaces of black homes, I see it all the time.) And no matter how many times I've seen it in my private life, at Howard, in my home, among my close friends, I don't ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again. 

    This symbolism has real meaning. What your country tells you it thinks of you has real meaning. If you see people around you acquiring college degrees and rising only to work as Pullman porters or in the Post Office, while in other communities men become rich, you take a certain message from this. If you see your father being ripped off in the sharecropping fields of Mississippi, you take a certain message about your own prospects. If the preponderance of men in your life are under the supervision of the state, you take some sense of how your country regards you. And if you see someone who is black like you, and was fatherless like you, and endures the barbs of American racism like you, and triumphs like no one you've ever known, that too sends a message. 

    And this messenger—who is Barack Obama—becomes something more to black people. He becomes a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities. For liberals and Democrats, the prospect of an Obama defeat in 2012 meant the reversal of an agenda they favored. For black people, the fight was existential. "Please proceed, governor," will always mean something more to us, something akin to Ali's rope-a-dope, Louis over Schmeling, or Doug Williams over John Elway.  

    How does a black writer approach The Man when The Man is not just us, but the Champion of our ambitions? More, how do you approach the offices that have so often brutalized black people when those offices are occupied by the Champion? How do you acknowledge the president's many gifts, his actual accomplishments, while still and all outlining the depressing limits of his own imagination? 

    Here is a passage from Remnick's profile of the president, that brings us back to an old—but significant—argument:

    He talked about a visit that he made last year to Hyde Park Academy, a public high school on Chicago’s South Side, where he met with a group of about twenty boys in a program called Becoming a Man. “They’re in this program because they’re fundamentally good kids who could tip in the wrong direction if they didn’t get some guidance and some structure,” Obama recalled. “We went around the room and started telling each other stories. And one of the young men asked me about me growing up, and I explained, You know what? I’m just like you guys. I didn’t have a dad. There were times where I was angry and wasn’t sure why I was angry. I engaged in a bunch of anti-social behavior. I did drugs. I got drunk. Didn’t take school seriously. The only difference between me and you is that I was in a more forgiving environment, and if I made a mistake I wasn’t going to get shot. And, even if I didn’t apply myself in school, I was at a good enough school that just through osmosis I’d have the opportunity to go to college.

    “And, as I’m speaking, the kid next to me looks over and he says, ‘Are you talking about you?’ And there was a benefit for them hearing that, because when I then said, You guys have to take yourselves more seriously, or you need to have a backup plan in case you don’t end up being LeBron or Jay Z ... they might listen. Now, that’s not a liberal or a conservative thing. There have been times where some thoughtful and sometimes not so thoughtful African-American commentators have gotten on both Michelle and me, suggesting that we are not addressing enough sort of institutional barriers and racism, and we’re engaging in sort of up-by-the-bootstraps, Booker T. Washington messages that let the larger society off the hook.” Obama thought that this reaction was sometimes knee-jerk. “I always tell people to go read some of Dr. King’s writings about the African-American community. For that matter, read Malcolm X .... There’s no contradiction to say that there are issues of personal responsibility that have to be addressed, while still acknowledging that some of the specific pathologies in the African-American community are a direct result of our history.”

    You can basically see what I think of this argument here and here. The president is correct that there is a long history of black leaders addressing "personal responsibility." But as a diagnosis for what has historically gone wrong in black communities, the tradition is erroneous. 

    When W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1897, claimed that the "first and greatest" step toward addressing "the Negro Problem," lay in correcting the "immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes themselves" he was wrong. No amount of morality could have prevented the overthrow of Wilmington by white supremacists—the only coup in American history—a year later. When Booker T. Washington urged blacks to use "every iota of influence that we possess" to "get rid of the criminal and loafing element of our people," he was wrong. When Marcus Garvey claimed that "the greatest stumbling block in the way of progress in the race has invariably come from within the race itself," he was dead wrong. When Malcolm X claimed that "the white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community,” and asserted that black people "will let anybody come in and take control of the economy of your community," he was wrong. He knew the game was rigged. He did not know how much.

    An appeal to authority—even the authority of our dead—doesn't make Barack Obama any more right. On the contrary, it shows how wrong he is. I can't think of a single credible historian of our 500-year tenure here who has concluded that our problem was a lack of "personal responsibility." The analysis is as old as it is flawed, and that is because it isn't analysis at all but something altogether different. No black people boo when the president talks about personal responsibility. On the contrary, it's often the highlight of his speeches on race. If you've ever lived in a black community, you might understand why. I can assemble all kinds of stats, graphs, and histories to explain black America's ills to you. But none of that can salve the wound of leaving for work at 7 a.m., seeing young men on the stoop blowing trees, and coming home and seeing the same niggers—because this is what we say to ourselves—sitting in the same place. It is frustrating to feel yourself at war with these white folks—because that too is what we say—and see people standing on your corner who you believe to have given up the fight. 

    "I am not raising 'nothing niggers,'" my mother used to tell me. "I am not raising niggers to stand on the corner." My mother did not know her father. In my life, I've loved four women. One of them did not know her father and two, very often, wished they didn't. It's not very hard to look at that, and seethe. It's not very hard to look at that and see a surrender, while you are out here at war, and seethe. It's not hard to look around at your community and feel that you are afflicted by quitters, that your family—in particular—is afflicted by a weakness. And so great is this weakness that the experience of black fatherlessness can connect Barack Obama in Hawaii to young black boys on the South Side, and that fact—whatever the charts, graphs, and histories may show—is bracing. When Barack Obama steps into a room and attacks people for presumably using poverty or bigotry as an excuse to not parent, he is channeling a feeling deep in the heart of all black people, a frustration, a rage at ourselves for letting this happen, for allowing our community to descend into the basement of America, and dwell there seemingly forever. 

    My mother's admonishings had their place. God forbid I ever embarrass her. God forbid I be like my grandfather, like the fathers of my friends and girlfriends and wife. God forbid I ever stand in front of these white folks and embarrass my ancestors, my people, my dead. And God forbid I ever confuse that creed, which I took from my mother, which I pass on to my son, with a wise and intelligent analysis of my community. My religion can never be science. This is the difference between navigating the world and explaining it. 

