Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Brooks, and “Listening While White”

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Image credit: Penguin Random House

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bracing Between the World and Me. It came in the mail this afternoon, and I picked it up to read this evening. I could not put it down. I read it in one sitting.

This morning, before receiving my copy of Coates’ book length letter to his son, I read David Brooks’ article, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.”

Since I had not yet read Coates’ book, it was hard to critically assess Brooks’ piece. Now that I have read Coates’ book, I am most uncomfortable re-reading Brooks’ words.

I enjoy David Brooks’ writings. I don’t agree with him on everything. He’s definitely to my political left. But I often find him insightful, and he helps me consider points of view that I might not have considered had I not read his insights on some particular topic.

But perhaps Brooks should have indulged himself in a couple of solid nights’ sleep before writing this particular piece. I think–and take this for what it’s worth–but I think that perhaps Brooks would have been better served to follow his stated first intuitions–and just sat and listened.

Coates’ world is not my world. He describes my world as if it were part of another galaxy, separated by light years of cold and empty space from his own. I was one of those

little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak. That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens (20).

Aside from the football cards and pot roast, Coates described the world I grew up in as accurately as though he were one of the Dillon brothers who lived next door to me on Brook Hollow Road.

But he didn’t grow up next door to me. He grew up in Baltimore. He grew up in a black body, a body that was perpetually in danger of being destroyed.

The crews walked the blocks of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power. They would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies. . . . To survive the neighborhoods and shield my body, I learned another language consisting of head nods and handshakes. I memorized a list of prohibited blocks. I learned the smell and feel of fighting weather (22-23).

I didn’t grow up in Coates’ world. And he didn’t grow up in mine. And I do not live in a black body, so I have to concentrate as I read each word in this book in order to strain at understanding just what it is he is talking about. There isn’t time to think about what I think of his words. There is only time to listen and learn–while white.

In his article, Brooks writes,

I read this all like a slap and a revelation. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?”

He then assumes the answer is yes, and goes on to say,

If I do have standing, I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.

I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.

No, I do not think that a white person has standing–at least to disagree. And I’m not saying this as a guilt-wracked liberal. Who am I to disagree with that about which I know nothing? So what is the proper response from one who is, yes, white and privileged?

I think the proper response is to be quiet; to listen; to let the man speak and be heard. To let the man speak and be heard, not out of pity because of his experiences, not out of sorrow over past injuries to his people, but because of his humanity. And also because he is sharing with all of us a deeply personal letter to his son, his very flesh and blood.

Brooks closes his piece with these words:

Maybe you will find my reactions irksome. Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change. In any case, you’ve filled my ears unforgettably.

Yes, the right response is silence. For a change. Let privileged white commentary on the wisdom bestowed by a black father to his son on living in a black body be overshadowed and hushed, at least this once.

Toni Morrison, in her endorsement of the book, said that Coates was “clearly” the person to “fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died.” Baldwin also wrote a letter to a young relative, his nephew James, to be exact. The letter is included in his work, The Fire Next Time, and is entitled “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.”

Speaking of white people, Baldwin said to his 15-year-old nephew:

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people. . . The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.

Baldwin goes on to say:

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers [white people] to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. . . . The country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.

Instead of feeling the need to defend the American dream, to justify American history, to inform Coates of one’s own differing personal narrative, and to disagree with Coates’ perspective–sit at the man’s feet, be his student, and ask, What can I learn from reading Coates, rather than, what can Coates learn from reading me? Because if Baldwin was right, then it is we who are white who need to be taught.

7 responses to “Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Brooks, and “Listening While White”

  1. Excellent article John. Going to order the books mentioned. Keep writing Sweet Brother!

  2. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

  3. The tone of your article seems to frame Brooks’ article as if it were belligerent and unfair, but his open letter questions to Coates strike me instead as sincere and relevant, even if the subject is so thorny. Brooks, in fact, praises and recommends Coates’ book to readers!

    I don’t understand your suggestion that a reader of Coates’ book must be constrained to reflection without responding or interacting with the ideas. I have not yet read the book, but I hope that he would not make such a demand on his readers, regardless of their race. Where is the intellectual rigor and integrity in that? Wouldn’t that be a form of exceptionalism?

    And also, your pull quotes point out that Coates has described and analyzed “your” world of blueberry pies and immaculate bathrooms. You seem to grant him the liberty of sweeping generalizations, but almost accuse Brooks of racism for not shutting up and accepting blame for the suffering of others.

    I’m no Brooks apologist, but the ad hominem attacks you level at him (He wrote lazily or without enough forethought!? Hypocritical because he didn’t sit and listen?) are rather absurd considering your own confession, that you wrote your article after “just” reading both Brooks’ article and Coates’ book in a single day.

    Between your article and Brooks’ article, I find his recommendation to read Coates’ book the more compelling.

    • Thanks for your comments and critiques, I appreciate the feedback.

      Coates’ book demands reflection. It is an intense book, and since it is a book addressed to someone in particular–his son–I’m not sure that there is any room for much else from a person that he invited from the outside into this very personal letter. I think there is definitely room for the exchange of ideas and intellectual rigor, but not as a response to this particular work. Another time and place.

      Also, for someone like me, someone who just cannot relate to the experiences of growing up under the pressures of being black, I am not sure I can enter into debate with someone who lived (and lives) in that world. So I’m not going to interject my perspective on that.

      And please don’t misunderstand. I didn’t say that Brooks was a racist. That is too strong an accusation. I don’t know the man. Nor did I intend to imply that he is a racist. I just think he needed to do more listening. That’s all.

      And I’m not leveling an ad hominem attack on Brooks. There’s nothing personal here. And I never suggested that he is a lazy writer or a hypocrite. As I said, I enjoy reading Brooks, and listening to him take part in panel discussions. I benefit from his insights, and learn a lot from him. I thought I led with this before I wrote my critique.

      I just think he should have listened more. Perhaps he should have waited a day or two to let his thoughts settle. That’s good to do for all of us, myself included. Perhaps you are suggesting to me that I might should have waited a day or two also. And that would be fair advice.

      Best of everything to you and yours.

  4. Thanks for the reply. Just two more thoughts in response.

    First, Coates may have addressed the book/letter to his son, but by publishing the work for public consumption it’s reasonable to also consider it a literary device to make his points more poignant for his broader audience. Even if it is authentically a letter to his son, it is no longer ONLY a letter to his son, but a letter to all readers. His writing contains more than statements about how he feels and what he has experienced. It also contains propositions, premises, even prescriptions. Reflection on Coates’ personal experience (and more broadly, the experience of African Americans) is a goal for any reader. But public response and discussion of the propositions, premises and prescriptions are also fair game, even demanded by the subject matter.

    Second, your comments about Brooks (in the fourth paragraph) clearly stray from engaging his actual points or ideas, and instead focus on assumptions you have made about his personal process and integrity.

    You wrote: “But perhaps Brooks should have indulged himself in a couple of solid nights’ sleep before writing this particular piece. I think–and take this for what it’s worth–but I think that perhaps Brooks would have been better served to follow his stated first intuitions–and just sat and listened.”

    You have accused him of being careless or hasty (“get more sleep before you write”) as well as being stupid and inconsistent (“follow your own advice”). I think that qualifies as ad hominem, and winds up undermining your own article.

    • Very well. I don’t think you are separating good faith critique from personal attack, despite the fact that I explicitly stressed respect for Brooks’ work in both the post and in my response to you. Nevertheless, thanks for your comments and feedback again. Key words here from the post: “take it for what it’s worth.”

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