Tag Archives: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others’ Black Panther

Roxane Gay, Ta Nehisi-Coates, Yona Harvey and Rembert Browne (writers), Alitha E Martinez and Roberto Poggio (main artists) and others, Black Panther: World of Wakanda (Marvel 2017)
Ta-Nehisi Coates & Yona Harvey (writers), Scott Hanna (main pencils), Dan Brown (main colorist) and others, Black Panther & the Crew (Marvel 2017)

My resolve not to read any more superhero comics weakened when, soon after seeing Ryan Coogler’s fabulous Black Panther movie, I spotted these books written by, among others, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, and Roxane Gay, who was a fabulous guest at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. I bought them as a gift for the son who generally gives me comics – and read them first.

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I’ve been lured to superhero comics by big name writers before, and been disappointed. Josh Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 left me cold. Alas, so did these two.

World of Wakanda comprises three origin stories of characters who I assume feature in the Black Panther series proper. There’s a permeating sense that the main action is happening between episodes of these stories or is yet to come. Occasional footnotes refer the reader to other comics. Oddly, even some of the key moments in Roxane Gay’s story, which is the longest and most interesting, happen off the page.

Without the in-house Marvel elements, Gay’s story is of a kind that’s banned from my (mostly Lesbian) Book Club: a Lesbian story in which the Lesbianism is not incidental to the plot. I’m guessing that for Marvel cult members the story will work as thrilling feminist subversion of the prevailing indiviualistic male domination. I can applaud that at a notional level, but meh, I’m not part of the target readership. bp&C

Black Panther and the Crew is another origin story. Again, as evidence that I’m not the target readership, I found the superhero elements a fairly repugnant intrusion into a story about African American politics. I was with Brecht’s Galileo: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’ I also found it hard to follow at times, possibly because unlike proper Marvel readers I don’t recognise the superheroes who make up ‘the Crew’ (and before them ‘the Crusaders’) and almost certainly because my grasp of Marvel’s visual language is patchy.

Both books include advertisements for the three volumes of Black Panther: The World Beneath Our Feet, the main Black Panther story written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Even if I don’t read those myself, I’ll keep an eye out so I can include them in my gift to my son.

Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country

Stan Grant, Talking to My Country (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

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The cover of this book is great. The image on the left here may not look like much, just some bold type with a couple of gumleaves. But the actual cover held in your hands is scattered with (images of) tiny grains of sand as if the book has been out in the bush, exposed to the elements, suggesting that Stan Grant may be a journalist with an impressive international CV but you can never brush the Wiradjuri country from him.

Stan Grant appeared on Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery this week. That’s a TV show where celebrities take us to visit places from their childhood usually with awkwardness and embarrassment. Stan Grant’s episode was an exception in not being awkward at all, because he had something to say about growing up and working as an Aboriginal person in Australia. That TV show provides an excellent easy-listening introduction to this book.

The cover tells us that this is ‘the book that every Australian should read’. I don’t know about that ‘should’, but if every Australian did read it we’d be living in a much wiser and possibly kinder world. Part memoir, part essay, inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and perhaps Ta Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, it’s a personal account of the effects of dispossession, colonisation and racism on individual lives into the 21st century. It includes the most powerful account of a ‘mental breakdown’ I have ever read, not as a medicalised episode of ‘depression’, but as generations of pain inflicted by colonisation finally breaking through to the surface.

And it’s all told with a sense, not of complaint, but of wonder. The journalist Grant, who wants to understand the world and communicate what he learns, here turns his attention to his own story with the same curiosity and – not detachment, but concern to get it right.It’s a marvellous book.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Text 2015)

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Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for the US magazine The Atlantic. He’s a very engaging blogger, and his writing about racism in the USA is revelatory. Between the World and Me is an extraordinarily generous book on that subject, framed as a letter to his fourteen year old son in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

When it was announced that no one would be indicted for that killing, the teenager said,’I’ve got to go,’ went to his room, and could be heard sobbing. The book is his father’s attempt to reach out to him, to spell out ‘the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country that is lost in the Dream’. (‘The Dream’ in this book is the version of the USA that ignores ugly realities like racism, and which allows the Dreamers to perpetuate those ugly realities.) Coates describes this as the question of his life. So the book is something of an apologia pro vita sua – and like John Henry Newman’s contribution to the genre it transcends its immediate stimulus.

The title is from a Richard Wright 1935 poem. In that poem, what comes between the world and the speaker is the charred remains of a man who has been lynched. In the book, the construct of race and racism rises up in a similar way, a threat to the integrity of his body and his son’s body.

I was having trouble thinking what to say about this book apart from READ IT, IT’S GREAT, when I came across a ‘review’ on the Internet, which gave something to argue with:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a diatribe against white people by a paranoiac black writer. I don’t even think it is well written.