    In his book The Condemnation of Blackness, the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes that a few years after Du Bois made his proclamations he was shocked to find himself cited by unreformed white supremacists. And this is not even the past. New York's civil-rights leadership and the racists of our time are united in their belief in the myth of a Knockout Game, which is to say they are united in a belief in our oldest and most fallacious narratives, which have not died. 

    Catharsis is not policy. Catharsis is not leadership. And shame is not wisdom. And applause can never make a man right. And there are many kinds of personal responsibility. The young black man, coming out of storied Morehouse, should be personally responsible for the foiling of this new wave of poll taxing. He should be personally responsible for ensuring that the Medicaid expansion comes to Mississippi. He should be personally responsible for the end of this era of mass incarceration. He should be personally responsible for the destruction of the great enemy of his people—white supremacy. It is so very hard to say this, to urge people on in a long war. We keep asking the same question, but the answer has not changed.

    And I struggle to get my head around all of this. There are moments when I hear the president speak and I am awed. No other resident of the White House, could have better explained to America what the George Zimmerman verdict meant. And I think history will remember that, and remember him for it. But I think history will also remember his unquestioning embrace of "twice as good" in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much.

  • The Pawnshop Abortion Doctor

    There's a lot of conversation, this week, around my old colleague Ross Douthat's column on marriage, abortion and birth control. I think that conversation could benefit from Eyal Press' profile, in this week's New Yorker, of Dr. Steven Brigham. This is not a piece rooted in theory and hypotheticals about a future where women lack control over their bodies. This is a piece of reporting that demonstrates what the world of back-alley abortions would like, because that world is already here

    ....in February, 2010, the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners and the New Jersey Attorney General’s office received packets of letters about an enterprise called Grace Medical Care, whose Web site advertised second- and third-trimester abortions but failed to provide potential patients with basic information, such as the location of the facility. The letters came from staff members at the Cherry Hill clinic where Jen Boulanger works. Elizabeth Barnes, the clinic’s director, informed the board that she had learned that Grace Medical Care, at a facility in New Jersey, was initiating cervical dilation in patients with advanced-gestation fetuses; later, the patients were driven to another state—most likely Maryland—for surgery. Why the elaborate protocol? In New Jersey, after the fourteenth week of pregnancy, an abortion had to be performed in a licensed ambulatory facility or in a hospital, to insure safety. Maryland had no such rule. New Jersey officials did not respond to Barnes.

    Several months later, on August 13th, a procession of cars drove south from Voorhees, New Jersey, through Delaware, and across the Maryland border. Among the passengers was an eighteen-year-old African-American girl who was twenty-one weeks pregnant. The convoy stopped outside an unmarked storefront in Elkton, Maryland. Inside, Nicola Riley, a physician the girl had never met before, performed an abortion while another doctor—Steven Brigham, the founder of Grace Medical Care—observed. Riley seemed to be training on the job, the patient later told a Maryland investigator. During surgery, the girl’s uterus was perforated and her bowel was damaged, and she was taken by car to a local hospital. She eventually had to be airlifted to Johns Hopkins Hospital. (The girl, who spent a week in the hospital, declined to be interviewed.)

    A few days afterward, a detective in Elkton got in touch with the Maryland Board of Physicians to find out if Brigham was licensed to practice medicine in the state. He was not. The police obtained a search warrant and raided the building in Elkton. Inside a dingy storeroom, officers pried open a freezer filled with red biohazard bags that contained thirty-five advanced-gestation fetuses—medical remains that had not yet been disposed of. Some of the fetuses were past twenty-four weeks’ gestation, the point of viability. This ghoulish discovery triggered a grand-jury investigation, and in December, 2011, Brigham was arrested and charged with ten counts of murder. A week or so later, he was released, after posting bail of half a million dollars.

    The story is chilling. Brigham claimed to be trained by people who don't remember him. He overcharged patients (accepting jewelry and personal property as collateral) and injured women. And our current geography insures that men like him (and the notorious Kermit Gosnell) will continue to exist:

    In Maryland, a medical abortion generally costs about three hundred and seventy-five dollars. LeRoy Carhart, the doctor who had worked closely with George Tiller, told me that for a clinic that uses methotrexate “the profit margin is huge.” Carhart, now seventy-two, is an avuncular man with a shock of gray hair and soft pouches beneath his eyes. Based in Omaha, he flies to Maryland every week to perform surgery at the Germantown clinic. Since Tiller’s murder, there are only four doctors in the country who openly provide third-trimester abortions. Carhart told me that, the next day, he was seeing patients in Indiana. When wasn’t he working? “Never,” he said. “When George died, that was the last time I had time off.”

    Since Carhart started performing abortions, in 1988, the number of abortion providers in the U.S. has fallen by a third—a decline that he attributes to protesters. “They have made it so the good physicians don’t really want to get involved,” he explained. “Now you have two types of doctors doing abortions—the doctors who are totally committed to women’s health and are going to do them even if they never get another dime, and the people that just want to take advantage of the situation and milk everything they can out of it.

    Reading this piece, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that terrorism sometimes works. If you truly believe that abortion is murder, than the killing of George Tiller must be viewed as a success. The killings in the 80s and 90s may well have been bad PR for the movement. But they terrorized doctors and were essential to the broader campaign that cleaved abortion away from mainstream medicine.

  • 'To Europe—Yes, but Together With Our Dead'

    What happens to a nation that's suffered a great crime? What happens when the wrong can't be made right?

    At The Mecca. Photo: Sandhya Rajan

    I think Anne Applebaum offers some helpful statistics for thinking about the blue period into which this blog has so recently plunged:

    When the numbers are added up, the result is stark. In Britain, the war took the lives of 360,000 people, and in France, 590,000. These are horrific casualties, but they still come to less than 1.5 percent of those countries’ populations. By contrast, the Polish Institute of National Memory estimates that there were some 5.5 million wartime deaths in the country, of which about 3 million were Jews. In total, some 20 percent of the Polish population, one in five people, did not survive. Even in countries where the fighting was less bloody, the proportion of deaths was still higher than in the west. Yugoslavia lost 1.5 million people, or 10 percent of the population. Some 6.2 percent of Hungarians and 3.7 percent of the prewar Czech population died too. In Germany itself, casualties came to between 6 million and 9 million people—depending upon whom one considers to be “German,” given all of the border changes—or up to 10 percent of the population. It would have been difficult, in Eastern Europe in 1945, to find a single family that had not suffered a serious loss.

