Wakanda And The Black Aesthetic

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Black Panther #3 drops today and I thought I’d say something about the poetry that both opens and closes the book. The poem we used is Henry  Dumas’ “Rootsong.”  I first encountered this piece during one of my many study sessions with the poet Joel Dias-Porter. This would have been somewhere around 1995 or 1996. Joel is a tremendous poet in his own right, but at that point (and perhaps even today) he was mentoring a whole crop of young writers—Terrence Hayes, Yona Harvey, Jelani Cobb—who happened to be in the DC area. Terms like “study session” and “mentor” make all of this sound more formal than it was. Usually it was a crew of us at a restaurant or a cafe discussing anything from sports to politics to poetry. At one of these sessions, Joel whipped out a collection of Dumas’ work and turned to the poem “Rootsong.” What stunned me about the poem is how it used black myth to construct a narrative of the diaspora before and after colonialism and enslavement:

Once when I was tree
flesh came and worshiped at my roots.
My ancestors slept in my outstretched
limbs and listened to flesh
praying and entreating on his knees.

There is an Edenic, utopian quality to Dumas’ depiction of precolonial Africa. “Rootsong” always struck me as romance—not so different from the kind of romance than you’d see in Marvel’s Thor. Poetry is a natural cousin to comic books. Comic book writing, like poetry, requires a ruthless efficiency with words. The art is the hero and if I may say so myself, the art in Black Panther #3—particularly in the pages using “Rootsong”—is heroic.

Dumas was killed at the age of 34 by New York city transit cop. But his legacy endures through the strivings of the poet Eugene Redmond and the great Toni Morrison. It was Redmond who posthumously edited Dumas’ poems into a book. It was Morrison, then an editor at Random House, who ultimately published them. At the time she wrote of Dumas:

In 1968, a young black man, Henry Dumas, went through a turnstile at a New York City subway station. A transit cop shot him in the chest and killed him. Circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Before that happened, however, he had written some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read.

That Dumas wrote the words, that Morrison and Redmond made it possible to read those words, that I was exposed to those words during my tenure at the Mecca, and that those influenced my own words points to the deep and enduring power of tradition and lineage. Indeed as an atheist, tradition and lineage are the closes thing I have to any notion  of afterlife. The work outlives us, and the work exerts power long after we are gone.

I hope you feel that power in Black Panther #3.

'A Species of Labor We Do Not Want'

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One of the early triumphs of Black Reconstruction In America is the way its author, W.E.B. Du Bois, is able to offer a cogent class analysis of the antebellum economy, without flattening the difference between different types of “degraded” labor. In Du Bois’s time, and even occasionally in our time, intellectuals would often claim that slave labor was ultimately no worse than free labor. “One-half of them prefer hiring their servants for life, and the other half by the hour,” claimed Thomas Carlyle.  More to the point, while workers in the North enjoyed no guaranteed support and thus were “free to starve,” in the South the enslaver assumed responsibility for clothing and feeding the enslaved. The enslaved were awarded shelter, rudimentary health care, and cared for in old age. In many respects (so the argument went) the black slave was advantaged over the white “wage slave.” This argument found traction among slavery’s apologists and even some left radicals in the 1830s.*

When labor activist George Henry Evans explained to abolitionist Gerrit Smith his opposition to emancipation, he noted:

I was formerly, like yourself, sir, a very warm advocate of the abolition of slavery. This was before I saw that there was white slavery. Since I saw this, I have materially changed my views as to the means of abolishing Negro slavery. I now see, clearly, I think, that to give the landless black the privilege of changing masters now possessed by the landless white would hardly be a benefit to him in exchange for his surety of support in sickness and old age, although he is in a favorable climate. If the Southern form of slavery existed at the North, I should say the black would be a great loser by such a change

Du Bois was having none of it:

...there was in 1863 a real meaning to slavery different from that we may apply to the laborer today. It was in part psychological, the enforced personal feeling of inferiority, the calling of another Master; the standing with hat in hand. It was the helplessness. It was the defenselessness of family life. It was the submergence below the arbitrary will of any sort of individual. It was without doubt worse in these vital respects than that which exists today in Europe or America.

Above all it was the fact of being vended like oxen that separated the condition of the enslaved from the oppressed worker—“No matter how degraded the factory hand,” writes Du Bois. “He is not real estate.”

And yet having teased out the difference, Du Bois does not lose sight of the ways the slave society injured the prospects of poor non-slaveholding whites in the South. The slave system depressed wages and ensured unemployment—why pay a white person to do a job that an enslaved black person is bound to do for free?Enslaved blacks worked in nearly every capacity in the South, from field-hand to artisan leaving white labor to “compete” with enslaved blacks for jobs and wages. But there was no competition on account of slavery. The only real restraint was the supply of enslaved blacks, and slaveholders tried to alter even that by pushing to re-open the slave trade. “If we cannot supply the demand for slave labor,” asserted the governor of South Carolina in 1856. “Then we must expect to be supplied with a species of labor we do not want.” That would be poor whites.

Big slaveholders feared the white labor movement emerging much to the detriment of the slaveholder. From the Charleston Mercury in 1861:

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O.J. Simpson and the Counter-Revolution of 1968

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Every fall Sunday, when I was a kid, half an hour before the pre-game shows and an hour before the games themselves, I would tune into the latest offering from NFL Films. This was the pre-pre-game show—an assembly of short films derived from the massive archive of professional football. Steve Sabol, whose father founded NFL Films, would preside. He’d offer and then throw it to Jon Facenda or Jefferson Kaye, who would narrate the career highlights of players like Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell, or Dick “Night Train” Lane.

