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August 2016

Being An Ally

This is the fourth installment of the Wheelock Community Read Summer Blog Series. Each week, we will be posting a blog written by Wheelock faculty or staff that deals with a theme from this years’ community read; “The Beautiful Struggle” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This week, please welcome guest blogger Greg Cass, Assistant Professor of Humanities and Writing.  

Being an Ally

by Greg Cass

It’s been a hard summer.  While I was in the middle of reading The Beautiful Struggle, we all bore witness to the continued violence against individuals of color around the country. In Louisiana, Alton Sterling was shot while being wrestled to the ground by police. In Minnesota, Philando Castile was shot during a traffic stop after declaring a handgun he was permitted to carry. In both cases, grainy cell phone videos recorded the moments, and in their looped repetition on cable news they moved slowly from shocking to familiar, and my response softened from outrage to submission. Two more black lives lost; two more reasons for us all to retreat to our political corners and tweet angrily about the other side. These events feel inevitable, and they’re too quickly becoming forgettable.

Often times after one of these incidents occur, I see a common trend in the Facebook posts many of my well-intentioned friends and family members make in response: whitesplaining. These posts often express sympathy, but note that the victim of the violence is responsible for what has happened to him. In their view, if the violence was not deserved, there were at least two or three precipitating choices for which the victim can be blamed. In the more innocent form, this could be a note that there was clearly a reason for the police presence or the traffic stop, and in an extreme form I’ve seen this smug Willy Wonka meme. While my response to these is always anger, I know that these responses represent a limited perspective, one that doesn’t recognize the privileged position from which they speak.

But I could never hope to articulate this as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates does. Late in his memoir, he talks directly to those who like to preach solutions to the violence faced by black youth. His words reflect righteous anger toward those that ignore truth in favor of privilege:

Nowadays I cut on the tube and see the dumbfounded looks, when over some minor violation of name and respect, a black boy is found leaking on the street. The anchors shake their heads. The activists give their stupid speeches, praising the mythical days when all disputes were handled down at Ray’s Gym. Politicians step up to the mic, claim the young have gone mad, their brains infected, and turned superpredator. Fuck you all who’ve ever spoken so foolishly, who’ve opened your mouths like we don’t know what this is. We have read the books you own, the scorecards you keep—done the math and emerged prophetic. We know how we will die—with cousins in double murder suicides, in wars that are a mere theory to you, convalescing in hospitals, slowly choked out by angina and cholesterol. We are the walking lowest rung, and all that stands between us and beast, between us and the local zoo, is respect, the respect you take as natural as sugar and shit. We know what we are, that we walk like we are not long for this world that this world has never longed for us.

When I first read this passage, I saw myself in it. As a concerned outsider, I know I’ve often been quick to judge young black men and the violence they inflict upon each other without ever having walked in their shoes. I take the aerial view, and Coates knows it. He sees no value in my head shaking, and no value in me telling others how they ought to live their lives. I know the academic reasons behind “the walking lowest rung,” but I should not mistake that for the right to be condescending.

So these are the two dynamics laid bare by Coates throughout his book: there is real suffering and real violence that is stealing the lives and potential of black men, but the last thing they need is another voice telling them why they suffer or telling them how to act. For me, this then begs two questions: How can we outsiders be allies in these times? If The Beautiful Struggle inspires empathy and understanding in us, what can we do to advance the cause?

These are hard questions, and when facing them, I think many of us with privilege get paralyzed by the thought of doing something wrong, or insulting someone, and use that fear as an excuse to do nothing. We leave the fight to others and assume the work will get done without us. But there is a better way. We can and should see institutional racism and violence committed against our fellow citizens, regardless of its source, as an attack on ourselves. If you, like me, are moved to action by this book, I want to share with you the best tips I have found for being an ally. This list is not definitive or universal, but I have found these steps to be the most valuable in my own fight for social justice.

1.) Talk less; listen more.

Look again at the quote from Coates above. His anger is clearly focused on those who try to speak over the voices of others. His frustration is focused on the speech acts of those who don’t understand his world, the activists with “stupid speeches,” the politicians who “step up to the mic,” and “all who’ve ever spoken so foolishly.” When those of us with privilege use it to paternalistically speak over the voices of those without it, we are reenacting the violence, reminding them again that we set the terms, and we hold the power.

This is wrong. The first step is to be present in the conversation, to engage and think, but most of all, to listen. Our nation’s history has continually stifled non-white non-male voices, so the best way to fight for social justice is to first hear what that injustice is from someone who experiences it daily. This can be hard, because fighting for social justice feels like it needs to be active, and not passive; it is a fight, right? But you are not the speaker; you are not the soapbox. You are the amplifier, and the goal is to make sure others are heard first.

