By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.
Michelle Alexander is one of the strongest, clearest voices around. I have been struggling with my own view regarding the beautiful and problematic – hence, the best kind ever – book, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The quintessential citation of James Balwin’s The Fire Next Time already offered a frame that was then, fragmented or, perhaps, disarmed by Coates’, shall I say, less hopeful view. However, Coates’s is much closer to my own perspective these days, my very pessimist prism strengthened by the daily news.
I keep going back to the surprisingly activist Albert Camus, “there is no reason for hope, but that is no reason for despair,” to rekindle my conviction that we are not activists because we are optimists. We don’t fight because we believe in the goodness of the human heart or the kindness of societal orders that have been built for a purpose, and for a group. We are activists because that order is utterly unfair and its existence perpetually and continuously hurts people, usually, those at the bottom. We are activists because we know the immense power of words to construe anything, wrought any truth at any expense to maintain a privilege. And we know that those in power are usually the ones with a ready access to words and the ability to magnify them. We are activists because we know that left to its own devises, left unchallenged and never confronted with opposing words, with disarming truths, the societal order will quicken its pace to its own ends and by any means and things will always unravel but never in a way that cures the ills.
Between the World and Me offers a discarnate story of the way black lives don’t matter. Coates calls us, well, he calls his son, to understand that the way black lives get to matter is one by one. It is by re-incarnating them and pairing them with a soul – not a mythical one, just a shorthand to speak of the sentient beings that black bodies are as each of us discerns a like or a dislike, embraces a smell, is moved by a particular tune, cries at the loss of a son, laughs mightily at a baby daughter’s conquering of a flair of stairs. “Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh,” Coates tells his son, the inner city isn’t either. This story is about each of those bodies the power sought to own to such an extent as to possess their souls. That power is still trying. And Coates has no qualms to point that out.
Alexander offers the brave review this brave book deserves. She struggles with the notion that she – as I do – needs to keep strong in the beliefs that there is a possibility of change, while understanding how even, perhaps, especially, someone like Coates could end up in a barricade and encourage his own son to join in, while convinced the fight is almost for the fight’s sake and there is no hope for transformation. You keep the fight up because you owe it to yourself and your ancestors, not because the reality can be molded or the power really successfully contested.
I think Alexander and I understand this. As she says: “Maybe this is the time for questioning, searching and struggling without really believing the struggle can be won.”
But Alexander and I also do not understand, or do not agree. Because we know, that indeed power will not surrender privilege just for the sake of goodness, just because it is right. The fight cannot be the end. I can see Coates and my generation’s disappointment at the timid progress, particularly in terms of consciousness. One would think that the well put words and the draperies of speeches would have already transformed the minds of the ones who detent not just power but a privileged status. What we see in the daily news is the opposite. We are still speaking of “white allies” because we know there are two worlds. We say that black lives matter but they only do after they are no longer alive. There is never an in depth discussion of the criminogenic conditions, the historical death spiral in which the power has placed them. Without demands, without the struggle that power will not just give in.
Alexander said it well. She said it best:
“Like Baldwin, I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral; we must believe it is possible. Believing in this possibility — no matter how slim — and dedicating oneself to playing a meaningful role in the struggle to make it a reality focuses one’s energy and attention in an unusual way. Those who believe we are likely or destined to fail — because the Dreamers hold all the power and our liberation is up to them — can easily tell themselves they are “in the struggle” when they show up at a rally with a sign, or go on Twitter or Facebook to rant about the police, then do no more. When meaningful change fails to come, they can say, “We tried, but of course nothing happened.” But those who are in it to win it, and who believe in their own power and understand their responsibility to use it wisely, cannot so easily lie to themselves about the utility of random or halfhearted gestures of resistance, rebellion, organizing or consciousness-raising. Greater precision of thought and action is required.”