    When you talk about trying to understand the meaning of society in a country where 20 percent of the people have been killed, where decimation is a literal term, facts and figures begin to fail you and the individual experiences become much more revealing. A 20-percent casualty rate is why art exists and why personal, individual voices become so important. I can't really grok the sheer amount of death in The Bloodlands. But when Anna Akhmatova says mournfully of the many millions gone, "I would like to call you all by name," I feel something in particular.

    The great edifice of slavery fixes us with a similar problem. When you start talking about 250 years of slavery, you are talking about entire ancestries of people earmarked for perpetual plunder. The majority of African-American history is the history of enslavement. Entire generations could, at one point, reach back to great-great-great-grandparents and find only the enslaved. The vastness of the thing can't really be calculated simply by piling up the numbers. We go to Lucille Clifton to understand the effects:

    Love rejected
    hurts so much more
    than Love rejecting;
    they act like they don't love their country


    what it is
    is they found out
    their country don't love them.

    I must have read that poem in my first year at Howard University. Lucille Clifton went to Howard and (like me) dropped out. I would have likely been sitting downstairs in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. I spent more time in those two places than I did in class. The questions which interested me at 17, when I arrived at Howard, have not changed: What happens when a great crime is perpetrated upon a nation? More, what happens when it isn't—or can't be—made right? How, specifically, do you make right the massacre of 20 percent of a population? What can atone for the perpetual destruction of families for profit and all its attendant effects? Do we even want to make things right?

    This weekend, I went to a party for one of my oldest friends—another buddy from Howard—out in Fort Greene. The old crowd was there—men and women who too, 20 years earlier, had been drawn to the Mecca by the big questions of history. We commiserated. Danced to Beyonce. They played "Murder She Wrote," and I lost my mind a little. I came back to the bar. Talked some friends into drinking a couple Thug Passions. (It was whack. They only had the red Alize.) There was a Soul Train line. We took some Henny shots so as to be more cliché. I looked around at the old crew, and thought about those old days back in Moreland. I didn't know anything about Poland, then. I could not have pointed out Ukraine on a map. Everything was ancient Egypt and my God was the great historian of Africa, Basil Davidson. 

    Back then, I still viewed history, primarily, as an exercise in competing hagiographies. If they had great walls, we must have them too. I really was looking for the Tolstoy of the Zulus. But Howard taught me that accepting the nationalism of my younger years reduced history to jingoism and thus accepted the premises of white supremacy, leaving its roots unscathed. The irony is that this awareness of the limits of nationalism came to me in a place where I knew virtually no white people, in a world delineated by segregation. Because there were no white people, our conversations could be frank and our critiques could be direct. In those conversations I came to see African-Americans as a people among peoples, and that feeling, the glow of that particular tribe, shook the club on Saturday night.

    I came up at a time when it seemed to me that people who claimed humanism just didn't want to be black. It never occurred to me that blackness could lead one not to nationalism, but to humanism, to the sense that your shade is one in the rainbow. We are not all the same. The Poles and Ukrainians existed before the atrocities of Stalin and Hitler. But we who are dark begin in tragedy. Black people are the orphans conceived in an act of Trans-Atlantic rape. And that perspective gives you a unique view on the West. You can want badly to see Krakow, as I do, but not feel it, or any other European city, to be the font of all nice things. And then at the same time you can understand that a 20-percent casualty rate inflicted on a society, in a relatively brief period, mostly concentrated on a minority, is a particular violence different from your own. What does it mean to be Polish after you see something like that? And how does that then inform your notion of being European?

    Again Timothy Snyder gives us some help:

    Germans killed millions of Polish citizens. More Poles were killed during the Warsaw Uprising alone than Japanese died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A non-Jewish Pole in Warsaw alive in 1933 had about the same chances of living until 1945 as a Jew in Germany alive in 1933. Nearly as many non-Jewish Poles were murdered during the war as European Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. For that matter, more non-Jewish Poles died at Auschwitz than did Jews of any European country, with only two exceptions: Hungary and Poland itself. The Polish literary critic Maria Janion said of Poland’s accession to the European Union: “to Europe, yes, but with our dead.”

    But with our dead.

    And even here there is a moment of recognition, because this is exactly how I feel about America and the great project of the West. It's a beautiful thing. But not without our ancestors. Not without our enslaved. Not without our history. Not without my people. Not without our dead. 

  • Sean Wilentz Tries to Change the Subject

    How much does it really matter what Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange believe about politics?

    Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

    Eminent Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has published a piece titled, "Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange If You Knew What They Really Thought?" Wilentz promises to examine "important caches of evidence" which have been overlooked and reveal the unholy troika's "true motives" which are at odd with the liberal portrayal of them as "truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state."

    I think it's worth knowing the politics that animate "the leakers," as Wilentz dubs them, and engaging them. But hasn't this engagement been going on for some years now? Glenn Greenwald's politics have long been a subject of debate among liberals. Haven't Julian Assange's politics also been up for debate, particularly among feminists? I guess Edward Snowden's politics haven't been as closely examined, but that only leads to deeper critique—Edward Snowden is significant because of what he told us about the NSA, not because he's Paul Wellstone reincarnated. 

    In short, I think we know quite well what "the leakers" are thinking, but we're much more interested in what the NSA is doing. I know Wilentz is a prominent and celebrated historian, this piece just reads like elongated ad hominem. If Edward Snowden was a white supremacist, I would still be concerned about NSA officers spying on their exes, and James Clapper lying to the Senate

    See Henry Farrell's thorough response for more. 

  • 'With Complete Indifference to Life or Death'

    Is there such a thing as noble victimization?

    Prisoners liberated from Gesiowka concentration camp by the the Polish Home Army during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising; Ghetto Fighters House Museum

    Christian Fleetwood, there are so many millions raped, pillaged, murdered, and gone. Defeat is defeat. It is humiliating, destructive, and dehumanizing. There's nothing noble about the bottom.