2.) Read. Read. Read.

Challenge yourself to move outside of your comfort zone in the relative safety of the written word. If Coates’s book has expanded your understanding, keep seeking knowledge. Racism and inequality have deep roots in this country that most standard educations only scratch the surface of. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was a popular meme that I saw originally on twitter that read “White privilege is your history being part of the core curriculum and mine being taught as an elective.” Through no fault of our own, this institutional bias has created huge gaps in our understanding of anyone who falls outside of that privileged history. Correct it.

Read about the present. Read about the past. Read about people who aren’t like you. Coates can get you started with 13 books to better understand the experience of Black Americans. But if books aren’t your ideal source, get online. Seek out diverse voices across all media and learn from what they have to say. Challenge your opinions. Challenge the opinions of others. We can’t fight an enemy that we don’t understand, and the complexities of racism in this country will always prove elusive if we don’t study them.

3.) Recognize your privilege.

Before the traffic stop that proved fatal, Philando Castile had been stopped 49 times over the course of 13 years. The reasons for these stops varied, but most were for minor infractions, such as a burnt out tail light. As a white middle-class male, I never worry that a traffic stop could end my life. I would never think that walking on any street or in any neighborhood would put my body in danger. This was the lucky hand I was dealt at birth, and while I have every right to enjoy these luxuries, I have to remain conscious that those privileges exist and that I benefit from them.

Holding privilege is not an inherently bad thing, nor is it a reason to feel ashamed of yourself or where you come from. It also doesn’t mean you’ve had an easy life, or that you haven’t worked hard for the comfort you have. No one is asking for you to feel that way. But, if you aren’t honest with yourself about the advantages you’ve had because of your race, class, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, you’ll never be able to advance the work of sharing those benefits with everyone.

4.) Don’t give up. Don’t disengage. Don’t forget.

Social justice is hard work. It’s not a field to enter expecting fast results or quick satisfaction. The day-to-day events and continued violence can easily break one’s will to continue. There are many more causes; there are many easier fights; TV is REALLY good right now. But this is a fight that matters, and to be a good ally is to recognize that this is not a fight others can choose to ignore. Lucy Wheelock told us that the fight for children and families requires that we “be brave, for there is much to dare.” This fight requires bravery, and to dare to dream of a nation defined by equality is a long-term commitment.

President Obama is fond of quoting a line from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reminding all of us that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is truth. We stand at a point along the curve, unsure of where exactly it began and unclear of how far it goes beyond us. But to be a good citizen is to know deeply that the fortunes of one affect the fortunes of all, to see how our institutions perpetuate values we reject, and to work doggedly to effect real change. Only in a true understanding of this can we attain an authentic and abiding empathy that empowers us all.

Check the Technique

This is the third installment of the Wheelock Community Read Summer Blog Series. Each week, we will be posting a blog written by Wheelock faculty or staff that deals with a theme from this years’ community read; “The Beautiful Struggle” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This week, please welcome guest blogger Scott Votel, Assistant Professor and Director of Composition Programs. 

Check the Technique

By Scott Votel

It’s called The Beautiful Struggle after all.

So what, exactly, is beautiful?

Ta-Nehisi Coates must mean for that playfully oxymoronic title to affirm John Keats’ idea that ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty,” right? The book is the true and, thus, beautiful story of a difficult childhood under a difficult father in a difficult city at a difficult time. Coates’ memoir is, if nothing else, the bracingly honest self-portrait of a daydream-prone black son of a hard-nosed Panther living in a city so historically rife with violence visited upon black men that you can even buy a Bodymore, Murdaland snap-back in Orioles black-and-orange. The book practically quakes with hard truths. And so, hard beauty.

But the book isn’t only beautiful because it bravely depicts the hard truths of life in Baltimore by a surviving native son. Resist the temptation, if you can, to draw easy lessons from the book! Battle back the urge to anoint yourself with the liberal pieties that some careless readers demand from black authors! Demand more art from a piece of political art, and you’ll see that The Beautiful Struggle is beautiful because it is a deeply strange piece of nonfictional art.

Hear me out: if Coates, a lithe and flexible writer, wanted to write an excoriating report on inner city life in Baltimore in the late 80s and early 90s for the reader’s edification, then the man would have done just that. In fact, he’s built his considerable reputation on magazine-straining mega-essays like “The Case for Reparations” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” and “Fear of a Black President.” No, what Coates wants to do, among many other things, is to generate an aesthetic experience for his reader.

