In his nicely crafted review essay "The Anger of Ta-Nahesi Coates" (New York Review of Books, February 11, 2016 issue), Darryl Pinckney raises the penultimate question of our day:
"Which is better: to believe that blacks will achieve full equality in American society or to realize that white racism is so deep that meaningful integration can never happen, so make other plans?"
In the first choice of response, the word "equality" really ought to be "power," so that the second choice would appear with better advantage. Moreover, the word "power" might provoke certain neoliberal, colorblinded readers to have epiphanies. We recognize, of course, that Pinckney is writing for the NYRB audience, and some liberties of vision are simply forbidden. One must not trample on the tender sensibilities of an august readership. For the 1% of the readership that has achieved post-humanity, even the common sense phrase "white racism" will be deemed micro-transgressive.
For that portion of the readership that is still capable of being enlightened, however, Pinckney's offense is weaving a male-centered discussion of anger. In order of reference he names: Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, DuBois, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Leroi Jones, Malcolm X, Paul Coates, George Jackson, Eric B & Rakim, Robert Hayden, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michael Brown, Prince Jones, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delaney, and Harold Cruse. The deliberate absence in what purports to be a liberal overview of the growth and development of post-Reconstruction anger are the invisible threads named: Ida B. Wells, Sandra Bland, Barbara Jordan, Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Lou Hamer, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Toni Cade Bambara, Michelle Alexander, Alice Walker, Joyce Ladner, Ann Petry, Mary McLeod Bethune, Margaret Walker, Angela Davis, Tarika Wilson, Sonia Sanchez, Wanda Coleman, and Elaine Brown. Had Pinckney dared to weave a dense fabric, we might have nominated him for an award for prescience.
In fairness to Pinckney, we recognize that his voice is hedged by the rules of the game. He was employed to write in a tradition of counter-anger that one associates with William Stanley Braithwaite and Alain Locke and Nathan A. Scott, Jr. If one has a sliver of understanding about the neoliberal and protofascist designs of contemporary publishing, one is aware that Pinckney is embroiled in autarky --"forcible separation from the rest of the world" in the footloose interpretation used by Jeffry A. Frieden in Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century (2006). One must turn to the Oxford English Dictionary to recover a better definition of autarchy. The game demands that Pinckney situate Ta-Nahesi Coates and Between the World and Me inside the discursive WEB (Wright/Ellison/Baldwin mechanism of emotional assurance). The game has an old, rather ignoble history. Therein, Pinckney has implied authority to play riffs on sagas of black fathers and sons. He can use lightweight historical and cultural analyses and comparisons to defang the modest revolutionary potential of Coates's prose, to transform the promise of a flame into a flicker. He will not cause the NYRB readership to suffer a single moment of cognitive indigestion. He speaks in the pages of the NYRB as effectively for his kind of people as Donald Trump speaks on the airwaves for his race and Hillary Clinton speaks for her gender. Pinckney is an experienced player in the five rings of our national intellectual circus. And the sales of Coates's book shall not be significantly diminished.
However much Pinckney's review essays is a heartfelt reading of the roots of Coates's alleged anger, what one reads may be other than what one gets. Although we lack grounds for accusing Pinckney of insincerity or want of moral integrity ----after all he is playing a literary game without spilling blood, we should not ignore how Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty (or Indeterminacy) Principle functions within the game. A few black and non-black readers among us may experience acid reflux as they grasp the implacable rightness of Coates's success where tamed anger is unexceptional and welcomed. In territories where belief that the social destiny of black people is fixed in a dualist tradition has no funk-appeal, we recognize the severe limits of literary persuasion and why Between the World and Me is a highly accomplished but incomplete representation of authentic anger. Indeed, I dare to imagine that were our nation more literate, Coates and his publisher could have entitled his book A Father's Law rather than Between the World and Me in order to expose just how much the obscenity of domestic genocide in the United States of America is complicit with irreversible changes in world order.
I have reasons, which I care not to interrogate, for repeating the following paragraphs from August 7, 2015:
Dread is the real deal in the United States of America and elsewhere. The Dream is an evil fiction that attempts to enslave people, and too often it succeeds beyond the expectations of its authors.
Ta-nehisi Coates has produced a first-rate secular jeremiad, an honest meditation on Dread. There is a thin but critical line between a sermon and a jeremiad. Coates is neither a priest nor a preacher.
You sit in the desert, secure in your idiosyncrasy. You and the ghost of Claude McKay sit in the sand and take bets on who shall be the first to see Time's unerring terrorism, with much help from Nature, dispatch the millions of people who worship in the temples and cathedrals and mosques of white supremacy.
Thus, I announce as a response to Pinckney's penultimate question of our day that I have chosen to make other plans.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. January 24, 2016