Between the Lines

I am a coward.

I mean, that's not the ONLY thing I am. I'm also just plain sensible. But there's no question that a decision I made a while back was made at least partially out of fear. It was a fear that I don't always feel, nor always respond to when I do feel it, but in this case I was getting the same message from both my emotions and my brain, and that message was a clear and unequivocal Don't do it.

So I didn't. As I was working on Along Those Lines, I consciously and deliberately chose not to discuss one of the most significant lines in the human experience: race.

I can't say that I've been called out by any reviewer or reader about this act of cowardice-cum-common sense, but that's probably due to the book's relatively small number of reviewers and readers. And who knows, maybe opting to write about race would have created more buzz, and sold a few more copies, and garnered a few more reviews, but at that point the reviewers might have been taking me to task because I did choose to write about race. It's not as though the topic is simple, or uncontroversial; it's arguably the single hottest of hot-button issues in America today, one that is currently warming up everything from Donald Trump's presidential campaign to the various arguments about state monuments. I knew going in that I could do far more justice to topics such as gender differences in neurology or observation of religious holidays, even irreverently, than I could to that of race relations.

But why is that? Why should a male writer with WASP ancestry (on one side, at least) feel comfortable addressing women's issues or non-Christian faiths but hesitant when it comes to race? Well, it's partly because, despite my unequivocal maleness, I've spent a large part of my life considering gender issues. As I've mentioned on a number of occasions, my mom was a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine, leading me to adopt a feminist viewpoint very early in life, and being married to an independent-minded woman for nearly three decades has only made that viewpoint sharper. (Raising two sons and working for twenty years at an all-male school has brought a few things into focus as well.) Similarly, my 1975 confirmation as an Episcopalian and ongoing ability to pass as a gentile doesn't disguise the fact that I've been taking an autodidactic course in comparative religion for essentially my whole life; between Mom's family's Judaism, our various relatives' membership in dozens of Christian sects, my own longtime fondness for Taoist philosophy, and a healthy dose of raw skepticism, I've been able to devote a hell of a lot of time to musing about faith. In other words, when it came to writing about these two topics, I had confidence that I knew what I was talking about, and that I could avoid saying anything too aggressively stupid.

But race? Oy. In some ways it would have been the perfect subject for the book, because the lines of race are a perfect example of my overall theme: that lines are drawn by human beings for human purposes, and that a strikingly large number of lines have no objective existence. That's absolutely the case with race, where there are still arguments about the race of our president, as though being able to assign him to one race or another would somehow encapsulate his political positions. But that's largely what Americans have always done: first, decide the race of an individual, and second, by that first simple decision further decide how he/she should be treated. This is why we have terms such as "one-drop rule," "octaroon," and even "paper bag test." The lines that define racial categories and sub-categories are exactly the same kind of lines we use to define pretty much everything else in the universe: a convenient fiction. Whose convenience? That of the people drawing the line.

But at the same time, that fiction has created very real experiences for very real people, and I am intensely aware of my own ignorance when it comes to many of those experiences. I have, as the saying goes, White Privilege. This does not mean I've never suffered, or that I should feel guilty about any success I've had in overcoming that suffering; what it DOES mean is that I haven't had to experience certain additional kinds of suffering that non-white people often do. Cops, for example, are generally pretty friendly with me; I've never been pulled over for anything other than an obvious driving mistake on my part, and even when I've been pulled, I've never been ticketed. I contrast that against the experiences of a former colleague of mine, a pious, well-groomed, professional graduate of both an elite prep school and an Ivy League university, who has been pulled over on several occasions purely for Driving While Black--even in the town he grew up in.

White Privilege is why I did not have to give my sons The Talk--the one about how to handle themselves safely in an interaction with police--because I had no real fear that my sons would be targeted or mistreated by the police. The Talk may not be universal in African-American homes--I wouldn't pretend to know--but I've heard enough people refer to it that I feel pretty confident it's a widespread phenomenon. And of course White Privilege is why I don't have to worry about things like redlining--the practice of bankers and realtors drawing lines around certain neighborhoods, establishing the borders of where blacks can and cannot rent or own homes. White Privilege doesn't make white people's lives free from suffering; it just means there are fewer directions from which that suffering is likely to come.