Well, maybe not argue with so much as repudiate.

1. It’s not a diatribe

It’s not even a polemic. Instead, there’s a substantial memoir that gives us an insider’s view of Baltimore as fictionalised in The Wire, where street and school were the poles between which a young black life had to be negotiated, and where harsh discipline accompanied the safety of home; that takes us to what Coates calls his Mecca, Howard University in Washington DC, a campus where he experienced the diversity of African and African-heritage people; and that shows us his growing understanding of racial politics in the US, from his youthful disdain for what he saw as the passivity of the Civil Rights marchers, through his embracing of Malcolm X, to an understanding that African-American experience in the USA is deeply complex.

There’s also some beautiful, richly suggestive thinking. I love this:

Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition …

But race is the child of racism, not the father … [T]he belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organise a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

Many subjects are touched on that could sustain whole books of their own. For example, at the very end he draws a line between the habits of mind that led to slavery and those that are now threatening the environment (‘It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age.’).

2. It’s not against white people

I don’t see how any careful reader could think this book was against white people. Even if you dismissed as mere rhetoric Coates’s argument that there are no such beings – that there are only people who believe they are white – it remains true that the problem isn’t white people, but deeply embedded institutionalised racism. And facing up to it, he recognises, is a massive challenge:

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practised habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered versions of your country as it has always declared itself and turning towards something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.

Those last two sentences, it’s worth pointing out, are addressed to his son. That they are all the more true for white readers, and not only those who live in the US, is not a point he labours.

3. It’s not paranoiac

To read this book as paranoiac would take extraordinary mental nimbleness. True, Coates describes mid-teenage years in which

each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not – all of which is to say that I practised the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.

And he describes other moments when he felt the threat from racist institutions with terrifying immediacy. Racism is felt viscerally, he says. But still, surely what he is describing are social realities. (Come to think of it, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric would make a great companion book.)

4. It is well written

The book is a very fine example of an extended lyric essay. I want to quote passage after passage. Here’s just one, more or less random:

‘Make the race proud,’ the elders used to say. But by then I knew that I wasn’t so much bound to a biological ‘race’ as to a group of people, and these people were not black because of any uniform colour or any uniform physical feature. They were bound because they suffered under the Dream, and they were bound by all the beautiful things, all the language and mannerisms, all the food and music, all the literature and philosophy, all the common language that they fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream. Not long ago I was standing in the airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young black man and said, ‘My bad.’ Without even looking up he said, ‘You straight.’ And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world.

Indulge me if I quote a little more from this passage:

And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds – the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us. I had read too much by then. And my eyes – my beautiful eyes – were growing stronger each day. And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.

Do seek out this book. As Toni Morrison says on the front cover, ‘It’s required reading.’  Jeff Sparrow’s review in the Sydney Review of Books is also worth a read.

‘pose of powerlessness’

Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic reflects on what he was thinking ten years ago:

Back then I was seized with a deep feeling that what I thought did not matter much. …

I was skeptical of war, but if the U.S. was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object? And more, who were you to object? I remember being out during one of the big anti-war protests and watching the crowds stream down Broadway. I remember thinking, ‘You fools believe that you matter? You think what you’re saying means anything?’

In fact it meant a lot. It meant that you got to firmly and loudly say, ‘No. Not in my name.’ It meant being on the side of those who warned against the seductive properties of power, and opposing those who would bask in it. It also meant pragmatism. …

And finally it meant the election of the country’s first black president whose ascent began at an anti-war rally in Chicago.

I say all this to say that if I regret anything it is my pose of powerlessness — my lack of faith in American democracy, my belief that the war didn’t deserve my hard thinking or hard acting … I am not a radical. But more than anything the Iraq War taught me the folly of mocking radicalism. It seemed, back then, that every ‘sensible’ and ‘serious’ person you knew – left or right – was for the war. And they were all wrong. Never forget that they were all wrong. And never forget that the radicals with their drum circles and their wild hair were right.

Overland 207

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 207, Winter 2012

The winter issue of Overland arrived here while I was summering in Turkey, and it was still in its plastic wrapper when spring arrived with a burst of grevillea flowers and the thud of issue 208 on the front step. The spring arrival looks great – it includes a comic – but it will have to wait. Winter is enough for now.

Fat people are oppressed, says Jennifer Lee in ‘A Big Fat Fight‘, and they’re organising on many fronts. It’s a pugnacious article, which seems to anticipate a hostile response, and indeed I found myself wanting to argue with it. Anwyn Crawford responds in issue 208, and addresses the things I was uneasy about much better than I could. I recommend the articles as a diptych. It doesn’t help your argument to tell readers that if they disagree with you it’s a knee jerk reaction.

Porn and the misogyny emergency‘ is a debate between Gail Dines and Sharon Smith, which I’m happy to report doesn’t descend into name-calling, as feminist debates on this subject have been known to – as in a twitter storm around Gail Dines at a recent Sydney Writers Festival.

