“Coates Isn’t Hopeful”: Melvin Rogers Responds to Lester Spence

“Coates Isn’t Hopeful”: Melvin Rogers Responds to Lester Spence

Why is Ta-Nehisi Coates unable to comfort his son in the face of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson? This is the central problem of Between the World and Me.

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking in January (Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, Univ. of Michigan)

To read Melvin Rogers’s review of Between the World and Me, click here.

To read Lester Spence’s response, click here.

In seeking to refute my interpretation, Lester Spence has decided to skim the surface rather than plumb the depths of Between the World and Me. His response does not alter my evaluation, but it does allow for a restatement.

In the first passage Spence cites, Coates describes how racism is perceived to be part of the natural world, but is, in fact, an invention of those brought up to believe they are white. On this interpretation, the problem is about having the wrong kinds of beliefs. The book now appears to be concerned with pulling back the curtain for both black and white people—to get them to see that white supremacy is not a function of nature, but of the beliefs we hold and the actions we undertake.

This is a very helpful passage. But it raises a crucial question that Spence must now reckon with: Why is Coates unable to comfort his son in the face of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson? This, after all, is the central problem of the book that comes a few pages later. “I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. . . . I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”  Why has Coates “never believed” it would be okay?

Spence seems to take this question, which I posed in my review, as ignoring the perseverance that Coates is thought to recommend. But for Spence to be correct, Coates would have to be read as counseling his son accordingly: hope will sometimes be hard to find, but you will face another day and you will find a way through that day. But it is hard to take this reading seriously when Coates tells his son and us that he has never believed it would be okay. This is not how we suggest that hope is hard to come by; Coates’s lack of belief is something much more akin to condemning black people to their fate—a fate where one’s body will be plundered. “I thought of all the beautiful black people . . . all their stunning humanity, and none of it could save them from the mark of plunder and the gravity of our particular world. And it occurred to me then that you would not escape . . .”

If we now take another look at the first passage Spence cites, along with the ones I have provided, it is easy to see how he is misreading Coates. White supremacy has receded so far into the background that it has become a force of nature. In the face of the earthquake that white supremacy represents, all one can do is brace for its impact, but not much else.

Here, then, is what this all comes to. If one holds out hope of awakening white Americans from their complicity in white supremacy, then one cannot also believe that it will never be okay. Alternatively, if one never believes that it will be okay, then it is only because one does not hold out hope of awakening one’s white counterparts. Coates isn’t hopeful. This is why, as he says, he is wounded. The book aims to explain the source of this wound and why it prevents him from comforting his son. This is the despair that black folks cannot afford; this is the despair that stands at odds with the energy that has sustained black folks during their darkest days in this country.

Melvin Rogers is an Associate Professor of African American Studies & Political Science at UCLA. He is the author of The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy and currently working on a book project titled Democracy and Faith: Race and the Politics of Redemption in American Political Thought.

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