On Culture, Black and Human
The big, bad lapdog of neoliberal white America is back to his one-note bark once again. Like a porn addict with a renewed hunger for more of the same, Ta-Nehisi Coates, polysyllabic but monomaniacal as always, is again on the prowl for white supremacy, summoning up more gooey gobs of words to indulge his fiendish fetish, of which neither he — nor apparently his editors at the Atlantic — can ever seem to get enough. The particular target of his latest 5,000-word fantasia is Kanye West.
Who is Kanye West? He’s some hip-hop artist … or so I’ve heard. Sure, I’m being facetious, but really, when you stop to think about it, who is Kanye West? He’s an entertainer, a prominent and prolific black entertainer who recently made some controversial comments in favor of Trump and against the notion that black Americans need to be forever victimized by and enslaved to slavery, as it were. To Ta-Nehisi Coates, who makes a ritual habit of raising the slave ships’ mainsails every time he embarks on his rhetorical voyages and whose entire M.O. is to keep Americans of every race perpetually enslaved to the original sin of slavery, West’s words were, of course, flagrant heresy. And so Coates takes the occasion to muse on black celebrities — the heroes and the traitors to “the cause” alike — and how those like Michael Jackson and Kanye West who aspire to deracinated celebrity rather than the specifically black celebrity that is supposedly their birthright are fleeing an angry ghost and overdetermining history they can never hope to escape.
This is a sad little world in which Coates lives and in which he would confine people based on the color of their skin. And it is a brittle world as well. I return to my question: who is Kanye West? … and, more importantly, why does Ta-Nehisi Coates — a self-styled intellectual, a thinking man — care if a notoriously outspoken black entertainer makes some inartfully worded, off-the-cuff remarks that don’t jive with the dominant narrative — victimhood, slavery, racism, etc. — of what blackness in America is supposed to be all about? Why does his whole world rise and fall on the shoulders of the athletes and entertainers that he forthrightly calls “Gods,” people like Kanye West or Michael Jackson, people like Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Ray Lewis, Colin Kaepernick or O.J. Simpson? Coates has claimed to be an atheist, a rarity among African Americans, but in this particular respect, his worldview unfortunately echoes another dominant strain of African-American theology, a slavish worship of the dollops of pop icons the American capitalist culture industry serves up in supersized portions. Slurping up with relish, to the last drop, its Big Gulp of saccharine flavors, he later finds himself brought short when the ill effects of too much artificial sweetness start to rot the body — his precious, mythologized “black body” — from within. When O.J. is on trial, it is as if all black America is on trial. When Michael Jackson dyes himself white, it is as if a part of black America dies. When Kanye lavishes praise on Trump, it is as if a dagger is thrust into the single black heart to which the black American ritual drum must beat. Good business is good for business, but art and culture are, or should be, a different kind of business altogether. When you kneel before the ever-changing display of glittering artistic, cultural and athletic idols adorning the capitalist temple of Mammon and never bother to wonder whether a deeper truth is out there to be found, you get what you’ve got coming to you.
The underlying pathology at the heart of black America’s fragile constitution, the underlying reason that Ta-Nehisi Coates cares so deeply about what an entertainer like Kanye West says and does, is that black American culture has little sense of history. There are the larger-than-life flavors of the moment — Kanye, Beyoncé, Oprah, Michelle Obama and the like — there are the saints and sinners of the “Old School” — the icons you loved when you were young or the ones your parents and grandparents told you of: Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Run-DMC, James Brown, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, etc. — and then, once that short trail peters out, black America is lost in the woods. Go further out, and all there is is slavery, the mythical “drum” and the “slave ships” — both of which make their obligatory appearance (and, what is more, in the same sentence) in Coates’ latest piece — and, still further out, a still more heavily mythologized ancient African homeland of peace and harmony, natural wonders, dances and divine rhythms and, to the north, a land of vast sands, heavenly pyramids and divine pharaohs incongruously recruited to join up in the “black” cause. No wonder, then, that mainstream black culture’s approach to black celebrities of the present and of the very recent past is so thoroughly theological, making such figures indispensable to the consolidation of the contemporary black sense of self.
White America, of course, is not quite so overinvested in its present-day racial archetypes and allows its heroes to be of many races, to speak with many voices. Although Coates, just last year, lambasted white Americans for allegedly manifesting their white identitarian politics in electing Trump (a misguided argument I’ve debunked in some detail here), the irony is that while only 58% of those whites who voted in the presidential election voted for Trump, a whopping 96% of black voters in 2008 and 94% in 2012 voted for Obama. Meanwhile, many of those same whites who voted for Trump in 2016 had voted for Obama in 2008, so many, in fact, that, he had “won the largest share of white support of any Democrat in a two-man race since 1976.” So on which side of the fictional line separating “black” from “white” do the real racists reside?
Nor is this merely about presidential politics. The fact is that there simply is no unitary white pantheon of contemporary or recently enshrined “Gods” akin to those worshipped by Coates. Whites have their cultural heroes, sure, folks like Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna, Tony Robbins or Tom Brady, but also, folks like Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Oprah, Martin Luther King Jr., and even, for many, Barack Obama, even, for some, Ta-Nehisi Coates himself. And if these heroes should take a hard fall, there is a backup stable — in fact, the true starting lineup — of many others spanning the centuries from the dawn of recorded history to the present, people like Homer and Shakespeare, Mozart and Beethoven, Leonardo and Michelangelo, Galileo and Newton, Lincoln and Washington…. The Biblical prophets, the builders of Ancient Egypt, the thinkers and writers of Ancient Greece and the forgers of Imperial Rome and Ming Dynasty China … all these, too, are part of that same generous pantheon. This is not white culture or European culture or even the culture of the West. It is simply culture, human culture. It is owned by no one.
It is only when that culture is attacked and undermined, when its claim to represent the universal heights of truth and beauty — “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” in Matthew Arnold’s oft-quoted phrase — is relativized and ridiculed, that we get to a place where blacks begin to essentialize their racial identity and contrive a need for their own darker-skinned set of parallel deities. Only after the deep, fecund ground of universal culture is pulled out from under our feet and a giant misstep plunges us — and plunges blacks more than anyone else — into the shallow cesspool of identitarianism do we get to the point where Ta-Nehisi Coates, seeing Kanye West flailing to break free of his racial manacles, can summon West back to what Coates imagines as a permanent black “home” in this impoverished, cramped, ramshackle dwelling place:
And so for Kanye West, I wonder what he might be, if he could find himself back into connection, back to that place where he sought not a disconnected freedom of “I,” but a black freedom that called him back—back to the bone and drum, back to Chicago, back to Home.
But Coates’ vision of freedom is, of course, a thoroughgoing species of parochialism, and worse, a vision of never-ending enslavement to the tragic side of the black American experience.
History and culture offer us all, black Americans included, far more than the tired, repetitive cadence of the bare “bone and drum.” But for Coates to let go his disappointment with Kanye, he and all black Americans must first let go of its flipside, the rickety racial pedestal on which Kanye and all of Coates’ other all-too-human “Gods” stand awkwardly elevated. He must let go “black freedom.” He must let go black culture. And he must embrace our culture, the one universal human culture that recognizes the law of greatness alone and that belongs, in equal measure, to me and to him and to anyone else willing to leave their local lore and superficial commitments behind at the base of the mountain and devote their lives to the difficult upward journey.