How Not to Disagree in 2017

On December 17th, 2017, Dr. Cornel West published a scathing critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Guardian after the release of Coates’s book We Were Eight Years in Power. West accuses Coates of being soft on Barack Obama’s presidency and silent on his serious flaws. The feud exploded on Twitter and eventually led to Coates deleting his Twitter account after white supremacist Richard Spencer also joined the fray by stating West was right. West’s criticism mischaracterizes Coates’s arguments in such a way that I question if we read the same book. Dr. West inaccurately describes what the book is, claims Coates fetishizes white supremacy when he analyzes systemic racism with the purpose of moving away from it, and inaccurately describes Coates as silent on Barack Obama’s flawed presidency when the evidence from the text proves otherwise.

In the beginning of the Guardian article, West describes We Were Eight Years in Power as “a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy”. Wrong. It is a collection of essays that touch on a number of different topics such as the differing histories taught about the Civil War, Michelle Obama’s background, mass incarceration, the way real estate hurt the black community, etc. You do not have to read the book to get this idea; you can take a gander at the table of contents. While three of the eight essays directly talk about Obama, the other essays bear titles such as “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”, “The Case for Reparations,” “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” etc. These titles reveal that the book is not solely about Barack Obama and white supremacy; they demonstrate that the book talks about a whole host of issues that affect the black community. Cornel West quotes from the book as if he read it, but from the very beginning he fails to accurately describe what this book in fact is.

West also makes the claim that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy”. Fetishizing implies devotion or reverence. Coates discussing white supremacy has nothing to do with either. Coates dissects white supremacy and expands upon its prevalence because the purpose of examining white supremacy is to confront and move past it. To say that Coates is “fetishizing white supremacy” is missing the point. Coates traces the history of systemic racism to force us to come to grips with our nation’s dark past because this is a requirement for redemption. In the essay “The Case for Reparations,” he explains, “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” (207) Racism is a persistent and systemic problem in our country. Coates states that the remedy is coming to grips with the fact that we have a problem. The first step to solving any problem is acknowledging that it is there. West’s dismissal fails to recognize the goal of examining history: to avoid repeating it. West does not only misrepresent Coates’s examination of white supremacy; he also mislabels Coates as an Obama fanboy. The book shows that Coates is measured while critical of Obama’s shortcomings.

Cornel West disagrees with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s argument that the Obama presidency is an example of “Good Negro Government”. During an interview with The Root, West explains, “I don’t view Good Negro Government as policies that don’t highlight poor people, that have drone strikes, that’s tied to Wall Street, that reinforces surveillance. That is not good government for me.” On this point, I do agree. I too do not view a government that is complicit in mass murder and other heinous forms of injustice as good government. I disagree with West’s assessment on the Guardian piece that Coates’s views on race and politics “has no place for keeping track of Wall Street greed, US imperial crimes or black elite indifference to poverty.” This statement ignores the fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates likes Obama, but liking him does not mean he is incapable of criticizing the former president.

Coates supports what Obama represents, but he is critical of his missteps and horrible decisions. West claims that Coates is silent on the crimes of the US, but Coates explains in the essay “Fear of a Black President” that he was “horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints.” (140) This line contradicts West’s charge that Coates is quiet on the crimes of the United States. West’s condemnation bothers me as someone who believes in the Buddhist concept of Right Speech, which consists of not “speaking with a forked tongue” (i.e., lying). I am not arguing that Cornel West is intentionally lying, but he is making claims that the evidence reveals is not true. Stating something that is blatantly not true is a falsehood whether it’s intentional or not. This misrepresentation also extends to Coates’s view on Barack Obama’s presidency.

West paints Coates as quiet on Obama’s mistakes, but what the book describes is an internal conflict within Coates. On the one hand, Coates admires what the Obama presidency symbolized: “The Obama family represents our ideal imaginings of ourselves — an ideal we so rarely see on any kind of national stage (127). On the other hand, Coates experiences difficulty reconciling Obama’s great achievements with his shortcomings. When it comes to the issue of race in our country, he saw Barack Obama as “playing both sides. He would invoke his identity as a president of all people to decline to advocate for black policy—and then invoke his black identity to lecture black people for continuing to ‘make bad choices.’” (299) This quote serves as an acknowledgment that the former president did not do as much for the black community as he would have liked. Obama instead decided to enact policies that favored all Americans, which does not address a system that is stacked against minorities when you factor in mass incarceration, police brutality, gentrification, redlining, etc. Coates does not fail to point out when Obama falls short of his expectations.

Coates also did not agree with Obama’s optimism with regard to where the country was on race during the former president’s two terms: “Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.” (324) This line demonstrates Coates, despite liking Obama, harbored serious disagreements he is willing to express. Coates feels white supremacy was the foundation for our democracy and continues to operate in more subtle forms, but Obama still held onto hope for the best in people, a hope that proved too optimistic when you take into account the racism he dealt with during his two terms and that same racism becoming more emboldened with the election of Donald Trump. To categorize Coates as an Obama fanboy is misleading. Coates is a fan of Obama who is willing to admit when his president messed up.