Jessica Whyte’s ‘“Intervene, I said”‘ addresses the vexed subject of how talk of human rights is used to rationalise imperialist aggression and other nastiness. It strikes me as a sober discussion, not looking for villains or getting lost in its own rhetoric as sometimes happens when mainstream discourses are being critiqued. I didn’t know that Médecins Sans Frontières, undoubtedly good guys in my book, played a major role in popularising the so-called ‘right to intervene’ on humanitarian grounds, which was used to justify the invasion of Iraq and other dubious military ventures.

Matthew Clayfield’s ‘Waiting on the Arriaga-Ixtepec‘ is a first-hand observer’s account of the ordeals of undocumented immigrants to the US from South and Central America. It’s powerful stuff. I could have done without the occasional literary flourish, especially the opening reference to Casablanca with its use of the manglish ‘torturous’ instead of the original’s perfectly sound ‘tortuous’.

Louis Proyect, in ‘Republican Democrats‘, offers an analysis of Obama’s policies that is a bracing contrast to what wishful thinking would have us believe. He argues that the time may soon be at hand when the USA’s rigid two party system yields to something closer to real democracy. In the meantime, he seems to be suggesting that African-Americans are mistaken to support Obama. Having just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant ‘Fear of a Black President‘ in The Atlantic (if you haven’t read that article stop wasting your time here and click on the link now), I found Proyect’s argument thin and unconvincing on this point.

There are three pieces identified as fiction, though the most immediately touching of them, 19 year old Stephen Pham’s ‘Holiday in little Saigon‘, isn’t fiction at all, but a meditation on the changes he has seen in his suburb, Cabramatta, in the last ten years, as it has transformed from heroin capital of Australia to tourist destination.

Sequestered up the back on different colored paper is the poetry. I particularly liked Andy Quan’s ‘Islands‘, a cool despatch from a grieving family; Mark O’Flynn’s ‘Corydalis‘, a poignant glimpse of someone else’s homesickness; Fiona Yardley’s ‘Your Bath‘, an unlikely celebration of a long lived love, perhaps an elegy; and Alan Wearne’s ‘Also Starring …‘ poem as parlor game or vice versa, in which actors arecast as dozens of Australian poets living and dead, and a couple of politicians. The pairings that I recognised in that last poem ranged from the wittily spot on, through cheerfully insulting, to gloriously inspired. My favourite is George C. Scott as Francis Webb. It’s a poem that invites reader participation: I’d add Robert Morley as Les Murray and Katharine Hepburn as J S Harry.

Undoubtedly the serious reflections in this issue on all that’s amiss in the world and the possibilities for change will have lasting impact on how I am in the world, but right now my vote for the best thing in it goes to Alan Wearne’s utterly frivolous poem.

Revisionism?

Along with about 30 other people, the Art Student and I heard Paul Ham talk at Gleebooks last night. It was one of the smallest Gleebooks turn-outs I’ve seen, and it’s hard not to think the subject may have had a bit of a deterrent effect: his new book Hiroshima Nagasaki. In fact it was a terrific talk. I’ll save whatever I have to say about his argument for when I read the book, which may be some little time. (He was on Lateline recently – here’s a link if you want his gist.)

What I want to note here is that he described what he does as Narrative History. I’m sure learned historians have many finely nuanced definitions of  that, but I liked his version, which is that it is history told without benefit of hindsight – that is, trying to get to the story as it was understood by the actors themselves. He is categorised as a revisionist historian, but objects, saying that the orthodox version (that the bombs were the ‘least abhorrent option’, that they saved a million US lives, that they brought about Japan’s unconditional surrender) is itself revisionist – a recasting after the event that distorts what actually happened on almost all counts.

Fortuitously, I have just been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article in the Atlantic,  ‘Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?‘ I can’t recommend this article strongly enough for its eloquent challenge to received versions of history. The bit that chimed with Paul Ham’s talk, and with some reading and thinking I’ve been doing about massacres in Australia, was this, in reference to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Gettysburg:

Speakers at the ceremony pointedly eschewed any talk of the war’s cause in hopes of pursuing what the historian David Blight calls ‘a mourning without politics’. Woodrow Wilson, when he addressed the crowd, did not mention slavery but asserted that the war’s meaning could be found in ‘the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes’. Wilson, born into the Confederacy and the first postbellum president to hail from the South, was at that very moment purging blacks from federal jobs and remanding them to separate washrooms. Thus Wilson executed a familiar act of theater—urging the country’s white citizens away from their history, while continuing to act in the spirit of its darkest chapters.

Urging the country’s white citizens away from their history, while continuing to act in the spirit of its darkest chapters. Familiar indeed, but ne’er so well expressed.