This isn’t going to be the comparative review I’d like to piece together (I’m short on time, without an internet connection, and without copies of either book), but if I don’t write something now I probably never will.
I first discovered Ta-Nehisi’s blog thanks to @cbracy. I was out of the country and Ta-Nahisi’s daily posts became the unlikely lens through which I became reacquainted with American pop-culture and pop-politics in the months leading up to my return, just in time to cast my vote for Barack Obama. It was difficult to discern Ta-Nehisi’s feelings toward Obama the candidate. When mentioning Obama on his blog it was often an attempt to dispel what he sees as the myth of the so-called “Obama effect” – that Barack, the role model, will lift up America’s Black community out of poverty and into college, that Barack signals an end to the euphemistic “hip-hop culture” that has been blamed for the Black community’s woes ever since crack went out of fashion in the early 90’s. But there was also a tone to Coates’ writing that implied, with subtlety, that Barack Obama was not a credible member of America’s black community, that his upbringing – unlike Coates’ own – is not representative of the Black American experience and, therefore, Obama shouldn’t try to tie that experience into his own storybook narrative. Even Coates’ January 2009 feature on Michelle Obama in The Atlantic seemed less an analysis of the First Lady and more a reflection on why she, not he, is the true triumph of Black America:
Indeed, if you’re looking for a bridge, if you’re looking for someone to connect the heart of black America with the heart of all of America, to allow us to look at the American dream in the same way, if you’re looking for common ground, then it’s true, we should be talking about Obama. But we should make sure we’re talking about the right one.
In terms of finding their places in ‘Black America’ and ‘Institutional America’ Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates seemingly rode opposite trajectories to what turned out to be a common destination – elite multi-racial Washington DC; Obama in the White House and Coates a contributing editor at one of the nation’s pre-eminint publications. Obama was raised in Hawaii by his White middle-America grandparents and attended a nearly all-White exclusive high school. He recalls a time when his grandmother did not want to ride the public bus because a threatening Black man intimidated her. Ta-Nehisi grew up in fabled West Baltimore (setting the scene for the HBO series “The Wire”) and his father was a former Black Panther with a multitude of wives and girlfriends who, as a publisher of radical Afrocentric literature, eventually made enough money to move the family to the Baltimore suburbs and put his children through college. (His father, Ta-Nehisi told us at a reading in San Francisco, comments on his blog under a pseudonym.)
Both Ta-Nehisi and Barack read comic books as kids. Barack was the better basketball player, but Ta-Nehisi – always eager to avoid the label of “punk” – was the one to stand his ground when a fight was brewing. In person (yes, I’ve met them both) Ta-Nehisi comes off as geekier than Barack. But it is Ta-Nehisi who constantly stresses his street cred throughout The Beautiful Struggle (and practically apologizes for his father when they move out of West Baltimore to the suburbs) while Barack frequently owns up to feeling like an outsider, an impostor, among Chicago’s South Side Blacks listening to Common and stuffing guns down their baggy pants.
To oversimplify things: Barack Obama grew up Mainstream American and, at Occidental College in Los Angeles, began his journey to becoming a Black American. Ta-Nehisi grew up Black, surrounded by Blacks, and is now finding his way in Mainstream America with a desire for success and an even greater desire to not sell out. Given their very different journeys I’m not at all surprised that Coates relates to Michelle Obama more than her husband. Discussing the campaign controversy over her Princeton thesis titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community”, Coates writes:
For the legions of black people who grew up like Michelle Obama – in a funcioning, self-contained African American world – racial identity recedes in the consciousness. You know you’re black, but in much the same way that white people know they are white. Since everyone else around you looks like you, you just take it as the norm, the standard, the unremarkable. Objectively, you know you’re in the minority, but that status hits home only when you walk out into the wider world and realize that, out there, you really are different.
I came up in segregated West Baltimore. I understood black as a culture – as Etta James, jumping the broom, the Electric Slide. I understood the history and the politics, the debilitating effects of racism. But I did not understand blackness as a minority until I was an “only,” until I was a young man walking into rooms filled with people who did not look like me. In many ways, segregation protected me – to this day, I’ve never been called a nigger by a white person, and although I know that racism is part of why I define myself as black, I don’t feel that way, any more than I feel that the two oceans define me as American. But in other ways, segregation left me unprepared for the discovery that my world was not the world.
