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Between The World and Me

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Here’s something I wrote about Coates’s popular book a few months ago and never posted:

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work about racism and the American Dream, Between the World and Me, was recommended to me by a student last fall. So I read the book in November, then read his famous article, A Case for Reparations, in The Atlantic. Then Padraic read Between the World and Me for a book club, and now in semester two, I’m having my Writing Workshop class read both Between the World and Me and The Case for Reparations as preparation for their rhetorical analysis essay. So I’ve been sitting with these works for a while.

My mostly black students’ response to both the book and the article was jokingly to ask, “Are you okay, Mrs. O’Donnell? Are you depressed? This is really depressing stuff….”

It is depressing stuff, and ours is a depressing history. And it’s a testament to my position of white privilege that I’m considering the depressing things Coates has to say about the repeated destruction of black bodies and the illusion of the American Dream and sandwiching it between posts about lemon ricotta pancakes and poems I find inspiring… The sad truth is, because I’m white, and I’ve never LIVED racism, there will always be a level on which I don’t get it.

That being said, here is what I take away from Coates, how his book has effectively altered my thinking and brought me to a new level of understanding, inadequate as it is:

The fact that any display of patriotism is stained. Any reference to the greatness of America is ultimately a lie because of the “plunder” — Coates’s term — that our country was founded on.

The idea that we have a lot of intellectual jargon to describe racism, including the aforementioned term white privilege, but that ultimately racism is experienced in the body. Racism is something visceral and it amounts to the destruction of bodies, today as well as in the past.

The notion of “people who think they are white” — the idea that race is a construction created out of the evil desire to subjugate and subordinate other people.

The interesting reaction Coates has to “believers” in the American Dream — he feels sorry for them. Because the dream is tainted. It’s built on the backs of black bodies. And yet the “people who think they are white” keep believing.

It seems that Coates’s major preoccupation is getting our country to stop lying to itself. Even in his article, The Case for Reparations, he ends it by saying that we may discover that there are no reparations that would be enough. But the ultimate point in having the discussion is to become more honest with ourselves on how “the dream” was built on a faulty foundation.

I chose to have my students read his work for class because both his book and his article seemed to be suitable texts for a rhetorical analysis, rife with rhetorical devices and argumentation. My students are pretty familiar with the idea that American life for black Americans has been depressing for a while. So I don’t think his ideas are rocking their world. But I think, even though the book was written for Coates’s black son, this is an important book for all who “believe they are white” to read.

A Few Takeaways from “Hard Choices”

Asher Isbrucker obligatory airplane wing. YYZ > YVR CC BY-NC-SA 2.0This past summer I had a week-long vacation to dive deep into Hillary Clinton’s book, Hard Choices. It paints a broad picture of foreign policy and covers a lot of ground — literally, the whole world — which sometimes diluted the subject matter, I think. But I read on anyway. In light of all that’s written about her, I was just curious to hear Hillary Clinton tell her own story. I know that some people must be rolling their eyes at what seems a strategic start to the Democratic nomination for president, but Hillary Clinton is a politician — this is what she does — and I admire both her passion and skill. Here are a few of my general impressions:

  • Clinton’s writing exudes a sincere respect for Obama. It seems that the two were genuine collaborators. When she’s not openly expressing admiration for the president, Clinton points out their differences diplomatically — it doesn’t come across as a thinly veiled, aggressive attempt to separate herself in lieu of coming elections. It’s a decidedly non-cynical window into the way American politics works, the matter-of-factness with which Clinton transitioned into a collaborative relationship with her former rival.
  • There are instances where Clinton points out traveling to a country, or meeting a leader, or having an encounter in a particular White House Room as first lady, senator, and then secretary of state. You get a sense of the incredible layers to her life in politics, and what it must feel like to suddenly recall a moment, ten years prior, of making history, only to be making new history.
  • Clinton writes about how much she enjoyed the non-partisan nature of being secretary of state. You can feel her enthusiasm for the art of international relations as she repeatedly invokes terms like “creative diplomacy,” and tracks the huge number of miles she logged. You get the sense that she enjoyed the adventure of her position, her prerogative to meet leaders face-to-face, fronting her team abroad.
  • In general, the book exuded a positive, hopeful attitude. It’s noticeable and significant that Clinton, who is among the most informed people in the world about international affairs and global politics, takes such a practical, affirming point of view on so many topics that are widely impugned by the general public. Obviously Clinton has a vested interested in representing her own accomplishments, but then again, public servants can speak to progress that those of us on the outside wouldn’t even think to appreciate. It reminds of me something I recently read in another non-fiction work, this one about American educational policy, The Teacher Wars. Author Dana Goldstein writes that the status quo in American education, while much maligned, is in reality “concerning,” but not in dire straits. As for Clinton, some folks might criticize her optimism on some fronts — for example, she put a positive spin on the climate change conference in Copenhagen that some poorer, island nations considered a dismal failure.
  • Clinton’s humanness also shines through — in this book, she comes across as more the hardworking civil servant versus ambitious first lady or opportunistic senator. She writes about making myriad wedding planning decisions as mother of the bride to Chelsea alongside legitimately “hard choices” in the political arena, of being deeply humbled by her interactions with Burma’s female opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and of the sense of personal obligation she felt to the thousands of employees at the state department. Most importantly, she writes about the outsize effect of building and sustaining personal rapport with world leaders, citing Hamid Karzai as an example of a strong personality who could be appealed to on the basis of personal gestures. The extent of her travels and her push to Obama for face-to-face diplomacy indicates that she took a very personalized approach to the job, placing a high value on conversations between world leaders.
  • Hillary Clinton’s decisiveness, the surety and clarity of her opinions, is definitely something that comes across in her book, and it’s a noticeable contrast to Obama’s hedging since becoming president (say I as an Obama supporter). This is demonstrated in her sharp criticisms of Vladimir Putin — she’s not a fan, and there’s no sugar coating, her directness almost makes me laugh. It reminds me of those “who you gonna call” ads from the 2008 race — or at least, that’s how I vaguely remember them. As much as I love me some Barack Obama, Hillary has a swift way of sizing up a situation and articulating a precise course of action, even as she talks about “smart power” or “smart diplomacy,” aka working countries from multiple angles, for example engaging in talks on some issues while placing sanctions or playing tough on others.
  • I’m afraid this post is starting to sound like a go Hillary! ad. If you’re not keen on Hilary for President, or you find yourself more dubious than curious about her account of hard choices, I have to say, there is one other reason to shell out the bucks for the discounted hardback and get reading: each chapter is laid out according to the state of world affairs in a different region, and so it provides a sweeping overview of the balance of global powers. It’s certainly not a biography — the “hard choices” paradigm really is a refrain throughout the book, and you really get a sense of how Clinton, among others, engineers the wielding of “smart power” in a global realm of shifting alliances and competing challenges.


Getting Existential: Another Reason We Read

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.43.47 AMWhat can I say, snow makes me glad of heart and reflective of mind — that is, white, powdery snowfall on a weekend. In the swirl of so many million, sparkling flakes dropping mutely onto the city pavement, I find myself asking why… Why is the sky blue? Why am I hopelessly addicted to Nutella? Why does lying on a couch sifting through a stack of books for the entire day sound like the epitome of leisure to me? (Wow, this post makes me sound lazy. For the sake of full disclosure, the real problem is my ongoing desire to be working.) Back to stacks of books — is there really a good reason to inch your way toward death with your nose buried in a book? I mean, beyond the types of expansive motivations that “English majors” and “avid readers” cite, from gaining a broader worldview to a deeper understanding of “the human condition,” yada yada.