And the aesthetic experience Coates attempts to engineer breaks most of the unspoken rules of memoir writing. The style is tuned up and tricked out, slang-studded, hyper-allusive. Readers unfamiliar with black or nerd or hip hop culture from the 80s and 90s are lost in a wilderness of unexplained references. Whole conversations are presented without a single attribution. Unless conversations are reported in the form of a transcript. He will frequently slip into someone else’s voice and just as quickly abandon it. Refuses even to set up a present frame story to help us understand his journey through contrast. Just flat out rejects a lot of what we expect from a memoir. In fact, Coates has reported that he didn’t read many memoirs in preparing to write his own: “A lot of the stuff felt cooked to me. After two or three, I stopped reading them.” There it is then, a brave author bravely figuring out how to do it his own way.

I mean, consider the opening chapter.

No, first consider the deeply weird fact that the thing opens up with a fantasy map of Baltimore complete with frayed scroll and Roman sword. It’s a disarming gesture, a reminder that for all his djembe-chic later on Coates is still a nerd at heart. Consider that he follows this up with a sober family tree. A subtle contrast that helps the reader understand that this world is at once fantastical to the boyhood Coates and populated with real people who don’t share this dreaminess. And then consider the opening pages of the opening chapter: a densely allusive passage that stuns the uninitiated. Check the technique:

They were shadow and rangy, like they could three-piece you—jab, uppercut, jab—from a block away. They had no eyes. They shrieked and jeered, urged themselves on, danced wildly, chanted Rock and Roll is here to stay. When Murphy Homes closed in on us, the moon ducked behind its black cloak and Fell’s Point dilettantes shuffled in boots.

What Coates is doing here has a pretty fancy name: literary scholars would say that his narrative is diegetic, not mimetic. In other words, Coates does not try to recreate the exact details of the attack in a realistic way; instead, he creates a distinct voice to report on the action, commenting along the way. And this slangy, free-wheeling approach exaggerates and stylizes the moment such that it—a familiar scene of one group of boys harassing another—becomes new and strange. It shocks us out of the expected way of telling this story. We get to do the hard work of understanding a Young Coates by listening carefully to his idiosyncratic voice: he is conflict-avoidant, dreamy, quick with a self-deprecating joke (“I was spaced-out as usual, lost in […] the magic of Optimus Prime’s vanishing trailer”), a boy in need of protection.

What follows over the next 200-something pages is an impressionistic exploration of this basic dynamic, Young Coates reconciling his basic character with a tough-minded father in a city and country generally unforgiving of black men’s very existence. Along the way, he picks up The Knowledge from his father’s Black Classic Press library and finds conscious rhymes in his Golden Era heroes (Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions) and forges his own voice in the process. Coates does not find his voice. None of us do! Instead, he creates it, like we all do, out of the language around us.

The word we want here is heteroglossia. Literally: different (‘hetero-’) tongues (‘glōssa’). Heteroglossia refers to the way that authors essentially create complex collages of different languages and styles and voices when they write. The originality (and thus worth!) of any given piece of literary art is in the combination of these styles and voices. Coates uniquely borrows the style of DC and Marvel comic books, infuses it with the vocabulary of Black Nationalism, and sets it to militant rhythms of The Bomb Squad. This is new. This particular combination has not yet existed in the history of memoir writing, American or otherwise. And this particular combination, fellow readers, is beautiful.

And what’s more is that this combination, this collage of styles, is more than a cool aesthetic development in the history of memoir. This powerful mashup of styles has a thematic resonance throughout the book. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that Coates is demonstrating that he is the product of these different languages. The man’s very identity is bound up with the languages he uses to present himself. Ta-Nehisi Coates is the language he uses, the words he speaks, the sentences he writes. Like any of us, we cannot be separated from the language we use to construct and reflect and comment upon the world around us.

Which I guess leads me to this simple thesis: The Beautiful Struggle is beautiful because it doesn’t sound like anything else out there. This is black man telling you not what you want to hear but what he knows, which is actually what you need to hear. And what he knows is how he was shaped equally by the ringside taunts of wrestlers in gleaming spandex and the proud scholarship of forgotten black writers. What he knows is that he is the student of T’Challa and Bobo Brazil as much as he is the acolyte of Chuck D and Marcus Garvey. What he knows is how we are the languages that surround us. We are the words that pour through our headphones, just as much as we are the words spoken, too often unheard, by parents and teachers. We are, each of us, an impossible walking dictionary of pop culture and family history and ethnic identity. So: because of the book’s artificial mash-up of voices, because of its hypertrophied style, Coates’ story is urgently beautiful.