On minstrelsy, Ta Nehisi Coates and cultural hopelessness
The word minstrel in English, coming to the shores of Dover by way of the Norman conquest, is a relative of another word in English, the high-born minister as in Prime Minister Theresa May, yet both were begotten by the same idea – servitude. The minister is the definition of a public servant; the ministerialis of yore were servants (serfs) elevated in status through kingly or courtly intervention. The term would go on to evolve, taking on specific ecclesiastical and, through there, governmental connotations until it became the word minister in English. Its dark-half, the minstrel from the Old French menestral (handyman, worker) never really left the bondages of enslavement and subjugation; even the medieval pre-American minstrels of Europe were bound to the whims of the crowds whose amusement they sought to rouse, public performers, but also servants to the crowd. In the United States, the singing, dancing, storytelling minstrel took on the dimensions which a history of antiblackness imbued with vicious ideas of the lowly, servile Negro. The minstrel’s exaggerated face is a specter of our history; it appears in our beloved children’s cartoons (You didn’t know that Tom’s owner in Tom & Jerry was a Mammy, a minstrel caricature?) in the reverse of our cultural icons (Don’t tell me you didn’t know Mickey Mouse was also a minstrel caricature? Or that the Jim Crows in Dumbo were supposed to be Black men?), in the lingering mist of your favorite amusement rides (You’re kidding me when you say that Splash Mountain, your favorite water slide in the entire world, is based on Song of the South, a film notoriously maligned for its racist depictions of a Black actor as a literal Uncle Remus). While its physical body fades from the American conscience due to a long and not-yet-won battle against the appropriation of Black skin (blackface), the image of the servile, sycophantic minstrel lingers in our cultural conscience, refusing to die.
How do you banish a cultural ghost?
There has recently been a firestorm in response to Ta Nehisi Coates. It seems every time I open my phone and check Google, there’s another thinkpiece published by this or that magazine or blog about how Ta Nehisi Coates’ specifically Black strain of nihilism is unpatriotic and dangerous, about how his new book We Were Eight Years In Power gives a “gritty, bitter look” at the Obama Administration and it’s cultural significance, blah-blah. It’s a bit annoying, because I had written my own piece about Coates’s Between the World and Me that I was hoping to submit to magazines, only for this random firestorm to emerge and my work to seem suddenly tone-deaf in the roar of people seeking to question the validity of his position as one of the most prominent writers about race in the United States.
Instead of posting that article, which is destined to sitting and rotting on my computer, I am going to talk about a recent interview Coates did with Stephen Colbert. Colbert, a white guy, asked the typical white guy question at the end of any conversation about race with an African-American person, a question which represents the ideological divide between Race as a philosophical question and racialization & racism as lived experiences: “Do you have any hope for our country?”
Coates’ response: “No.” The gravity of the “No,” is lightened by the crowd’s laughter, which is completely ill-timed, for Coates’ face only loosens in response to the laughter, not as a complement to his statement. There is nothing funny about Coates’ curt and honest response, but the desire to lighten the load of what is already a tense topic for some (only white people have the luxury of finding conversations about race uncomfortable) through laughter nevertheless speaks to the reality of a cultural compulsion to render Coates into a minstrel figure. Colbert’s question alone interpellates Coates to act as a subject of history, to express his allegiance to a nation which has never sworn its allegiance to him, and Coates has never been vague about the unfairness of this interpellation. Colbert gets snippy with Coates’ dismal and dismissive response, saying “I’m not asking you to make shit up. I’m asking you personally if you see any chance for change” to which Coates responds rather dryly, brought back out of himself by the crowd’s uncomfortable laughter “I would have to [make shit up.]”
There is something really disturbing about Colbert’s response to Coate’s response. His follow-up question is really a not-so-subtle challenge: “Is that really what you mean?” as if the idea of hopelessness is not actually conveyable in Black speech, as if the notion of a hopeless Black person is completely unfathomable. And in a way, Coates seems to deviate from the path which White Americans have prepared for African-Americans living in a country ambivalent (or perhaps even hostile) to their presence. The repartee demonstrates the essential cognitive dissonance between individuals whose bodies are mapped by race and those who are not, an experiential distinction which language cannot cross. When Coates responds to Colbert’s question with a “No,” the response is not enough. It represents no useful content, or better yet, a form of negation which incites annoyance in Colbert, who interprets the “No” as a performative kind of nihilism and not an honest response influenced by both lived (Coates’ own fears when interacting with the police, when moving through the United States, when watching Donald Trump assume the presidency after Barak Obama) and embodied experiences (the murders of Prince Jones, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin which figure prominently in Between the World And Me, whose memory haunts us and the United States). To try to bring him back, to question his response as somehow gauche, is to attempt to put him back in the position from which we can best understand him; to render him back into the figure of the minstrel whose image African-Americans loathe and Euro-Americans adore.
