"Load a Black Man's Gun"
In conservative circles Ta-Nehisi Coates is hateful. Eloquent but hateful. David French argues as much:
“As I’ve written before, there is a generations-long temptation in white progressive circles to revere and promote radical black voices. It’s as if the anger itself is worthy of respect, and expressions of outrage, no matter how vicious are markers of ‘authenticity.’ But Americans not steeped in this ideology – where white ‘allies’ promote black radicals (yet somehow always remain in the seats of power) – read Coates’s words and see something else. They see hatred.”
White liberals (of which I am one) have long been infatuated with black progressives and French has written about it before. Serious conservatives are often the best critics of their opponents and French flays elite liberals for their vapidity. I have little interest in redeeming the fawning pundits and actors French ridicules – they (we) deserve most of what he dishes – but shallow critical reception can’t rob work of its value and French’s evaluation of “radical black voices” is itself shallow.
French compares the reception of Coates to that of N.W.A. following the release of their HBO biopic. In making the comparison, he evokes the “anger” of radicals and points to words Coates wrote in the wake of the rioting and demonstrations sparked by the killing of Freddie Gray:
“When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is ‘correct’ or ‘wise,’ any more than a forest fire can be ‘correct’ or ‘wise.’ Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.”
To French, Coates is eloquent but hateful. He connects Coates to a controversial group of rappers in part because of the pop culture of the moment in which he wrote, but also because that particular juxtaposition serves his point. There are countless others that, perhaps, would not.
In his essay “Nothing Personal” James Baldwin describes the cycle of violence initiated by discrimination:
“But if a society permits one portion of its citizenry to be menaced or destroyed, then, very soon, no one in that society is safe. The forces thus released in the people can never be held in check, but run their devouring course, destroying the very foundations which it was imagined they would save.”
In his Autobiography Malcolm X recalls the impact of racism on his relationship with his mother:
“I knew I wouldn’t be back to see my mother again because it could make me a very vicious and dangerous person – knowing how they had looked at us as numbers and as a case in their book, not as human beings. And knowing that my mother in there was a statistic that didn’t have to be, that existed because of society’s failure, hypocrisy, greed, and lack of mercy and compassion. Hence I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”
Clint Smith notes the fear of black violence continually projected onto him and connects that fear to the memory of (violent) black revolutionaries past:
“They see a little too much L’Ouverture in you / A little too much Turner / a little too much of what they already had enough of”
Jesse Williams highlights the hypocrisy of asking for restraint and conservatism from black activists:
“Malcolm and Martin were both wearing suits when they were shot to death.”
King himself says of rioting in the nation’s cities:
“Mass civil disobedience can use rage as a constructive and creative force. It is purposeless to tell Negroes they should not be enraged when they should be.”
Which brings the thing to a sharper point. Anger is human, even reasonable. French cleaves that anger from its context, but his “black radicals” understand chaos and rage as reactions to injustice. This radicalism is an abiding compassion not only for the owners of the shops with their windows broken or even for those doing the breaking. It refuses to allow rioting and explosions of anger to distract from the injustice that prompts them. We absolve police who beat a cuffed man to death in a van and we beg for restraint among the community of the beaten. Compassion has no choice but to call us to account or reveal itself as something other.
When French ties Coates’s anger to N.W.A. he does so because its roots in Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King make it harder to dismiss. I certainly don’t discount his entire argument. White liberals often anoint black intellectuals to ambassadorships in which they have no interest. Coates himself has repeatedly declared his discomfort. James Baldwin wrote of being ignored by white peers when he moved to France that “for a black boy who had grown up on welfare and the chickenshit goodwill of American liberals, this total indifference came as a great relief, and even, as a mark of respect.”
Liberals often use the words of black intellectuals to serve political ends and rarely read them thoroughly. French treats these writers, thinkers, activists, and artists as equally one-dimensional. He sees them through the eyes of the very white liberals he attacks, rather than through the brilliance and contradiction of their own words. He misses the humanism in the anger. Anger, after all, is perfectly human.
Both French and my fellow white liberals might remember that it was Maya Angelou, not Ice Cube, who wrote the following: