Race in America

Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “race is the child of racism,” (among other denigrating labels), challenging the fabric of the  Dream engineered by those “who see themselves as white” as it feeds into the portrait of a nation built on this falsehood, damaging the bodies of men and women who have been victims of this lie for centuries, through slavery and segregation and now disproportionate incarcerations and targetted violence in America today.

In this book-length letter to his son (which is also a scathing critique of democracy and its institutions), he explains his pessimism, and wariness over why being black in his growing years was different from his son Samori’s experiences today, with parental exasperation and despair at the turn of events in the new century and a worsening outlook of the Dreamers, or those who built their dreams “on the backs of black bodies” building dreams of exclusion down the ages. Coates cautions his son with both fervour and reluctance against his own fears. He also builds hope.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (Spiegel and Grau, 2015) is also the National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction

I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you–but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it (Coates, 107).

Coates’ edicts are wise to the shocks and horrors of the Civil War battlefields, the living rooms of the families of those murdered in racial killings, and the solace of “The Mecca” his high seat of learning and the “crossroads of black diaspora” at the Howard University in Washington DC. Buoying with soul and inspiration, from beneath sadness and disillusionment, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter traverses the question of what it is to be a free man in a black body–the answer is in the pursuit itself, he warns, before he parts with his painfully learned lessons from his forefathers and his own with love, nostalgia, moral debt and fear. Coates is a journalist with The Atlantic and the author of “The Case for Reparations”. Between the World and Me is unlike any book I’ve ever read in a while. He speaks freely, and beyond his times, acknowledging the limits of history and the irreversible damage to the lives of innumerable women and men across the ages.  

It’s probably because I’m living in North America (in a time where racial discord and senseless shootings make for daily headlines) that this memoir takes on a new urgency. The values he fights for and the freedoms he speaks to are relevant the world over today. He can also be found on @tanehisicoates. But go read his work and feel at one with the world again.

Also by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (Spiegel and Frau, 2008)

 

Rich, wise and spirited: An ode to fatherhood

Much evocative of Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful, moving tale of growing up in revolutionary Iran in the Persepolis series, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home shares an equally trenchant narrative arc about a girl’s portrait of her family, drawing from strong influences of her father who created a Fun Home, “treating his furniture like children, and children like furniture,” their repository of family secrets. The similarities in both works stretch with the range and depth of emotions portrayed, intensity of relationships, apathy and satire, and the ultimately deep generosity that prevails.

Alison makes it clear in the beginning, it is her undertaker father who is the hero (instead of say her mother, or even herself) because a) he is no more and b) the bar is lower for fathers than for mothers, their every kindness amplified. Bechdel’s expanding etymology weaves a taut narrative, from her discovery of words and states of existence she wasn’t quite acquainted with before the dictionary as a diary-writing honest-to-page ten year old, to her growing resistance to facts with the onset of adolescence and written expression yielding to life’s farcical structures, and ambiguities: her likeness with her mortician father, and their differences; his sacrifices to make everything appear ideal, the father who reads to her at bedtime and later on (as she does not foresee) from his grave.

Alison introspects throughout her adolescence: was he a good father? His reading lists and library, his quirks and silences, photos, intimate friendships, transgressions with the law, endearing letters to her as his only potential companion, all rank in her memory as significant. She was his favourite pupil, and he her favourite high school teacher, and yet they were both antagonistic, competing for attention (and desires) in their shared life spaces! Was his ultimate act then in cowardice, generosity, happenstance or plain literary masterstroke? Alison leaves it to the reader, even though her verdict is all too clear. Yet, her mother’s versatility is never eclipsed by the flaws, imperfections  or greatness of her father, merely sidelined as an effective plot device; the protagonist is the antagonist who yields to the protagonist-in-waiting, our quizzical narrator.

Prosy for a comic, Fun home is an aching reminder of how the invisible or marginal have to dole more words (than action) to be understood by those alien to their context and plight; hyper-verbosity tears through her narrative quicker than Cupid’s arrow. Our predecessors are examples of who we don’t want to be. Alison tells us why role models exist, to enlighten and fail us, passing on their burdens of flesh. Readable in a single night’s sitting, this story was a much needed memory trip of what it was growing up, a flashback and reminder of how we arrived into this world and why we are where we are (or are not) because of it.

“And despite the tyrannical power with which he held sway, it was clear to me that my father was a big sissy…. Between us lay a slender demilitarized zone — our shared reverence for masculine beauty.”

The binaries we are dealt in life, and in her pages, “Bourgeois vs. Aristocratic, Homo vs. Hetero, City vs. Country, Eros vs. Art, Private vs. Public,” confront the daily confusions, as poles “converge through a vast network of transervals.” Have you ever been eighty-sixed? Peppered with American liberal arts vernacular and contemporary culture-speak of sibling movements of the Laramie Project, landmark court rulings, metamorphoses, life-epiphanies, and activism as Alison grapples with her emotional, sexual and political identity, griping about the lack of a story to “cohere with”,  she sets a high bar for storytelling with this memoir! Her illustrations arrive in deft caricatures, but the conversations remain the glue.

Fun home is a literary graphic novel (in the same league as Persepolis) I came upon in Toronto’s BMV on Yonge Street in my final hour in that city. This book would make a great Father’s Day present; a film must be in the works somewhere.

