This Martin Luther King birthday holiday, a new nihilism is gripping the African-American community. As the accolades for Ta-Nehisi Coates mount – a MacArthur “genius” grant, the National Book Award – is anyone willing to defend what he mocks as “The Dream?”
Coates’s bestselling Between the World and Me is an eloquent, angry, rejection of the American notion that history can redeem, not just oppress. Ironically, the cheers for Coates’s critique prove that what he mocks as “The Dream” is more resilient, redemptive, and adaptable than he charges.
In this searing open letter to his 15-year-old son, Coates defines them both as “the children of trans-Atlantic rape.” Coates rages against the injustice, the oppression, the violence, that had black people “born into chains.” And, tragically, the crimes against the black body continue. Coates laments: “It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country.”
Yes, as Malcolm X warned, slavery’s legacy cannot be exorcised merely by blacks and whites singing “We Shall Overcome.” Coates captures the daily fears of African-American parents that their sons will be today’s Trayvon Martin, tomorrow’s Michael Brown. And he dissects the contradiction of living in a country that once treated their ancestors like property and just decades ago tolerated laws separating their parents from whites at drinking fountains, movie theatres, and courthouses.
But while linking overseers beating black slaves to cops killing black kids makes sense, blurring them together does not. Coates’s hopelessness offended me as an American. He negates the progress that has occurred and has enabled him to soar. His indignant history reduces the civil rights movement to self-loathing lackeys who “seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them.”
Coates wonders, “how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in The Dream?” It’s a fair question, steeped in pain, oozing distrust, infected by doubt. But the answer lies in joining the great American attempt to update, redefine and expand The Dream.
No, Coates should not peddle cheap happy endings or false hopes to his teenage son, but he cannot deny the dynamism that is America. His despairing message that nothing will improve leads to students in America’s elite universities treating “micro-aggressions” as massive assaults, wallowing in self-pity and self-absorption with no sense of proportion, no sense of history.
I, too, have a 15-year-old son. And, as a Jew, I too, have a past filled with trauma and alive with historical wounds that are re-opened every day, with each shooting, stabbing, or bombing of Jews for being Jews, and each false headline and boycott call blaming us for once again being targeted. But my job is to help my children move forward, to free them from our ugly past — not be handcuffed to it. We balance remembering and redeeming, never forgetting Never Again, but never surrendering the hope for change and an activist commitment to change, precisely because of our ugly history.
Having rejected Coates’ message as an American, having empathized with it as a Jew, I challenge him as a Zionist. I understand his fury if he believes America is to blacks what Europe is to Jews, a graveyard filled with so many historical ghosts one will never be free or equal. The Zionist solution is to build a new homeland in Israel. If Coates really deems America unredeemable, I propose, respectfully, sympathetically, he find another homeland and build a positive future for his son there. It’s not healthy to live in such tension with your environment. By contrast, if he believes America is fixable (and he should), he can help fix it, bequeathing to his son an America where blacks are no longer in the “below” – especially with him now in the stratosphere.
Coates’s challenging but ultimately too pessimistic work paves the way for a new dimension in the black-Jewish dialogue. Stop talking about black-Jewish relations – that usually romanticizes past cooperation and over-emphasizes current tensions. Instead, we need open, thoughtful, critical and self-critical discussions about black and Jewish conceptions and self-conceptions as fellow Americans, and as historically vilified people. We have much to learn from each other’s experiences.
Zionists responded to Jewish anguish by naming our national anthem “Hatikvah,” The Hope. What a gift to the next generation. Coates owes it to himself, his son, his community, and whatever homeland he chooses to find some African-American hope, too. As a parent and an activist he should remember that humans without hope are like plants without sunshine, doomed to wither.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of "Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight Against Zionism as Racism," and, most recently, “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.”