Get Uncomfortable


Ta-Nehisi Coates, who called 9/11-responders “menaces of nature,” to speak at West Point

Now that I’ve written about things I learned from a Trump voter, I’d like to make a case for everyone getting out of their comfort zone the same way I got out of mine. Particularly, this means reading things you don’t agree with straight from the people saying them, and not quoted secondhand. Because if we’re not all doing this—liberals and conservatives, black and white—we’re just in our amen corners whipping ourselves into a frenzy at the same time we’re letting the country get weaker and more dysfunctional by the day.

The headline above is from Fox News. The kernel of the article is that West Point has invited a radical black man to address its cadets. The proof of just how radical he is is in the headline. That’s the sum total of the straight news. The rest is commentary. A general is quoted who expects the radical black man to get a respectful hearing in a way that conservative speakers have not been getting lately at liberal colleges and universities. No matter how cadets may disagree with the statement that the firefighters and cops on September 11 were “menaces of nature,” the general says, they will listen. And then respectfully disagree. This is probably true.

Now, I agree that college students are more unruly than military cadets, and a lot of them are dumber than a bag of hammers, but now for a little context . . .

Coates’ controversial statement about the responders comes from a book called Between the World and Me that he wrote in the form of a letter to his son. It won the National Book Award. I read it last year. The title is a line he pulls from James Baldwin, a great American 20th-century writer whom many white people have not read. (Raise your hand if you’ve even heard of him, some of you.) Baldwin had also published a letter to his nephew back in 1962. Coates and Baldwin are trying to prepare these two young people for being men in the world, and in particular, black men. Coates wrote his long letter soon after a good friend of his named Prince Jones was killed at his own front door by a police officer. Jones was black and had a car the same make as a suspect. That was why the officer shot and killed him. The cop was crooked but was exonerated. So Coates wrote this book, basically telling his son that as a black man he was going to always have to watch his back. He was justifiably angry. In the wake of the death of his friend—who was basically seen as nothing but a Young Black Man, and that seemed enough to shoot him—he wrote: “I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body.”

If cops saw no difference between bad black men and good black men, why should he see any difference between bad cops and good cops? Ok, disagree with him, but disagree in context. More context? The cop was black, too. It’s very complicated. You’ll find plenty to disagree with. But by the way, reading this blog still doesn’t give you the right to disagree or be horrified. Disagree with the source. Read the whole book. It’s 152 pages, you can finish it in an evening or two. Or read James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. Even shorter, and it’s a classic. You may then disagree to your heart’s content, and that will be ok.

The thing is? The guy who wrote the Fox News piece almost surely didn’t read the book. Ten to one, he picked up the quote from a conservative column by David Brooks. So if you only read the Fox News story, you are reading Coates not secondhand, but thirdhand. This is how wars gets started, folks. People hearing what they want to hear from people they agree with already, and getting mad as hell.

I write this in the same week the white President of the United States has, citing no evidence whatsoever, accused the black former President of the United States of tapping his phone, after accusing him for years of not being a US citizen. On, apparently, the evidence of his funny name. (Surely not the color of his skin?)

The next time the thought enters your head that some African Americans are way too touchy and need to move on, remember this.