One Black Man’s Manifesto; One Black Man’s Rebuttal
This week, I encountered two stunning new pieces of writing. Beautiful prose flowed lyrically from each, but, they poured out wholly different ways of thinking and seeing life and race. One, The First White President by celebrated writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, declared Donald Trump a white supremacist lifted to office on dominant currents of white racism. The other, An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisis Coates, by Jamaican immigrant and De Paul Professor of Philosophy Jason Hill serendipitously ran in Commentary Magazine about the same times Coates’s piece appeared online in The Atlantic. It actually was penned to rebut an earlier book by Coates. Hill does not mention Coates’s more recent essay.
Despite the misalignment of content, however, the thesis and antithesis of the two men is vivid. Coates declares the American dream a racist fraud and goes on to describe, or to demand, really, a tribal world of endless conflict between white and black, grievance by black, guilt and obligation for white. All thinking, politicking, and transacting in Coates’s world happens under an overlay as inescapable as gravity of tension and distrust among human beings based on race.
Hill, in optimistic contrast, describes his hopes and experience as an immigrant meeting other immigrants, a welcoming society, and living out the memorable phrase of Indian immigrant Dinesh D’Souza “writing the script of your own life.”
Consider Coates’s opening paragraph, rejoined by Hill’s starting and finishing words.
It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
Dear Ta-Nehisi Coates:
I read your book Between the World and Me, an elegant and poetic elegy written to your son on “the question,” as you put it, “of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the [American] Dream.”***[Y]our book, while moving, reads primarily like an American horror story and, I’m sorry to say, a declaration of war against my adopted country..My fear is that Between the World and Me aims to reach far beyond the scope of the reader’s moral imagination and into the actual lives of Americans, black or white, who share this thing you refer to as the Dream. My concern is that you and your book function as deputized stand-ins for the black male and the black experience in America, respectively. And I believe that as stand-ins, both fail.
Because I write as a black immigrant who chose to live in the United States, whose biggest hope as a child was to become an American citizen, and who chose to embrace the American Dream you condemn, please consider these words my Declaration of Independence—an independence that only my beloved America could have given to me.
And Hill’s closing paragraphs:
Many more personal dreams of mine continue to be nurtured in and by America. In 32 years of living in this country, the United States has never once failed me. Becoming an American citizen was the greatest privilege of my life.
Your book reads like an American horror story because you have damned to hell the noblest and most endearing trait of those who come to this country and who love it: the Dream. You declare: “This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.” Well, it is. And we, the Dreamers and achievers who continue to make this country the exceptional wonder that it is, will never capitulate to your renunciation. The world we desired has been won. It exists. It is real. It is possible. It is ours. And it should be yours, and your son’s.
Coates’s examination should prompt reflective readers to ask if his vision is accurate, and what part if any, the reader might play causing or preserving division. Hill’s declaration should cause any reader to consider their choices and what they are making of their own circumstances. Each essay is beautifully written and, though long, will reward your time and thought.