    There are no Djangos in history and when one finds Djangos, one has to be careful to not commit the nationalist error of ascribing those actions to some bone-deep chivalry. Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands

    And then finally there is the matter of only seeing resistance in grand and vengeful strokes. The tendency is to make too much of Nat Turner, and too little out of the enslaved women who would do anythingfilthy, spectacular, and mundane—for the majestic goal of simply saving her son. A few years back, Ron Rosenbaum wrote a great piece on the inability of Americans to grapple with 9/11. His point was that we focused on Flight 93"The Plane That Fought Back"because we could not grapple with the fact that thousands had been killed, without any chance to fight, without any sort of choice in how they might die. Instead we wanted a "feel good 9/11 movie."

    Or maybe the need for narratives of uprising springs from something else. Bloodlands is filled with repeated acts of unimaginable horror. There is very little heroism in the book. Snyder licks shots at the God of History, at our sense of "progress," at our belief in meek inheritance, and triumphant justice. Then about three quarters of the way in, Snyder tells the story of the 1944 uprising in Warsaw. The uprising is defeated and thousands are killed. But there is one moment that stood out for me:  

    On 5 August, Home Army soldiers entered the ruins of the ghetto, attacked Concentration Camp Warsaw, defeated the ninety SS-men who guarded it, and liberated its remaining 348 prisoners, most of them foreign Jews. One of the Home Army soldiers in this operation was Stanisław Aronson, who had himself been deported from the ghetto to Treblinka. Another recalled a Jew who greeted them with tears on his cheeks; yet another, the plea of a Jew for a weapon and a uniform, so that he could fight. Many of the liberated Jewish slave laborers did join the Home Army, fighting in their striped camp uniforms and wooden shoes, with “complete indifference to life or death,” as one Home Army soldier recalled.

    I read this and started crying like a baby. Most of history's oppressed do not die with their wooden shoes on. But this scene was so familiar to me from studies of the Civil War. Very often you'd find men who'd been slaves one week, turn around and become soldiers the next. At Miliken's Bend, for instance, you had men who'd literally been working on cotton plantations a month earlier, turning around to fight white Texans during the Vicksburg campaign. 

    Early on in Anne Applebaum's The Iron Curtain, she talks about how totalitarian governments rarely triumph completely. And I think there's a similar argument in the case of enslavement wherein the enslaved, very often, never completely becomes "a slave." I think that's what got me about that momentyou are half-starved, dressed only in your stripes, and your wooden shoes, but you have not actually fallen into that dark night of dehumanity. Violence is only the most spectacular example of this kind of resistance. Primo Levi has a great moment in If This Is a Manwhere he is told by another prisoner that he must continue to wash, that he cannot become what the enslaver asserts him to be. 

    And there's something else: a significant portion of enslavement involves crafting a narrative of weakness. The racistNazi or Confederatemust always justify himself, and thus asserts that the subjugated has earned their fate through a blood-born cowardice. The subjugated claps back with their own narrative—"We too have Warsaw. We too had a 54th." I don't know how you avoid that need. I don't even know that you should. And I don't know how you integrate that into other narratives, because this too is Warsaw:

    After October 1943, the Jews of Concentration Camp Warsaw were forced to perform yet another task: the disposal of the bodies of Poles taken from Warsaw and executed in the ruins of the ghetto. Poles were brought in trucks in groups of fifty or sixty to the terrain of the former ghetto, where they were executed in or near Concentration Camp Warsaw by machine gunners of the local SS and another police unit.

    Jewish prisoners then had to form a Death Commando that would eliminate the traces of the execution. They would build a pyre from wood taken from the ruins of the ghetto, and then stack bodies and wood in layers. Then the Jews poured gasoline on the pyres and lit them. Yet this was a Death Commando in more than the usual sense. Once the bodies of the Poles were burning, the SS-men shot the Jewish laborers who had built the pyre, and tossed their bodies into the flame.

    A serious humanism must conclude that you are no better than those who went into the pyre, that you would have gone into the pyre too, and thus have no right to disgust, because you cannot access that awful calculus, and that you have not earned the right to pity, that you mustat all costavoid the nationalist error of seeing yourself only in Nat Turner.

    I haven't been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. since I was a 22-year-old cub reporter. I've never been to Germany or Poland. And I wasn't on this line of questioning when I was in France. I wish I had something more learned to say. And this can only be a notepad of my thoughts, questions for later pursuit. I wish I knew more. Soon come.

  • Ukraine Has Not Yet Died

    Newlyweds kissing in support of protests in Kiev. CNN

    If I could be anywhere writing about anything, right now, I'd be lost in Kiev. I used to read about certain countries in Europe after they threw bananas at some black soccer player, and say to myself, "I'll never go there." But I am a little older now, and I am more confirmed in the fact of this one-shot life. And knowing that this is not a dress rehearsal, and knowing, too, that questions are burning in me, and feeling that my whole purpose here is to observe, I simply don't much care anymore. I am past the age where one can afford to sit around waiting for the world to autoliberate from its various hatreds. And I have had my hatreds too. Like most humans.

    I began this blue period thinking mostly of justice for my people. And having explored that subject, I came to wonder how other societies handled their national crimes. And so we've spent the past few months thinking of some of the most horrifying wrongs of the 20th century, and in those wrongs I have seen so much of myself. It is an odd thing to be raised black, to be raised by the dictates of white supremacy prevention, and then turn around and see yourself in people lighter than you. I feel deeply ignorant writing that. But it's true. The Ukrainian national anthem translates as "Ukraine Has Not Yet Died," and I have some sense of what that means.* But then I kind of don't. Analogy can sometimes obscure as much as it clarifies. Someday I hope to know more. 

    At any rate, here is a great piece by Tim Judah in the New York Review of Books. If you haven't been following the news, it's a good primer. But it also gets to one of the most trenchant questions, for me, to come out of this whole journey--what, precisely, do Europeans mean when they say Europe:

    Before Yanukovych decided against the deal with the EU, Tetiana Sylina, a journalist highly critical of the government, told me that unless the EU signed the deal, with or without the release of Tymoshenko, it would “lose Ukraine.” Not signing, she said, would lead to increasing authoritarianism resembling Russia’s. “Yanukovych,” she said, 

    is not interested in the EU or the customs union or European values, he just wants cheaper credits and foreign investment and the opening of markets for oligarchs. But for Ukrainians, Europe is not about Yanukovych but about its 46 million people.