The theatrical form of the minstrel, popularized in the late 19th century as a form of vernacular ‘low’ comedic media, has figured prominently in American history as a ghost of our racial past. One of the minstrel’s artifacts, blackface, is widely recognized as a racial appropriation of the black body for comedic consumption, as a kind of body-snatching insofar that the “evidence” of race (the skin) is coopted in order to create a caricature (the minstrel). To a certain degree, it is difficult to exorcise from African-American culture its roots in the White-destined consumerism of minstrel theatre – jazz, Black performativity and theatre were in many ways formed in the crucible of the vaudeville stage. George Rehin writes of the rise of minstrelsy in the United States as a specifically Northern phenomena, encouraged by a Northern preoccupation with contemporary themes of Black urbanization and migration as in many ways destabilizing the racial divides between a Southern post-slavery political economy and an inherently ‘subtle’ kind of Northern racial ideology. Minstrelsy therefore has always been related to Northern ideas of the racial project and the subjecthood of African-Americans within American history, the likes of which have not died with the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (the quintessential moment when Race was supposed to die in the United States), long after the perceived death of vaudeville and blackface, but evolved throughout history as an emblem of American perceptions and desires for African-Americans, as a prefabricated image for African-Americans to inhabit. The etymology of the word minstrel speaks directly to the perpetual figuration of the African-American, of the Black body, as both a subject of history (a marker of time elapsed) as well as an object of white consumption, as a vehicle for white pleasure. To be a minstrel is to serve as well as the administer White-destined forms of comfort and entertainment, to keep whites, as Richard Wright writes of Their Eyes Are Watching God, a text he claimed to be use ‘minstrel techniques’, “between laughter and tears.”
Do I think Ta Nehisi Coates is an incredible writer? Perhaps. I have read things by him which I have found compelling, and Between the World and Me is quite a quotable book, although it states very little which I haven’t discovered in my own lived experience. The book doesn’t seem to understand the dimensions of class, race, and gender which influence the everyday practice being an African-American in the United States (and Coates makes the distinction between African-Americans and Black people without saying it, another pitfall) and it seems to struggle with the question of its audience: who is Between the World and Me for? What does it do to reach that audience, and how does it push other audiences away? It’s not a seminal text for people like me, studying the long progression of Black political thought in the Americas, with it being just the most recent blip on a long history of restatements and rediscoveries, but I’ve long since accepted the fact that Between the World and Me isn’t for people like me. Coates speaks directly to the “academics” at a certain point in the text, telling us that they pick apart his theories in arguments which many of my “academic” friends have done with the text, not out of malice, but because the text tries to do things beyond its limits. These are, of course, literary critiques made by literary critiques who are used to reading preachy texts like Between the World and Me and therefore are less prone to see the text as anything other than the most recent creative nonfiction piece in a market saturated with varied rewordings of similar ideas. Coates is neither James Baldwin, nor CLR James, nor is he Huey Newton or even Eldridge Cleaver; He’s Ta Nehisi Coates, the most prevalent Black man writer of our time, and he is singlehandedly speaking across the racial divide in ways which only the first of this brief list could have accomplished in his own time. And while it may seem a bit more atrocious to argue that Notes of a Native Son, the Black college student’s Old Testament (to Zami / Sister Outsider’s New Testament, of course) is written for white people, both authors achieved the same goal of bringing Blacks and whites to the table in a time of intense conflict, even if those who came were a self-selecting bunch.
This Coates-Colbert interview is nested in a string of antiblack happenings in my life; Donald Trump’s comments about Colin Kaepernick protesting police brutality during the National Anthem, a string of articles written about how Coates’ Black nihilism demonstrates the ungratefulness of the African-American people for being beaten spouses in fancy houses, unmediated and unattended destruction and devastation in Puerto Rico, Barbuda and Saint Martin, a very unproductive and taxing day of discussion on “Race” in my critical theory class, intraracial and performative liberal squabbling about Coates’ dangerous abject pessimism, general ignorance and toxicity at Swarthmore in response to these very issues; all atop the general anxiety which my black skin generates in its passive condition, a byproduct of melanogenesis. It seems everyone is a scholar and theorist of race, and I suppose we all live raced lives (for no one in America is without race) despite racialization (the real evil of race, besides racism itself, the mechanism which encodes the racial practice of racialization) remaining a discriminatory process. They all speak to a central issue which our nation has been avoiding for years; is America read to grapple its race issues?