Barack Obama grew up in mainstream America and then struggled to fit into black America as a community organizer in South Side Chicago. But he knew that he was always something of an outsider in South Side and I think that it is with relief that he is now back in the mainstream, this time to lead it. Ta-Nehisi Coates, it seems to me, is still struggling to carve his own path in mainstream America, one in which he fits in with the Atlantic and New Yorker crowd and its mostly white readership, but without disowning the friends and culture and language of his youth. Again, from his Atlantic piece on Michelle Obama:
In most black people, there is a South Side, a sense of home, that never leaves, and yet to compete in the world, we have to go forth. So we learn to code-switch and become bilingual. We save our Timberlands for the weekend, and our jokes for the cats in the mail room. Some of us give ourselves up completely and become the mask, while others overcompensate and turn every dustup into the Montgomery bus boycott.
But increasingly, as we move into the mainstream, black folks are taking a third road – being ourselves. Implicit in the notion of code-switching is a belief in the illegitimacy of blacks as Americans, as well as a disbelief in the ability of our white peers to understand us.
He goes on to explain how hip-hop culture and its entry into mainstream popular culture have laid the groundwork for blacks to be both themselves and mainstream Americans. This is true. In fact, hip-hop culture is no longer black culture … it is a genre of music, a style of fashion, and a lifestyle that has been adopted (or co-opted, depending on your view) by urban and suburban, rich and poor, Asian, Black, White, Latino, and everything in between. It relates no more to an ethnicity than does “indie rock” or “jazz”. Yes, we still identify ourselves – in the way we speak and dress, and the opportunities that await us – by ethnicity. But we also identify ourselves by sub-cultures and nationality (or nationalities), by neighborhood and city.
Will we ever be an integrated country without ethnic boroughs? There were, not so long ago, Italian neighborhoods and Irish neighborhoods, Jewish neighborhoods and WASP neighborhoods. Now, for the most part, those formerly “ethnic” communities are all part of what we call White America. Black America has a different history, a different legacy. Their ancestors did not immigrate, but were imported, sold, abused, until they were eventually merely discriminated against. Their economic status as freed slaves, argues Thomas Sowell forced them to live near and adopt the hyper-masculanized “culture of honor” of the most backward redneck Whites of the South – a culture which was brought to the South Side of Chicago and West Baltimore during the great migration.
Despite my frequent romanticization of progressive integrated urban gentrification, the pace of ethnic integration in this country is still frustratingly slow. For the past four months I have been living on the front lines of ethnic integration in North Oakland. Every other couple is bi-racial, all kids and infants are biracial, and the customers and employees of coffeehouses, restaurants, and gyms are all as ridiculously multiracial as the front cover of a college catalog.
It is easy for me – often because of my own circle of friends – to assume that the rest of the country is similar, or at least headed in the inevitable direction of multicultural tolerance; that middle class minorities are moving to the suburbs as young whites head to Brooklyn, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and downtown LA.
But then on a recent trip to Southern California, as I drove through a mostly all-Black neighborhood near USC, grabbed some Chinese food in Alhambra with its diversity far less than that of Hong Kong, and witnessed the segregation between White and Latino in the Coachella Valley, I was reminded that Americans do still group ourselves by ethnicity, despite our common taste in music, food, and fashion. I was reminded that North Oakland is a radical exception to the general rule, not the other way around.
What both Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates seem to have in common (other than their African first names) is their belief that black America is by-and-large moving into mainstream America. What their memoirs reveal is that the paths toward mainstreamism will sometimes diverge and sometimes not agree. Obama’s message and narrative always include Kansan corn fields and unabashed patriotism; Coates repeatedly mentions the importance, as an informed afrocentric man, of not celebrating the fourth of july. Barack Obama wants all of America to put away our differences and come together. Coates wants mainstream America to accept Blacks as he sees them, not as White America sees Barack Obama.
My criticism of both books – and both authors – is the emphasis they place on their fathers without so much as giving a nod to the ceaseless dedication of their mothers, without which neither one would be where he is today. Ta-Nehisi idealizes his father despite the man’s many faults because he “was around”, but only mentions in passing that his mother tutored him nightly to prepare for the SAT and personally visited the admissions office of Howard University in order to get him in. Barack on the other hand, coming to terms with his African heritage, employs his enviably reflective mind on the mystique of his absent father rather than the core values he learned from his mother.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising. After all, a son coming to terms with his father and adopting his legacy as part of the son’s own, has always been a central theme of human mythology (see Joseph Campbell). In the preface of the second edition of Dreams of My Father Obama says he wishes he dedicated more of the text to his mother, the woman who was always in his life, rather than his father who was never there. Coates dedicated his book to his mother despite its few mentions of her. When asked at the reading in San Francisco which piece of reporting he was most proud of, Coates said it was his recent feature of Michelle Obama in The Atlantic. I do think that Coates used the piece to distinguish the different black legacies of Barack and Michelle and to give the latter points for street cred. But I also wonder if a more subtle motivation was to shine a light on the often overlooked role of the Black mother, something he was guilty of himself in his memoir.