    In this respect, she echoed Hanna Shelest, a researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, whom I met in the Black Sea port of Odessa. She told me that she wanted Ukraine to sign the deal because “it is a question of self-identification. Sometimes we don’t feel ourselves European but what is worse is when Europeans don’t see us as European.” Andrey Stavnitser, a businessman who runs a dry cargo terminal near Odessa, told me he was hoping that if the deal was signed, the application of EU standards would begin to curb corruption. “For my business,” he added, “it would be better to enter the customs union,” because he could then expect more Russian cargoes, but “as a citizen,” he said “I would vote for the EU.” As to a relationship dominated by Russia, he said, “I would not go there again.”

    Among ordinary people there was more ambivalence about the deal, although the polls favor it. A big reason for this was that what was at stake and how the EU deals or the customs union would actually affect people’s lives were rarely explained properly. Indeed, the Russian-funded media in Ukraine had, said Shelest, even given people the impression that if they chose Russia over the EU, “then everything will be cheaper, such as gas, and that if we go toward the EU, normal marriages will not exist, only gay marriages.” Russia, she said, was presenting itself as “the big brother who will tell us what to do,” and a pro-Russian choice would mean “we will live happily ever after and won’t have to read that complicated EU agreement.”

    There's so much there--the fear of being relegated to Asia ("You cannot move Romania into Africa.") whatever Asia means in the Ukrainian mind, and at the same time, a fear of modernism represented by the recognition of the right of gay human beings to form families. And then finally a desire for a dictator to simply tell people what to do. 

    Here's another piece over at NYRB from Timothy Snyder arguing that the country has, on paper, slipped into dictatorship:

    In procedure and in content the laws “passed” by the Ukrainian parliament this week contravene the most basic rights of modern constitutional democracies: to speech, assembly, and representation. Although they concern the most basic aspects of political life, and transform the constitutional structure of the Ukrainian state, these measures were not subjected to even the barest of parliamentary procedures. There were no public hearings, there was no debate in parliament, and there was no actual vote. There was a show of hands in parliament and an estimate of how many hands were raised. The standard electronic voting system, which creates an official record, was not used.

    The deputies—those who apparently raised their hands—have all but voted themselves out of existence. If the deputies from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions read the legislation, which according to Ukrainian reports they did not, they would realize that their own positions are now under threat. Their parliamentary immunity is now no longer guaranteed, which means that if they vote the wrong way they can be stripped of immunity and prosecuted. Yanukovych’s main political rival, Julia Tymoshenko, is in prison. Her defense lawyer has already been stripped of his parliamentary mandate.

    Speaking at all about the Tymoshenko case will now be risky. Actions deemed to “interfere with the work of courts” have been banned. Making remarks of an “offensive” nature about judges is illegal. It seems unlikely that truth will be a defense. It is true, for example, that the new president of the highest Ukrainian court was once in charge of the court that misplaced documents about President Yanukovych’s earlier criminal convictions for rape and robbery. But that seems like exactly the thing that people will no longer be allowed to say. As far as Yanukovych’s own record is concerned, the new legislation’s vaguely worded ban on “slander” will presumably be used to criminalize unfriendly references to the president.

    Democracy is such a fragile project--more a continuing series of actions, then a state.

    More soon. I've just started reading Anne Applebaum's The Iron Curtain. She begins with Stalin crushing the instruments of society in Poland, Hungary and the old GDR. I can tell there are lots of bright days ahead on this blog. As I said, more soon.

    *As a sidenote, a comment on that page reads "Russians have killed 10 million of us, jews have tried to take us over, the polish killed us too. but we they have not succedded. ukraine be free!!!!" A foot on the neck is never an ennobling experience.

  • Richard Sherman's Best Behavior

    There's some weird notion in our society that holds that trash-talking is for the classless and stupid. 

    It's worth heading over to Deadspin for a moment and checking out both Greg Howard's penetrating piece on the reaction to Richard Sherman and Samer Kalef's aggregation of the racist bile directed his way. Podhoretz was responding to a tweet he sent out asserting that Sherman was a "role model for today's Taliban youth," presumably because ... I actually don't know. And neither did Podhoretz who deleted the tweet and claimed it was just a joke. The tweet from Iguodala just makes me sad, mostly because it reflects a rather ancient strain of thought in black America that holds that men like Richard Sherman are the reason we can't have nice things. 

    A few points of biography: Richard Sherman is a the son of sanitation worker and teacher. He finished second in his class in high school and then went to Stanford. He graduated from Stanford with a 3.9 GPA. Here is how Sherman describes his introduction to the school:

     "I was with kids from prestigious private schools, and they were drawing comparisons between Plato and Aristotle," says Sherman. "A lot went over my head. I hadn't even read The Iliad yet. I had to check out all these books just so I could know what everybody was talking about."

    Here is what Richard Sherman is doing now:

    Beverly and Kevin now live in a well-landscaped community in Compton, but she still works for Children's Services and he still drives his truck every morning at 4 a.m., a Seahawks sticker plastered across his helmet. Their home is wallpapered with pictures of their children: Richard, Branton and 22-year-old Kristyna, who runs a hair salon out of the Shermans' garage. (Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice is a client.) The first photo you see, upon opening the front door, is of Richard's commencement ceremony at Stanford.

    Across the street lives an English teacher from Dominguez named Michelle Woods who charters a bus every spring break for Dominguez students to visit colleges throughout California. "Most of them think Cal State is their only option," she says. When Sherman was at Stanford, he made sure the bus swung by Palo Alto, and he led the tours himself. "I'm here; you can be too," he told the group every year as he advised them on classes and grants.

    Here is how Sherman describes himself:

    I'm an awkward guy. People used to tell me all the time, You're not from here. And that's the way I felt, like somebody took me from somewhere else and dropped me down into this place. I was strange because I went to class, did the work, read the books and was still pretty good at sports. If you're like me, people think you're weird. They pull you in different directions. But those people aren't going where you're going. I know the jock stereotype—cool guy, walking around with your friends, not caring about school, not caring about anything. I hate that stereotype. I want to destroy it. I want to kill it.