So yeah, race would have been a great topic for Along Those Lines, but I was afraid of it. Why? Because I don't know it well enough. Those long years examining sex and religion left me confident that I could articulate ideas and experiences different from my own, but the sad fact is that I never had those experiences where race is concerned. My schools were integrated, sure--though in North Carolina, they hadn't been for all that long when I started--and my basketball teams were as well. But even with those facts, I never had a lot of close black friends growing up; maybe that was due to racism when it came to tracking students into academic classes, or maybe it was just me, not bothering to seek out people who didn't look like me, or maybe it was that Chapel Hill High's theater department was lily-white until the last months of my senior year, when we put on The Wiz and brought a number of talented black students into the fold for at least one show.

But by then, it was really too late. Social circles that had been established for years weren't much altered by that one play, and when I got to college, the social circles there were largely white ones as well, and that's kind of how it's been ever since. I've had plenty of black classmates and colleagues and friends, but I haven't been close enough to them to be the beneficiary of deep, detailed conversations about race. And despite twenty-plus years of teaching, coaching, and directing black students, not to mention serving as faculty advisor to several, the flow of information in a teacher-student relationship is always heavier from the former to the latter than vice-versa. Basically, if I were to write about race in ATL, that section's foundation would be far, far less solid than those of the sex and religion chapters.

But that wasn't my only fear. There was also Coates.

I don't recall the exact timing of my discovery--maybe 2008? 2009? All I know is that when I first came across Ta-Nehisi Coates' writing, he was guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. I appreciated his undisguised nerdery, but I also loved his unflinching willingness to examine an idea, even one where he felt ignorant about the topic. Soon after that, he started his own blog at The Atlantic magazine's site, and something really weird happened: I found myself in long, detailed conversations (and not a few short, goofy ones) about subject ranging from comics to politics to science fiction to music to food to, yes, race. The comments there were closely moderated by Coates, who took an active role in most of the conversations, and by virtue of exposure to the gaggle of contributors there, I began to realize just how little I really knew about race in America.

That gaggle (known by an ever-shifting set of aliases including the Lost Battalion of Platonic Conversationalists, the Black Republicans, the Fucking Feminists, and most frequently the Golden Horde) consisted of TNC fans of various ages, backgrounds, nationalities, sexes, experiences, sexualities, and races, but they had one thing in common: they wanted to know about stuff they didn't know, and they were happy to tell YOU about stuff YOU didn't know. The Horde collectively set me straight about subjects of all sorts, including feminism and Judaism, and many of the members became my online (and in some cases offline) social companions of choice.

Alas, it couldn't last. As Coates' writing became better known, the blog's comment section began filling up with people who weren't much interested in Platonic conversation, preferring to make sweeping assaults on statements Coates hadn't even made, and often favoring outright trolling to interacting with people who might teach them something. When he published "The Case for Reparations," the most buzz-heavy magazine piece I can remember a magazine printing in decades, it got worse. And as he was spending more and more time doing research and writing, Coates didn't have much time to play moderator; worse, The Atlantic wasn't inclined to do anything to help. Before long he was writing pieces without even opening them for comments.

But that was where the fear set in for me. The fear that no matter what I wrote about the lines between races in America, it wouldn't be good enough. The fear that I'd say something ignorant. The fear that it wouldn't be up to the standards the Horde demanded. And in the back of my mind, the fear that Coates himself might write a book on that topic, one that would outshine my own with the intensity of a thousand burning suns.

Well guess what? I was right.

Coates' new book, Between the World and Me, is something I could never duplicate. That's not necessarily a demeaning statement about my own abilities as a writer, but it's very definitely a statement about White Privilege. I could not write that book because I have never had to experience the things that allowed Coates to write it. Presented as a letter to his son, the book touches on the fears that every parent has for every child, but those fears are raised to a feverish pitch by Coates' unblinking and penetrating examination of American history. It's a book that contains Emmett Till thrown in a river and lines drawn across the blocks of Chicago and Prince Jones shot down by a cop. It is The Talk raised to an art form and delivered to an audience that in many cases has never heard it.

It's a book I wish I could have written. And I'm damned lucky to be unable to write it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 28, 2015 4:57 PM.

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