“Americanah” is a racy romp through race structures in modern day America

Harper Collins (2013)

Harper Collins (2013)

Adichie is a brilliant entertainer, and I think she will take that as a compliment from her readers. True to her TED Talk, she does not stick with a single story for a certain person, or in other words, does not serve you down the stereotypes; although this does not mean you don’t relate with her characters, because, that you certainly do; it is just that the protagonist Ifemelu (by virtue of her creator) enjoys this sense of propriety, this Olympian outlook of having lived better, with so many other lives firmly kneaded into a strong fabric that weathers the uneven forces of nature and nurture, you emerge a richer reader.  The age old questions are tackled in Ifemelu’s story. Do you grow up as you intend to? Do you marry the one you love? What is your dream job, or thriving passion?

Independent young Ifemelu, who actually is quite an ordinary upper middle class Nigerian Igbo girl, is the apple of our eye, and we never forget that. After completing high school and attending college, interrupted frequently by university strikes in Nsukka, she is urged by her boyfriend Obinze and his lovely mother (who insists that Ifem inform her as soon as O and she become sexually active,  sowing the seeds of a special relationship between them), to take the SATs and apply for a foreign degree on scholarship, which she does and succeeds. Why Obinze does not follow her to America soon enough, is something we discover slowly along the way, without losing sight of the central character or plot.

Ifemelu’s arrival in America, is marked by the slew of familiar encounters: terrifying roommates, skepticism, the mantle of a new ‘black identity’ thrust on her, thanks to the fighting perceptions of race, and newly emergent discourses on ‘race relations’ in post civil-rights America. Race matters, she finds out hard enough. She is by turns exoticised, stereotyped, subtly and not so subtly discriminated against, embraced, accepted, but almost always challenged, by every rung of society in modern day America. And this is what makes the story so climactic! We follow her titillating journey (because yes, it’s racy as hell – including the nailbiting coverage of the countdown to Obama’s electoral win and milestone presidency) through her American citizenship, meeting other immigrants in her boat (legal and illegal), dealing with very real dilemmas of teenage suicide (affecting her nephew) and the Great American Depression hitting her in the peak and trough of every relationship. Ifemelu’s story seethes with hunger, quest and a love that is constantly learning, expanding itself as she learns and lives in America (this, especially when offset against Obinze’s own failing struggles with immigration in the UK draws quite a stark parallel, as it also reflects on differing political attitudes towards immigration and the cultural legacy of race and immigration in both continents). America for Ifemelu comes to signify want, desire, greed, the freedom to live with whom you want, the freedom to divorce (and maybe now, the freedom to even marry).

If this novel is satire, this satire is not what Americans normally seek through irony, but rather a delightful conjugation of simple and complex realities as reflected through Ifemelu’s deeply personal experiences. Here is a beautifully woven tale that not only pokes fun at Africanness, turning ‘Americanah’ or of the dilemmas of being a black immigrant in America and returning to one’s roots while making a fair share of references to the the late Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and (poking fun at) VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, but refuses to constrict a relationship (sexual or otherwise) or label it as one thing, treading along with an athlete’s patience and endeavour for the real thing. This story seethes with love, longing and a cultural desperation to understand and behold the other. 

Americanah should be deigned prescriptive reading to all college freshmen classes in all American colleges. Immediately, before we are superceded by the next technology wave. This novel could easily fit a course in cross-cultural communication, contemporary literature, or generic compulsory reading. Especially in an educational climate where on-campus diversity is something most colleges hope to gain mileage from.

I love how savvy this book is, and compared with her earliest novel ‘Purple Hibiscus’ I would definitely say, this book is more commercially aware, and does a tidy weave of brain and brawn candy drawing on the familiar habits of an American readership and a Nigerian and more global readership within a technologically relevant setting (without being intrusive at all her characters communicate through Facebook, Blogging, Blackberry, text messaging). Of course, what takes the cake, is Ifemulu’s entrepreneurial venture, her running blog on what she calls Raceteenth Century America, a wild romp through the everyday tussles of being a Non-American Black in  Post civil rights America.

Every blog post is a gentle and often fierce parody of inter-racial love, sex, advertising and lifestyle, as experienced by her. Hair is a hot button topic she returns to with liberal detail, something you don’t find in ‘regular’ consumer media.  Her blog becomes a popular forum for many distressed and  fashionably marginalised voices in pop culture. There is a soul searing scene where she takes down about twenty fashion magazines to prove that barely two or three even reference black skin, black hair, or black bodies for their consumership! Ifemelu’s cathartic blogging  not only reduces racial conversation to its roots, but becomes a basis for others to share their formal experiences, quickly bracketing her in the league of lifestyle entrepreneurs, leaving her a soaring (and this could be relative) commercial success!

A character in one of her several conversations about blackness in America says, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.” Which is true. How do you write about a painful past without being specific, without being political! This book tries well, cutting across deep boundaries. Is Americanah that honest novel today? It certainly does feel spontaneous, raw and a book I wish I had read before enrolling at college.  The minefield of talk about race and relationships in this book, and unflagging idealism could well be fodder for endless college-level debates. Finally, this entire story was hard earned, including the gratifying end. And yes, Ms. Adichie, treats all her characters very very well.