    I don't think this is what people think when they see Sherman trash-talking. There's some weird notion in our society  that holds that trash-talking is for the classless and stupid. I don't know what it means to be "classless" in an organization like the NFL. And then there is the racism from onlookers, who are incapable of perceiving in Sherman an individual, and instead see the sum of all American fears—monkey, thug, terrorist, nigger.

    And then there is us, ashamed at our own nakedness, at our humanity. Racism is a kind of fatalism, so seductive, that it enthralls even its victims. But we will not get out of this by being on our best behavior—sometimes it has taken our worse. There's never been a single thing wrong with black people that the total destruction of white supremacy would not fix. 

  • Richard Sherman Is Better at Life Than You


    I sat down and watched two football games yesterday for the first time in a couple of years. It was sort of like seeing your ex-wife for coffee. For 30 years of my life, Sunday afternoons in the Fall were the best time of the year. But given the NFL's tangled, and frankly indefensible, sense of morality, I left. Tom Brady and Peyton are like old friends, the last stars of my generation entering the twilight years of their career. I watched the Broncos win, and then I turned to see the real treat—Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks.

    Sherman is the best cornerback in football and loves to explain this, as he did to Erin Andrews last night after the game. There's some amount of consternation, and broad sense that Sherman is crazy. But Sherman isn't crazy, as Tommy Tomilson explains over at Forbes:

    8. If you stick a microphone in a football player’s face seconds after he made a huge play to send his team to the Super Bowl, you shouldn’t be surprised if he’s a little amped up.

    9. Ninety-nine percent of on-field interviews are boring and useless. The TV networks do them anyway for the 1 percent of the time they get a moment like Richard Sherman.

    10. As a reporter and writer, that raw emotion — whatever form it takes — is exactly what I hope for. That’s why media people fight for access to locker rooms. After players and coaches cool off, most of them turn into Crash Davis, reading from the book of cliches.

    11. But we — the media, and fans in general — don’t know what we want. We rip athletes for giving us boring quotes. But if they say what they actually feel, we rip them for spouting off or showing a lack of class.

    12. It’s like we want them to be thinking, Well, that was a fine contest, and jolly good that we won. Which NO athlete is EVER thinking.

    Much of what makes pro football so attractive is embodied in Sherman. There's the pure athletics of the play he made at the game. But behind there's the intelligence which Sherman employs on the field and off. It's worth checking out this video, where Sherman gives you some sense of how he prepares for game day (H/T Deadspin.) And then there's the raw emotion which you saw on display last night. You watch an NFL game and there's a sense that the total individual is competing in the ultimate team game. It remains a beautiful—and endangered—thing.

    As a side-note, it's worth checking out Sherman's dismantling of Skip Bayless in the video above, "Skip, whenever you ever you address me, address me as 'All-Pro, Stanford Graduate.'"

    There's something very English and debonair about it: 

    I'm intelligent enough and capable enough to understand that you are an ignorant, pompous, egotistical cretin ... I am going to crush you on here in front of everybody because I am tired of hearing about it.

    Anyway, it was good to see the ex-wife again. It was also good to remember why I left.

  • Neal Brennan: White America's Greatest Klingon Writer

    Never trust anyone posing as a tour guide.

    The Q&A with Neal Brennan, co-creator of "Chappelle's Show," over at Buzzfeed begins with this ominous paragraph:

    In a sense, Brennan has made introducing black America to white America his life’s work. His advice for how white people should act around black people? “It’s an odd thing. You treat them like human beings.”

    These two sentences are in conflict. It's certainly true that you should treat black people like human beings. The first step in that process is understanding that asking how to act "around black people" is itself an act of inhumanity.

    The second step is understanding that the way to get introduced to black America is to introduce yourself to black America. This is not particularly hard. We have a month every year dedicated to this task. Some of our greatest literature, music, cinema and art hails from this experience. I have heard that there are whole neighborhoods where black people actually live.

    The third step is understanding that white America does not so much need to be introduced to black America, as it needs to be introduced to itself. It pains me (seriously) to see this point made by Neal Brennan himself:

    Some people question whether a white person should even be writing black characters.

    NB: I think anyone can write about anything that they have knowledge of and exposure to. I think the best black screenwriter is Quentin Tarantino. Quentin may write better black characters than Spike. I mean, Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction is fucking unbelievable. That would be Exhibit A. I actually think that’s why Spike gets mad at Quentin. Quentin happens to write unbelievably rich black characters.

    So does David Simon.

    NB: There’s Exhibit B. Omar is the best black TV character, one of the best TV characters of all time. I think saying a white person can’t write black characters is as racist as anything on earth. And it’s also insulting to black people. It’s like, “So, are you not human?” Because I can write about humans. A white person writing about black people is writing about humanity with a slight vernacular spin.

    I am not sure who these people are who don't think white people should never write black characters. Certainly not black actors and actresses, the lionshare of whom want to compete for the largest roles possible. Probably not even black screenwriters who, like most artists, want the right to follow their imagination. More likely, there are artists who are concerned that they actually don't get to follow their imagination, and even in their native world there are white artists who are privileged over them.

    Which brings us back to Neal Brennan. Last week, during the great public intellectual debate, I pointed out that I'd grown up in a time when white people freely made whatever declarations they please about worlds they knew very little about. Neal Brennan is an accomplished artist, and we all thank him for his substantial contributions to "Chappelle's Show." But if you try to picture rich black American life, and the first thing that comes to mind is The Wire and Pulp Fiction, and the first characters who come to mind are black men who kill people, I suspect your qualifications are not all in order. 

    And I love The Wire, but blindness follows blindness. Leave aside black screenwriters like John Ridley, Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay—Neal Brennan does not know who the best black screenwriter is because the best black screenwriter right now is waitressing tables, counting up shit tips, thinking about her babysitting shift that night, hoping to get her car out the shop tomorrow, and storing lines of dialogue and character notes in her memory chalet. Neal Brennan can not know who "the best black" anything is, because the best black anythings are shot, jailed and destroyed at discomfiting rates. And there were so few black people in Wilmette. And these facts, and Brennan's blindness, and Brennan's declaration offered in blindness, are not wholly unconnected.

