The old adage is true—writing is rewriting. But it takes a kind of courage to confront your own awfulness (and you will be awful) and realize that, if you sleep on it, you can come back and bang at the thing some more, and it will be less awful. And then you sleep again, and bang even more, and you have something middling. Then you sleep some more, and bang, and you get something that is actually coherent. Hopefully when you are done you have a piece that reasonably approximates the music in your head. And some day, having done that for years, perhaps you will get something that is even better than the music in your head. Becoming a better writer means becoming a re-writer. But that first phase is so awful that most people don’t want any part.
Ta-Nehisi Coates recaps the development and history of Chicago’s slums. In the process of making a profit from Ghetto housing, the slum lords effectively destroyed the lives of poor but hard-working African Americans and credit banks alike. Terrible, fascinating and mandatory read.
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.
But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such. I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank.
I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.
A word on “bitch.” I initially felt that the album was a beautifully produced work of misogyny. That mostly came from me giving a quick, inattentive listen. Good Kid deserves a lot better. It is that rare rap record that actually abandons triumphalism, invulnerability, and wears the mask. Rappers like to claim to be broadcasters, not endorsers. Except it’s usually clear that they think, say, guns are pretty cool. This was that rare rap record where I thought the reflection to endorsement ratio was roughly 20 to one.
This is a great album–one that I wish had been around when I was 13. Non-rap fans should give this a listen. it is some of the best word-smithing, sentence-crafting, and beat production that hip-hop has to offer. And it is how it feels to be a black boy in the mad city. Hip-hop is obsessed with soldiers. This may be the first great record I’ve heard by someone obsessed with speaking as a civilian. And there have always been more of us than them.
Ta-Nehisi Coates on Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. I loved “Swimming Pools (Drank)” when I first heard it on All Songs Considered, but didn’t really dig the album. Might give it another try, now.
My point is this: I am sorry that the president finds debating before the public to be annoying. And I am very sorry that more Americans don’t delve into the footnotes of position papers. And I am very sorry that Mitt Romney was mean to the moderator, and lied to the viewers. And I am especially sorry that Barack Obama was evidently shocked – shocked! – to find the party of poll-taxing, evolution-disputing, and climate-change denying engaging in such tactics.
But this is the war we have. And this president has signed up to lead the fight. I think he understands that. Over the past four years Obama has proven to be very slow, but very deadly. I doubt that’s changed.
Perhaps no aspect of my recent foray into the Civil War and slavery has moved me more than my investigations into the colored soldiers. It’s nice to see black men, so often rendered as bystanders, grabbing guns, asserting their humanity, and surely enacting some measure of revenge.
It’s also really dangerous to get caught up in that narrative. The violence is seductive and can find you arguing along the same barren lines as those you allegedly oppose. It is not merely wrong to focus on the militarism of the Civil War because those who do so generally don’t want to talk about slavery. It is wrong because such a focus says that the only thing important about war are those who carry the guns.
This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask “Why?”
Possibly the best, most interesting response to the whole “If I was a poor black child”-business – and it goes way beyond that.
“Are you beginning to dislike slang, then?” said Rosamond, with mild gravity.
“Only the wrong sort. All choice of words is slang. It marks a class.”
“There is correct English: that is not slang.”
“I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”
George Eliot: Middlemarch
(taken from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent post on literature, humanity and canon.)
It’s worth remembering that the goal of the terrorist is to terrorize, and from that perspective, they’ve been really successful.