How do you organize a diversity workshop for 323 million people?
Coates’ response tells us “No,” tells us that hope is only possible once the Americans can look themselves in the mirror and realize the means by which the social economy of race has produced modernity, that whiteness was carved from the empty space of a black woman’s, that American life displaced Native Americans and destined them to being footnotes of our history. And how could 224 million Euro-Americans deal with the grave disenchantment which must come with realizing your existence is a wound to world history, that Europeans and their descendants forced modernity upon us in the United States with African-Americans as the primary vehicles of this process. How traumatizing it would be to look in the mirror one morning and have you reflection speak to you through the frosty glass: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
Asking Ta Nehisi Coates if he believes there is hope left for the United States is asking him to be a minstrel. It’s forcing him to perform a kind of jolly Negro dance for American consumption to assuage the ideological violence which begets the nervous laughter of the crowd’s discomfort and unease. It’s wanting him to break into song to remind Columbia that he is still within her control, to keep it fresh in Lady Liberty’s mind that Black disquiet is as sporadic as it is perpetual; the Blacks are always complaining about something, but if you ignore them, they forget their anger, if only for a little while. Hope requires a futurity which African-Americans have been denied for centuries; it requires an understanding of what’s to come which defies our bleak understanding of the world and our place within it. To be hopeful and African-American is to be a fool but to pledge one’s hopefulness for the future/non-future of race on national television to be a minstrel.
Asking African-Americans to perform for you in any way, to respond in a way which suits your interests, which turns the Black body into a mirror (a violent intervention) is violence. It is a means of objectification, of thingification, of doing unto the Black body. Don’t ask African-Americans to conjure up visions of a race-neutral / race-blind / raceless / de-raced / postracial society when the only impediment to the realization of this belabored vision is your unwillingness to act, to figure yourself within the seemingly invisible process which perpetuate racism and keep Black people across the world oppressed. Do not force African-American to produce and manufacture hope from their bodies as an opioid synthesized from tears produced only through the epigenetics of chattel slavery. How do you ask for such kinds of reparations from a government committed to unseeing you? How do you ask your government to recompense you for the thin walls of your heart, your predisposition for hypertension, your untenable depression, the vestiges of slavery which have penetrated African-American life so deeply that they are now part of our bodies?
What is futurity when the only solution to racism in the United States is the racial homogenization of the world’s people (a slow and likely messy process which won’t obliterate difference as much as it just resets the standards for how difference is determined and prestige maintained, another one of Coates’ dismal albeit pertinent points) ? Is it so bad to be unpatriotically hopeless when your nation valued your enslavement so much that the argument over the means of your production tore it apart at its seams?
Is hopelessness inherently unpatriotic?
When you speak to an African-American, and ask them to hope for a raceless future, do you not realize you are speaking to the great-great grandchild of a slave? To the grandchild of someone who attended a segregated school? To the cousin of a “diversity hire?” To the child of a super-predator?
When Coates says “lose your body” in Between the World and Me, he understands that the issue of blackness is completely epidermal – race is as meaningful as a layer of skin and pigmentation, yet nevertheless serves as one of the great pillars of American society. To topple race is to destabilize the structure of the house we’ve (the slaves, the enslaved and displaced Native Americans, the Chinese indentured laborers who built our rail system, the Irish and Italian workers who didn’t have any issues working with and marrying Black folks until they realized one day in the 1900s that they, too, were white) built for the Euro-American family to live inside. Therefore, why destroy a perfectly good home for something as “cosmetic” as race?
Between the World and Me is a text which gives language to a lot of people about how to understand one’s condition as a racialized subject in the United States. It sets a foundation for understanding racism as an institution, as something escapable and indistinguishable from the fabric of American life, and it does so in a way whose brutal nihilism is meaningful. Colbert and many White readers may skip over this, because they fetichize (subjugate, minstrelize) the text as an ode to the resilience of the African-American people instead of the eulogy for hope that it truly is. Samori Coates’s hope dies in the text itself, and we watch it die, as many of our hopes died and were resurrected again and were re-killed with each person killed and each officer acquitted. Yet white readers unsee this, cannot bear to question the evanescence of hope as a lived condition, as a fact of blackness.
Is perpetual heartache (perhaps a symptom of heart disease) also a vestige of slavery, a bad gene trapped in our bio-ontology?
 George Rehin, “The Darker Image: American Negro Minstrelsy through the Historian’s Lens,” Journal of American Studies, vol. 9, no. 3 (Dec. 1975), p. 370
 Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears,” The New Masses, October 5, 1937, p. 25