    Never trust anyone posing as a tour guide. Learning things is hard. Do the work.

    Never trust that part of you that wants a tour guide. All of us are tempted by the Cliff-Notes. Decline them. Sometimes you must wander through The Louvre.

    Never trust that part of you that thinks you found "the best black" anything. Likely, you are speaking loudly of the little you know, and not intelligently of the everything that is. And you know so little of it. This world was made precisely so that you would know so little of it. And the minute you learn anything of it, you will understand why that part of you was ridiculous.

    Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time. You must have an awkward phase. All of us would like to skip that awkward phase. That is not how it works. Here is how it works: Get your ass in the water. Swim like me.

  • Liquid Chords

    Kendrick Lamar's Label-Mate, The Sizzling SZA, Brings The Burn


    Awesome SZA. Watch This Woman

    This has been a pretty depressing place for some time now. It's all Nazis, Stalinists, famine and torture, redlining and wealth gaps. There was a time when this blog was actually fun. It used to be oatmeal and MF Doom. It used to be old masters and football. It used to be Autobots. I'm not quite sure what happened. Perhaps it's seeing the other side of 35. Perhaps it's growth.

    But some light must peek in, from time to time, so I present to The Horde, SZA The Great. Her shit is beautiful and weird, as if Kelis and Madlib convened a high-level conference in Switzerland:

    I apologize for waiting to tell you for so long that I am not human.
    I am made of I am made of bacon, fairy tales pixie dust. I don't feel.
    I hung myself and didn't die.
    I am omnipotent, I'm alive...

    You get SZA's low husky voice, bizarre snippets of Eartha Kitt and Rosemary's Baby, and low bluesy grooves. I play her EP incessantly, along with this hot one.

    I've played the joint below, "Aftermath,"  precisely 1,344,233,978 times. That a 23-year old could tell an old dude everything about his life is ridiculous. But I'm totally sold now on the proposition that music doesn't get old, we do. And if this ain't love--"You don't have to kidnap\I'd like to be kidnap"--then God ain't real. 

    Of course she's down with Top Dawg and Kendrick Lamar. That makes sense. I'd like to tell you I don't believe in music anymore. The game ain't been the same since Jay Electronica broke my heart and took all of western civilization with him. ("The vivid memoirs of an obnoxious slave.") But some things we can't control. And what better motto might there be for this blue period, for this Horde, grieving for an imagined America, than "Maybe we should burn?"

  • Hitler on the Mississippi Banks

    Thoughts on Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands

    Poster depicting the Nazi campaign against "degenerate music." Wikimedia Commons.

    From time to time, someone will ask why I write so much about racism. The underlying charge is that a writer should cease to follow his curiosities. I might well retort that Paul Krugman should stop writing about the economy, or Jeff Goldberg should stop writing about the Middle East. The difference is that the world which racism made is seen as a niche issue, with no real import. "Gender" and "women's issues" are often regarded in the same way.

    Many of the vexing moral issues of our time--inequality, schooling, the drug war, mass incarceration--simply can't be discussed without discussing racism. People sometimes try to do so (especially in the vein of inequality.) Their analysis is the poorer for it. It's tempting to suggest that this idea of racism as a "niche issue" is a result of the way in which black history is taught and the rise of black studies. Except that regarding black people and the issues that injure them as "niche" did not begin in 1968. 

    It is my guiding thesis that people who claim a serious interest in America but consider racism to be a niche topic are divided against themselves. You can't understand American politics, without understanding the Civil War. You can't understand the suburbs, without understanding redlining. You can't understand the constitution, without understanding slavery. In effect if you are an American who avoids understanding the force of racism, you are avoiding an understanding of yourself and your country. 

    Perhaps you are even avoiding something more. 

    The Nazi plan for Eastern Europe was called Generalplan Ost. It called for the conquest of Eastern and Central Europe, the reduction of its "non-German" peoples, the seizure of their land, and the enslavement of all who remained. The details are slightly different, but in its outlines, offered here in Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, we should see something haunting and familiar:

    The general design was consistent throughout: Germans would deport, kill, assimilate, or enslave the native populations, and bring order and prosperity to a humbled frontier. Depending upon the demographic estimates, between thirty-one and forty-five million people, mostly Slavs, were to disappear. In one redaction, eighty to eighty-five percent of the Poles, sixty-five percent of the west Ukrainians, seventy-five percent of the Belarusians, and fifty percent of the Czechs were to be eliminated.

    After the corrupt Soviet cities were razed, German farmers would establish, in Himmler’s words, “pearls of settlement,” utopian farming communities that would produce a bounty of food for Europe. German settlements of fifteen to twenty thousand people each would be surrounded by German villages within a radius of ten kilometers. The German settlers would defend Europe itself at the Ural Mountains, against the Asiatic barbarism that would be forced back to the east. Strife at civilization’s edge would test the manhood of coming generations of German settlers. Colonization would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States, another hardy frontier state based upon exterminatory colonialism and slave labor.

    The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny. In Hitler’s view, “in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.

    It's easy to consider the reduction of this hemisphere's aboriginal people, the seizure of their land, their enslavement, the importation of African labor, the creation of a "black race," the profitable murder of black families, the perpetual warring against black people, the subsequent campaigns of terrorism which followed, as without analogue or global import. As though the land simply appeared beneath our feet, and by God's decree, delivered onto us its wealth. As though our state was not founded in plunder of land, labor and lives. 

    Hitler knew better. From Ira Katznelson's piercing history, Fear Itself:

    Hitler denigrated blacks, admired American racism, and regretted the South’s defeat in 1865, especially how “the beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed by the war.”* He complained when the French stationed African troops in the Rhineland, warned about racial mixing, and denounced “negrified music.” His main direct sources of information about the South were a series of odd and skewed reports that were provided by a German resident of Florida who wrote about putative Jewish plans to mobilize American blacks to destroy the white race.

