Ta-Nehisi Coates might be the best, most challenging, most important writer I’ve read in years. I’ve been following his blog on TheAtlantic.com for a while now. His Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations” is must-reading for anyone on the verge of rage and/or despair about recent and not-so-recent episodes in this country’s sorry history of race and racism.
I heard he was going to be speaking in Chilmark, at the opening panel of the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival. The ticket price was $50: steep. The title, “Whatever Happened to Post-Racial America?,” was bogus. As Coates wrote in “There Is No Post-Racial America,” in the July/August Atlantic:
The term post-racial is almost never used in earnest. Instead it’s usually employed by talk-show hosts and news anchors looking to measure progress in the Obama era. Earnest or not, the questions we ask matter. As many of our sharper activists and writers have pointed out, America’s struggle is to become not post-racial, but post-racist. Put differently, we should seek not a world where the black race and the white race live in harmony, but a world in which the terms black and white have no real political meaning.
The Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival calls itself “a celebration of the rich literary heritage of Martha’s Vineyard and the many authors who find inspiration on this beautiful island.” This “rich literary heritage” is part of the summer Vineyard that winks into existence around Memorial Day and winks out by Columbus Day at the latest.
This took me by surprise when I washed ashore 30 years ago. I thought the island was riddled with writers writing and talking about writing. It wasn’t. All the writers I associated with the Vineyard were summer people. When they left, so did the island’s celebrated literary scene. As I became accustomed to seeing with a year-rounder’s eye, though, I discovered that yes, indeed, Martha’s Vineyard did have its own writers. Poets too, and journalists.
The Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, though, focuses on authors with New York book contracts and national media buzz. I wasn’t wild about supporting it. But Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of maybe five people I’d pay $50 to hear. I went online and bought a ticket.
So on Friday, July 31, I drove to Chilmark, found parking at the Chilmark School, and walked across the ball field to the community center. The place was already crowded. More chairs were being set up. I found a seat about three-quarters to the rear. I recognized maybe six people in the crowd. In part this was because I don’t know Chilmark well — it’s not on my psychic map of Martha’s Vineyard — but mostly it was because this was a summer-people thing and I’m not a summer person.
Being by descent and upbringing a mostly WASP who looks it (apart from my out-of-control hair), I blended in pretty well with the up-island summer crowd.
I did, however, feel like I was working undercover. Especially when the emcee started going on about how many people when they go on vacation turn their backs on the world, push the world away — but not the wonderful people who vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. They come here to embrace the world, as evidenced by the SRO audience, who had paid $50 to listen to a conversation on a contentious subject.
This was, of course, not the time to get up and ask if they’d ever thought of embracing Martha’s Vineyard. Most of them wouldn’t have understood the question. But I did think it.
Most of what Ta-Nehisi Coates said was familiar to me from Between the World and Me, “The Case for Reparations,” and “There Is No Post-Racial America,” but since I was surrounded by summer people, the vast majority of them white, I tried to listen like a white summer person. Here’s some of what stood out for me:
- When the larger society looks at the current state of race relations in the U.S., it overestimates the importance of anger and underestimates the importance of fear.
- In traveling to France, Coates had the rare experience of not being immediately categorized by the color of his skin — an experience that white people in the U.S. generally take for granted.
- Of James Baldwin, one of his major influences, Coates noted that Baldwin didn’t address himself particularly to white people. Instead he put his works out there with the open invitation to partake if they wished. The image Coates used was cake: here’s some cake; if you want some, come on over.
Mostly, though, I wondered if the summer people were taking in what Coates had to say about “the Dream,” the so-called American Dream. “I have seen that dream all my life,” Coates writes in Between the World and Me. “It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and Cub Scouts.”
He writes about “want[ing] to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket,” then adds: “But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”
He did not tell the summer people that the Dream includes vacation homes on Martha’s Vineyard, but it does, and I wonder if they were at least a little uneasy with the thought. I hope so. Reading Coates, and Baldwin, and Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and a host of others who write about race and class and sex unsettles me to the core. It presses my finger to a hot burner and holds it there. Of course my finger will burn up if it stays too long on the hot burner, so I have to pull it back, then reach out again, over and over.
Between the World and Me opens with a story: Coates is being interviewed by a white journalist, and the journalist in the end is unable to take in what he’s saying. “It was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream,” he writes. She asks, he answers — but she doesn’t want to wake up, and because of her privilege she doesn’t have to.
Neither do the summer people who packed the Chilmark Community Center to listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates. They don’t have to hear what he’s saying, The payoff for them is showing how open-minded and liberal they are just by being there. They can hear selectively, just as they see selectively when they come to summer Martha’s Vineyard and barely notice the year-round island.
Coates is now celebrated — often criticized and even trashed, to be sure, but taken seriously — in these lofty circles. I hope he’s able to keep growing and thinking and urging our fingers toward the burner, holding our feet to the fire. And I hope someone’s got his back. That would include all of us who keep listening.
I’m working on an essay tentatively titled “Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates While White — and Feminist.” The working title is a riff on “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” a disappointing column by New York Times journalist David Brooks. This blog post is a detour off the main road but still within hailing distance of it.