I’ve recently been listening to and reading Ta-Nehisi Coates. He has a new longform essay out in The Atlantic, The First White President, a devastating indictment of Donald Trump, his supporters, and even most of his liberal detractors. Coates was also interviewed on NPR last week.
Coates, who grew up in Baltimore, isn’t about hope. Instead he often offers an abrupt counterpoint to Barack Obama’s consistent and emphatic call for making change by changing the system (see Obama’s 2016 address to the graduates of Howard University for an eloquent and forceful articulation of this vision).
Says Coates, “We have some…400 years of history weighing down on us, going all the way back to colonial times when black folks first arrived here in 1619. We have not figured out a way to really pay down that debt to get that history up off of us. And so I think the expectation that some moment will happen now is, forgive me, a bit naive.”
NPR host Rachel Martin responds by asking, “How do you raise kids in that? I mean you've written an entire book dedicated to your son addressing this very issue; but how do you — I mean when the future is that bleak when the present and the future are that bleak?”
“I think quite easily,” says Coates. “Life is always a problem. The fact that I'm on the radio saying that I don't necessarily see hope does not relieve people, does not relieve my son, does not relieve children, of the responsibility to struggle. Folks struggled in much bleaker times than this. So to me, the answer to that is the same answer to how we got here in the first place. It's history. If you look at how human beings have been throughout history, during bleak times, they've struggled. Why would it be any different this time?”
And so there it is: Life is not about hope, it’s about the struggle, according to Coates. And that’s all there is, perhaps for everyone but certainly for black folks and people of color. This is a worldview that’s at once understandable and inscrutable. Understandable because even if I regularly fail to comprehend the vast impact of what he calls the bloody heirloom of slavery I do acknowledge its daily impact and pervasiveness in American culture. I know the struggle is real. But participation in the struggle without end, without the possibility of something better, without the chance to pay down the debt, or get history up off us, even a little, seems more an academic or intellectual exercise—more a pursuit of pure truth that centers the work of poets and the best journalist than something to actually live by.
Call me naïve, but I need a little hope. It’s a lot easier to do the work that I do, in and with schools every day, with children, if the possibility of becoming something better is real and attainable. The entire framework for schooling is the notion that you start, year after year, in one place in the beginning and move to another, better place, in the end. School is about, or should be about, progress and performance and striving and working and having dreams and hoping they come true. I can’t even imagine having schools with all struggle and no hope.
Pictured here is an 8th grader at Afya. Her name is Bria Williams. Her friends call her grandma because she is calm and wise beyond her years. When I look at her I see the antitheses of our current president, and the burden of history that he adds his prodigious weight to. I know she’s had and will have struggles. I see Coates. But she has hope, too. A lot of it. And she has some beautiful parents. I see Obama.
Struggle and hope. Hope and struggle. We need both.