The feud between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates serves as a sobering lesson on how not to express disagreement. Dr. West definitely did not deeply read Coates because he managed to say numerous things about his thesis that are proven false upon further study. When you don’t agree, it is important to disagree in a way that encourages a healthy exchange of ideas. I would advise staying away from the word fetishizing and linking it with something heinous, especially when the person with whom you disagree is against that something heinous. At the same time, it is important to not walk away from a debate. I hope Ta-Nehisi Coates returns to social media. There are plenty of people who are on his side and support him. I count myself as one of them. I am also on Cornel West’s side because he brings up issues that we need to discuss, but this discussion needs to be done to unite and share ideas, not tear each other apart.

Hermione Granger and the Struggle for Social Justice

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Hermione Granger becomes an activist for house-elves. She observes how Winky the house-elf is treated roughly and immediately dismissed by her owner Bartemius Crouch for a crime she did not commit. This injustice leads Hermione to take up the fight for racial equality in the wizarding world, but J.K. Rowling does more than teach young audiences to take a stand when you see something wrong going on in your community. She teaches us that the fight for social justice is an uphill struggle that does not lead to immediate change. Hermione learns this lesson when she meets resistance in the form of the status quo with regard to the role of house elves and the fact that house-elves do not feel their oppression.

When Hermione hears that Hogwarts employs house-elves without pay or benefits, she launches a grassroots campaign to promote change. She creates the organization S.P.E.W. (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). The aim of this society is to “secure house-elves fair wages and working conditions.” (225) Hermione attempts to rally students to create reform in the school, but she is told every time that she is on the wrong side of the issue. When Hermione explains how house-elf enslavement in the wizarding world goes back centuries, Ron Weasley responds, “Hermione — open your ears. They. Like. It. They like being enslaved!” (224) Even Hagrid, known for his love for magical creatures, explains, “I’m not sayin’ there isn’t the odd elf who’d take freedom, but yeh’ll never persuade most of ‘em ter do it — no, nothin’ doin’, Hermione.” (265) Hermione’s words fall on deaf ears precisely because of what she mentions to Ron: house-elf enslavement goes back centuries. In the eyes of the wizarding community, that is just the way it is. You cannot expect to easily change an idea that is considered normal and a part of everyday life. Ron and Hagrid’s words point to another problem: house-elves love their enslavement.

Hermione not only has to change the minds of the entire wizarding community; she also needs to convince the oppressed of their oppression. House-elves love to serve. Fred and George Weasley, when visiting the kitchens of Hogwarts, observe that they look “happy” and “think they’ve got the best job in the world.” (239) Harry Potter and the gang confirm these observations when they visit the kitchens. The house-elves, upon seeing them,“came trotting up. . . bearing a large silver tray laden with a teapot, cups for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, a milk jug, and a large plate of biscuits.” (377) Service is hardwired into the house-elves. When Dobby, the house-elf freed by Harry Potter, mentions how he is enjoying his freedom, the house-elves “started edging away from Dobby, as though he were carrying something contagious.” (378) How can Hermione fight for the freedom of house-elves when they hate the very mention of it? Even Dobby, a lover of freedom, reverts back to his servant ways. When he calls the Malfoys “bad masters,” (381) he seems okay at first but suddenly starts calling himself bad and banging himself on the head. Dobby is incapable, despite being free to do and say as he please, to freely express himself without shock and a feeling of wrongdoing. Dobby’s self-punishment points to how deep this institution runs. This institution has its intricate web in the psyche of house-elves. Hermione will have a tough time liberating the oppressed if they love their oppression and balk at the idea of freedom.

Hermione Granger’s struggle to promote house-elf rights is the struggle for social justice. It is a constant battle that requires, to borrow Professor Moody’s words, constant vigilance. If we are not vigilant and accept things as they are without question, like Ron, that is how systems of oppression are allowed to take root in society and flourish. The battle is not easy. It is a gradual, uphill battle. Hermione learns that change is not going to happen overnight. It will require dismantling an institution that has thrived for centuries and changing ideas that society views as the natural order of things. Tough lesson aside, Rowling does an excellent job of providing young readers with a role model who questions what society deems as normal and challenges injustice when it rears its ugly countenance. In other words, Hermione Granger is woke as fuck.

Banishing the Basements of Bigotry

I have been revisiting the Harry Potter series. I just finished up Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, and I really dig how J.K. Rowling deftly explores the notion that hate is a behavior that is learned and passed down from generation to generation through wizarding families like the Malfoys. Rowling further unravels this philosophy and exposes it for the foolishness that it is through the example of the talented and intelligent witch Hermione Granger.