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.47.49 AMHow about honest personal growth? I think the English major variety tends to gloss over this earnest, unglamorous reason. Our painstaking efforts with meaty works of literature can yield more “highly effective habits” than simple endurance — it just takes a little digging to find the guru lurking inside a Melville or a George Elliot, as well as a desire for made-up characters on our path to enlightenment. In my existential angst (actually, my drafting of literary themed pitches) I have amassed several author’s versions of the same mantra — seize the day! Take them as my personal invitation to read these books (starting with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Gilead) in lieu of something from the self-help section. (Or, I suppose if seizing the day is the point, you could ditch reading altogether and hitch a ride to the 2014 national tour of Newsies.) Here goes:

1) “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.”  

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.49.36 AMI have a tendency to remember random fragments of books, often forgetting entire characters, and occasionally, the plot itself: this quote ends one of my favorite random passages from Annie Dillard’s poetic nonfiction narrative about the unfolding of the seasons outside her home, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. So often descriptions of nature conjure Puritan virtues (stoicism, endurance, resourcefulness), but Dillard celebrates an entirely different force: larger-than-life, more like France during the baroque period, or a Lady Gaga concert. What is enlightening about this characterization? To me, there is an underlying injunction that if nature is brimming with superfluous creatures, we are meant to follow suit, despite our short-lived creations.

2) “A man who farts in bed…is a man who loves life.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.35.19 AMGourmet Rhapsody is the story of a dying food critic, told through multiple characters with varying degrees of bitterness. As such, it is chock-full of “aha moments” on the nature of happiness, mortality, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This particular observation comes from the critic’s butler, who has a soft spot for his boss’s audible ability to enjoy life.

3) “These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.57.20 AMContrary to the “regular bastard” in Gourmet Rhapsody, the terminally ill protagonist in Gilead is a thoughtful reverend writing to his son. This is one kernel of wisdom he imparts. Gilead is one of my favorite books, and it’s another ripe context for page after page of poetically worded existential truths. I have an inkling that other lovers of this book (and Marilynne Robinson’s writing) are reading for the sage soundbites as much as they are for the characters and their poignant circumstances.

4) “If you can get by with quotes from The Godfather and nothing you say matters, that’s pretty bleak, don’t you think?”

 Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.59.11 AMA few words of encouragement for bloggers or creative types, and what more credible source than a satirical novel about a fledgling ad agency? (Again, death, corporate death this time, lurking around the corner.) If there is a moral to a story about lazy copywriters facing impending lay offs, coping with their anxiety via paintball rampages and vicious cancer rumors, it’s get out of the office and live your life.

5) “It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 10.02.46 AM Okay, this quote isn’t quite related to seizing the day. But for someone writing about cannibals, oceans and sperm whales, I think Melville is remarkably apt at describing the bearded, flannel-sporting, beet-pickling type who thinks he knows something special. If I was a hipster, this is what I would wear on a faded gray t-shirt to let the other hipsters know that I wasn’t impressed with them.

So! Fellow two-for-oners, that is my case for “the importance of reading in earnest,” to get all meta and Wilde on you. What’s a more highly effective habit and purpose-driven pastime than reading to be entertained, intellectually stimulated, and ever so slightly enlightened? Who doesn’t prefer their search for meaning with a side of petty office politics, florid food descriptions, ridiculously protracted whale hunts, and/or creekside ramblings?

[Photos: “Snowflakes,” Moonrhino’s photostream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Reading a Book at the Beach,” Simon Cocks’ photostream, CC BY 2.0, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” cdrummbks’ photostream, CC BY 2.0, “gourmet-rhapsody-muriel-barberry-connected-interactive,” ConnectedInteractive’s photostream, “Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, colinjcampbell’s photostream, CC BY NC-ND 2.0, “Joshua Ferris: Then We Came to the End,” Wolf Gang’s photostream, CC BY-SA 2.0, “Moby-Dick Book Cover,” Hyokano’s photostream, CC BY-SA 2.0]

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