    Like other Nazi leaders, Hitler was fascinated in 1937 by Vom Winde verweht, the German edition of Gone with the Wind. This melodramatic epic of the Civil War and Reconstruction was a best-seller. The film, not surprisingly, proved a big hit. Nervous as he awaited the dawn invasion of the USSR, a move that would start Operation Barbarossa, Joseph Goebbels spent the hours after midnight on June 22, 1941, watching a prerelease German version with a group of invited friends, perhaps not aware that one of the film’s stars, Leslie Howard, was a British Jew.

    When Americans complained about Nazi anti-Semitism, party officials rejoined by citing southern racial practices, claiming a kinship. The Völkischer Beobachter, the oldest Nazi Party newspaper, routinely disparaged Africans and African-Americans. Like much of the German press, it frequently printed antiblack cartoons, reminded its readers that southern public accommodations were segregated, and delighted in reporting how blacks, like German Jews, could not sleep in Pullman cars and could not exercise the right to vote. Lynching was a favorite subject. Neues Volk celebrated southern lynching for protecting white women from unrestrained black desire.

    The Völkischer Beobachter published many graphic stories that were intended to support lynching as a tool to shield white sexual purity. “The SS journal Schwarze Korps exclaimed that if lynching occurred in Germany as it did in the American South, the whole world would complain loudly.” 

    The desire to put a history of American racism, which is to say a portion of America's roots, in a corner is a kind of wish-fulfillment. It would be so much easier if "black studies" really were niche, if it really weren't that important, if racism really was a minor thread in the history of the West. We should be so lucky--except we shouldn't.  No state ever is and we are not an exception to humanity.

    *It was pointed out to me that the first quote was pulled by Katznelson from a source which should be viewed skeptically. I would not have included that quote had I known this. I'm striking it to show that, but leaving it up so as not to erase the mistake. That is the only quote relying on that source.

  • Grappling With History's Greatest Gangsters

    Thoughts on Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands

    Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, author of the Katyn massacre. (Wikimedia)

    In early 1940, the Soviet Union executed 22,000 Polish officers, intellectuals and others deemed problematic to Soviet rule. The author of this policy was Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police. Beria was not simply a detached administrator of death, he was a serial rapist who employed the apparatus of the state to his ends:

    The records contained the official testimony from Colonel R.S. Sarkisov and Colonel V. Nadaraia, two of Beria's most senior NKVD bodyguards. They stated that on warm nights during the war years, Beria was often driven slowly through the streets of Moscow in his armored Packard limousine. He would point out young women to be detained and escorted to his mansion where wine and a feast awaited them. After dining, Beria would take the women into his soundproofed office and rape them.

    Beria's bodyguards reported that their orders included handing each victim a flower bouquet as she left Beria's house. The implication being that to accept made it consensual; refusal would mean arrest. In one incident his chief bodyguard, Sarkisov, reported that a woman who had been brought to Beria rejected his advances and ran out of his office; Sarkisov mistakenly handed her the flowers anyway prompting the enraged Beria to declare "Now it's not a bouquet, it's a wreath! May it rot on your grave!"

    The woman was arrested by the NKVD the next day.

    One of the men charged with carrying out Beria's orders (and Stalin's will) was Vasili Blokhin, arguably the most prolific executioner in modern history:

    He had been one of the main killers during the Great Terror, when he had commanded an execution squad in Moscow. He had been entrusted with some of the executions of high-profile defendants of show trials, but had also shot thousands of workers and peasants who were killed entirely in secret. At Kalinin he wore a leather cap, apron, and long gloves to keep the blood and gore from himself and his uniform. Using German pistols, he shot, each night, about two hundred and fifty men, one after another.

    Then the bodies were driven, in a truck, to nearby Mednoe, where the NKVD had some summer houses. They were thrown into a large pit dug earlier by a backhoe.

    There are horrific scenes, perpetrated by seemingly awful people, all the way through Bloodlands, so much that a kind of nihilism eventually sets in on the reader. If I have one critique, it's that the sheer scale of death in the book works against one of its ostensible goals--to make us feel the great tragedy that swept through Ukraine, Belorussia and Poland. You move from narrative into something closer to chronicle. 

    Still I think Snyder frames the questions correctly--How can men commit such acts? The question is not answered by empty invocations of "evil" or vague invocations of "sociopathy." The question is not answered by memorializing victims (though this has its place) or the construction of national oaths (though that too might have its place.) On the contrary the question might best be answered, not by identifying with history greatest victims, but by identifying with its killers. This is in fact, as Snyder argues, the moral position:

    It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of the victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.
    It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. Outstanding politicians and intellectuals—for example, Edvard Beneš and Ilya Ehrenburg—yielded to this temptation during the war. The Czechoslovak president and the Soviet-Jewish writer were justifying revenge upon the Germans as such. People who called others subhuman were themselves subhuman. Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position.  To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.   To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them.
    Vasili Blokhin was a particular man, handpicked for a particular duty.  Even the SS was purged in the last phase of the Final Solution, so that it could reduced to its most willing killers. But the point is not that all humans are interchangeable, so much as it is that game must recognize game.  Most of us may not be killers, but there is a killer in most of us. Much as there is a slaveholder in most of us.  It is enough to understand that mass murder made sense to Himmler. You have to get to the Himmler within. 
    I think that allows for a skeptical morality. I think that allows those of us on the socio-economic bottom to give up our righteousness, to understand that there is nothing super-moral, or blessed, or prophesied in being down here. The bottom is just the bottom. Can we truly say we'd be much different were we on top?
    Perhaps we can--but not because of what is in our bones, but because of what is behind our questions. Once we can see the world from Stalin's end, perhaps we can push further and question, not just tactics, but goals. Perhaps we can see that the means by which we seek liberation--for ourselves and others--can not truly be separated from the ends:
    It cannot be denied that mass starvation brings political stability of a certain kind. The question must be: is that the sort of peace that is desired, or that should be desired? Mass murder does bind perpetrators to those who give them orders. Is that the right sort of political allegiance? Terror does consolidate a certain kind of regime. Is that kind of regime preferable? Killing civilians is in the interest of certain kinds of leaders. The question is not whether all this is historically true; the question is what is desirable. Are these leaders good leaders, and these regimes good regimes? If not, the question is: how can such policies be prevented?


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