Hate makes its ugly debut as a theme in Harry Potter when Draco Malfoy calls Hermione Granger a “filthy little Mudblood,” (112) an epithet for a wizard or witch born from Muggle (non-magic) parents. This term is a part of the philosophy of the pure-bloods, wizarding families that claim they are pure because their blood is not mixed with any Muggle blood. Pure-bloods believe they are superior to Muggles. In their eyes, Muggles are base, unworthy, and unfit to learn magic. Harry and Ron learn in their History of Magic class that, over a thousand years ago, Salazar Slytherin harbored this same hatred for Muggles when he founded the Slytherin House. According to their teacher Professor Bins, Slytherin’s founder believed “magic learning should be kept within all-magic families” and “disliked taking students of Muggle parentage, believing them to be untrustworthy.” (150) This hatred led to the creation of the Chamber of Secrets and the plan to purge Hogwarts of wizards and witches with Muggle relatives. Salazar Slytherin’s belief system from its inception to its current incarnation teaches us that hate is not a natural feeling; it is a behavior that is taught. The seed of hatred for Muggles was planted by Salazar Slytherin and is continuously maintained by future generations of Slytherins.

Rowling further unravels this hate for the harmful behavior that it is by introducing us to the genius Hermione Granger. Despite not coming from a wizarding family, Hermione has proven to be proficient in magic. Though the pure-bloods would believe that people like Hermione are unfit to learn magic, Hermione demonstrates she is more than fit by excelling in the field. Her hand always shoots up in the air with the correct answer to every question. She is able to master new spells quickly. Hermione makes magic look effortless. It is silly to ban someone from practicing magic when they are so damn good at it. She also played a critical role in saving the school by helping Harry identify the monster attacking students as a basilisk. Without that knowledge, Harry would not have triumphed over the monster by avoiding its fatal gaze. If Hogwarts would have followed Salazar Slytherin’s lead and barred talented witches like Hermione Granger from attending the school, Hogwarts would frankly be fucked. It is because Hogwarts accepts people of different backgrounds that the school flourishes and produces talented wizards and witches of many talents like Ms. Granger.

Rowling’s treatment of the subject of hate is just as relevant today as it was when I was a teenager. In the Trump era United States, people in our country experience bigotry, discrimination, xenophobia, and other pernicious examples of hate. Kids need to learn that these behaviors have a root that can be traced. Hate is learned. If we can learn to hate, we can unlearn to hate and replace it with community-boosting behaviors like compassion and love. It is inspiring that authors like Rowling teach younger audiences about important topics like hate in a clever way. We need to educate our kids that your background has no bearing on who you are. Your hardwork and your actions shape your fate.

Bookworms, Unite!

The postliterate society is a term in fiction dating back as early as the 60’s. It means a society where technology advances while reading is either extinct or has reached the point where it is not a common activity. Examples of the postliterate society in fiction include works like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and Ilium by Dan Simmons. While bookstores still exist in parts of New York, sometimes I fear my community is moving in the direction of postliteracy. The surprise I experience when I am seen reading and the closure of our only bookstore serve to me as red flags that we are not heading in a positive direction.

I am almost always seen with a book in my hand. I like a good read during my commute to work and sometimes during my breaks. The reactions I experience when caught reading always boil down to one feeling: surprise. One day, I was reading a novel while eating breakfast at my local bagel spot Bagels On Bartow. A lady sitting next to me saw me immersed in my book and wanted to take a picture of me to post on her Facebook page. She explained she wanted to share the great news that people are still reading books. A part of me felt flattered, while the rest of me felt a sense of sadness that reading is viewed as a rarity.

My favorite reaction was from an elderly gentleman who saw me reading while walking (don’t try this at home, kids). The man pointed at my book and exclaimed, “A book! That’s a real book!” Completely blindsided, I was only able to produce a nervous laugh. These reactions bothered me because I know I am not alone. I know people who read, but my community doesn’t seem to have a lot of readers. If they did, it should not come as a shock that I am reading a book.

The recent closure of our local Barnes & Noble does not help my pessimism about the state of reading in my community. Barnes & Noble in the Bay Plaza Mall was the only bookstore of the Bronx. It served as a great hangout spot for readers who wanted to buy books, graphic novels, manga, etc. The problem with the bookstore boiled down to prices. People were not buying books frequently with the existence of Amazon, which offers books at more discounted prices. This probably played a role in why the store closed and was replaced by Saks OFF 5th. Apparently people can afford expensive purses but not a book.

The only silver lining is The Lit Bar, a wine bar and bookstore project by Noelle Santos, which promises to bring a bookstore back to the Bronx. The project was successfully crowdfunded. The only question now is when The Lit Bar will come to the Bronx. I am brimming with anticipation for the day this spot opens in the Bronx.

I am comforted by the fact that I know I am not alone. I am surrounded by awesome people who are woke as fuck and well-read. Bookworms need to unite and show that we are not a dying breed. The Lit Bar was successfully crowdfunded, demonstrating that the Bronx has folks who love to read. We are few, but we are not extinct. We are the last bastion against our community’s descent into post-literacy.