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"Every time I ask it, the question is refined": Notes Towards Day 19 (Tues, Nov. 8)

Anne Dalke's picture

meeting @ usual time (2:30) and usual place (Taylor C)

"My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers--even the answers they themselves believed. I don't know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined" (Ta-Nehisi Coates, p. 34).

I. (2:30): start again by greeting one another
taking a few moments to gather
ourselves into this space,
breathing deeply about this election...
and our upcoming conversation;
I appreciated Liv's posting about the disrespect,
lack of consideration for others, in this space
and outside it.

For today, let's try to do what also requested in her post:
"please keep an open mind. and sit with the thoughts a little
to really understand where [each of us is] coming from."

Thank you. Yes. Let's try to "listen to understand."

Between the World and Me is a hard book for me to read/re-read:
Part I (today's reading) begins with a section from a poem by Richard Wright,
about stepping into a burned clearing where a lynching took place;
Part II begins with a piece of a poem by Amiri Baraka,
about the beauty of black people;
Part III with a quote from James Baldwin about
the people "who think they are white," and have
brought humanity to the edge of oblivion."

I'd say that these 3 short passages trace the arc of the  book:
as his commentators write, Baldwin both acknowledges the
fragility and finitude of the black body--due to the reality,
the escapable constraints, of white supremacy, and he also
celebrates the beauty of the black body; his is the classic
Black Arts embrace of racial wonder here.

For your postings due by midnight tonight, select one passage
in the text that speaks to you--a truth, a question, a frustration--
type it out, say something about what it says to you, what
your thoughts or questions are. I'll build Thursday's class around
these passages you select.

I've designed today's class around the profound question Coates
asks about what to tell his son, how to tell him, how to guide
him into life. In a nice posting (using Edward Said's book
Orientalism to read Truong's novel), swati wrote that
"Binh's father is constantly admonishing him, shaming him..."
Coates has a very VERY different orientation towards parenting,
one that both acknowledges the history and also really flips the 
premise of The Book of Salt.

In framing this book as a letter to his son (for all of us to read),
Coates is also clearly reprising the genre James Baldwin used in
his "Letter to My Nephew," which we read the first week of October.

I was asking you then to think about Baldwin as ancestor to S-LParks;
we focused on the essay, "Everybody's Protest Novel," in which
Baldwin criticized "belligerent ideologizing" in black fiction writing,
saw how that might have influenced Parks' refusal to lecture us,
to tell us what she thought, or how we should think, either in
her novel or her conversation with us.

Coates does something very different with Baldwin's heritage.
His memoir traces his own childhood and maturation,
which is insistently about how he learned to think, how he thinks,
how he's passing on his thinking to his son. His book is about stages
in own education, from his schooling on the streets and in school,
through his finding The Mecca @ Howard,
his passage through the particularism of Afrocentrism to
the acknowledgement of some myths which no longer guide
his thinking. wrote something about The Book of Salt that I think also gives us a great gloss on Between the World and Me:

We have been conditioned and taught that school will provide answers. That through our studies we will solve life. But that is completely and entirely off the map.....we need to treat classrooms like temples. Places of practice, places to learn, to convert, to seek, to understand. there are rules and structures. a text to rely on. people designated to teach. However, we need to know that they are not homes....I see now that I will not get home in spaces at haverford and bryn mawr. maybe small temples, where i can learn and think and recieve connections. but definitely not a home.

Inspired by this, I've pulled out four topics from Coates' text that focus on different stages in his educational journey away from home,
in's language, and about the temples he found enroute. I've also included some passages from Baldwin's letter to his nephew.

II. (2:40-2:50): Reading aloud excerpts from Between the World and Me:
1) Schooling and Study

Why, precisely, was I sitting in this classroom? The question was never answered. I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance….I sensed the schools were hiding something, drugging us with false morality so that we would not see, so that we did not ask…. Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them. Perhaps they must be burned away…Unfit for the schools, and in good measure wanting to be unfit for them….I felt there could be no escape for me….(25-27).

I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free….I was learning to live in the disquiet…in the mess of my mind. It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would….break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America… (48, 52).

I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me. I have not spent my time studying the problem of “race”—“race” itself is just a re-statement and retrenchment of the problem (115).

2) Politics and Violence
Dad had been a local captain in the Black Panther Party…I was attracted to their guns, because the guns seemed honest. The guns seemed to address this country…in its primary language—violence….Every February my classmates and I were herded into assemblies for a ritual review of the Civil Rights Movement….a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera…Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent? …[why are] blacks are in especial need of this morality[?]…I judged [these freedom-lovers] against the country I knew….civilization secured and ruled by savage means. How could the schools valorize men and women whose values society actively scorned? How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore…and then speak of nonviolence? (30-32).

My history teachers [at Howard]…felt it their duty to disabuse me of my weaponized history….Did I think [“black"] a timeless category stretching into the deep past? Yes? Could it be supposed that simply because color was important to me, it had always been so?....perhaps being named “black” was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah….My great error was…that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft (53-56).

Hate gives identity…We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe. But my tribe was shattering and reforming around me (60).

3) Religion and Ritual
I could not retreat, as did so many, into the church and its mysteries. My parents rejected all dogmas….And so I had no sense that any just God was on my side….My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos….(28).

You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice….the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be….no promise is unbreakable… You have to make your peace with the chaos…. (70-71).

I have always felt great distance from the grieving rituals of my people….I sat there [at the funeral] feeling myself a heretic, believing only in this one-shot life and the body…I did not believe in forgiveness (78-79).

I confess that…I am afraid. And I have no God to hold me up. And I believe that when they shatter the body they shatter everything (113).

I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body…(p. 139)

4) Childrearing
In my old house your grandparents ruled with the fearsome rod. I have tried to address you differently…..(60).

You were the God I’d never had. I submitted before your needs, and I knew then that…I must survive for you….I wanted you to claim the world (67-68).

Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered (82).

I am sorry that I cannot make it okay…You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable (107-108).

I resolved to hide nothing from you (111).

I wanted you to have your own life, apart from fear—even apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next…I am now ashamed...of the generational chains I tried to clasp onto your wrists….I wish I had been softer with you (125).

From Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew” (1962):
...this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it….it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Let me spell out precisely…the crux of my dispute with my country….: The limits to your ambition were…expected to be settled….You were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

Take no one's word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience.

The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept [white men], and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand….the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your....lost younger brothers, and..."integration" means...that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it...We cannot be free until they are free....

IV. (2:50-3:00): Take 10 minutes now to write in response to one of these topics:
reflecting on its relation to other passages in Coates,
to Baldwin, or (back to swati's idea) childrearing in Truong....
or in Parks...

V. (3:00-3:20): Gather into caucus groups based on the passage you wrote about;
read (or describe) to one another what you wrote; discuss.

V. (3:20-3:45): Re-gather into large group for sharing

VI. coursekeeping
your 2nd set of papers will be coming in over the next week;
am still available for writing conferences
(remind you of how I think of papers:
follow your interest (doesn't have to be about intersectionality,
center it in any text we've read;
don't just describe this, but analyze it, develop an argument
about it (a second text can be very useful here, as a lens);
when I read, I'll start by looking @ your last paper,
& write comparatively in response to this one--
see if you're responding to the convo we've had so far