“Highlights” understates what NFL films was actually doing. The shorts were drawn from some the most beautifully shot footage in all of sports. It wasn’t unheard of for NFL Films to go high concept—this piece on football and ballet, with cameos from Allen Ginsberg and George Will, may be the definitive example. Great football plays would be injected not with the normal hurrahs, but with poetry. When Facenda, for instance, wanted to introduce a spectacular touchdown run by Marcus Allen, he did so in the omniscient third person: “On came Marcus Allen—running with the night.”

I watched that Super Bowl run live when it happened. I can still remember leaping up and down in my parents’ living room. But the NFL Films version, with its sweeping chords, is so powerful that I remember it through that lens. Indeed Todd Christensen—who was on the field in that very game—remembers it in the same way. The point of all of those sweeping chords was to convince the viewer that professional football was not just a sport, but an elegant tradition. The NBA was a game. The NFL was heritage.

More importantly, NFL Films was propaganda—beautiful, gorgeous, and artfully rendered propaganda, but propaganda all the same. Some of that same footage appears in the first episode of Ezra Edelman’s majestic documentary O.J.: Made in America, though to very different effect. The five-part film is as great as everyone says—a majestic work which doesn’t uplift, but haunts. Edelman agrees with the NFL—football is heritage—but proceeds to put that heritage within the context of the flawed human history that makes football so necessary to us all.

In this business, it’s worth restating that O.J. Simpson was a dazzling tailback and Edelman frames him in all of his balletic beauty. We see Simpson—high and angular—his hips lurching in one direction, his head swiveling in another. We see him accelerating at an uncanny rate—surrounded by swarm of defenders, and then just as suddenly alone in the open green. He seems to have an advanced sense of space and time, twisting defenders in knots, juking them until their sense of balance distorts and they fall as though struck by a great blow. There’s one shot of Simpson falling untouched on a play and the defender falling with him. But unlike the defender, Simpson gets up and keeps on running. “This is how it is supposed to be,” he said, attempting to capture the sentiment of breaking a big run. “This is correct. This is the natural state of things.”

NFL Films usually backs its highlights with loud, martial music. Edelman prefers the kind of subtle pianos and soft strings more appropriate for an in memoriam segment. Where NFL Films typically celebrates a running back gliding through a hole, Edelman seems to be mourning the death of some part of Simpson, or the death of some part of us. The contrast—awe and loss—works because football is itself a great contrast: a game of terrible, violent, brain-bashing beauty. As beautiful as Simpson is cutting through the field—and he is beautiful—you always know that the subtext of that beauty is 11 men paid and primed to inflict as much violence as the rules permit upon his body.

The employment of contrast goes beyond the music. Edelman pairs the violence of the football field with the violence of America itself. Simpson came of age in the late ’60s, during a time when America was exploding with riots and assassinations. He dazzled at USC—a veritable utopia built within walking distance of Watts. While other athletes perceived the overlap between sports and politics, Simpson and his coterie would have none of it. “For us, O.J. was colorless,” says the Hertz CEO Frank Olsen. And then the racist underpinnings of that “colorless” status become clear. “He’s African,” says the ad man Fred Levinson. “But he’s a good looking man, he almost has white features.”

What O.J. seemed to perceive—and then exploit—was the extent to which the larger country was interested in his talents and disinterested in the forces that produced them. At one point Edelman asks O.J.’s USC teammate Fred Khasigian what he thinks about when he thinks of 1968. Khasigian pauses for a minute. We see a collage of images—Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the violence at that year’s Democratic convention. And then he answers:

I think of winning all the games, getting O.J. famous. Everybody on campus thinking this is the greatest thing on earth. That’s all we thought about. There was nothing else going on.

In fairness, Khasigian is likely aware that more was “going on” that year. But he captures the insular sense at USC and around football in general—the notion that sport can, somehow, be greater than all of us. But it is not. And the contrasts that Edelman teases out throughout the film are not artifacts of the past. Though Edelman is skeptical of its import for Simpson, the question of CTE hangs in the background throughout the series. As do the ways in which black athletes are used up and disregarded at the college level. Episode One is a counterweight to the kind of slick football propaganda NFL Films fed us as kids. It works not by being delivered as an anti-football screed, but by showing all the beauty and ugliness of the game, all at the same time, and thus giving the truest depiction of pro football I’ve ever seen.

'But This Latter Person, I Am Not Trying To Convince'

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One of the best parts of the old blogging system, here, was the ability to talk about what I was reading at the time. I think I’m going to try to bring some of that back.

I’ve read a lot over the past year or so (though less than previous years) and there’s a lot I want to talk about: Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming (inspiring in its generational ambition), Laurent DuBois’s Avengers of the New World (history of the Haitian Revolution, an idea some 200 years ahead of its time), John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (conservative and romantic in every way that I love), Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Black Widow (so intense, and this story never lets you take a break—oddly reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road), William Doyle’s Oxford History of the French Revolution (great primer for anyone starting—as I was—with just the barest knowledge of the French Revolution.)

But those are things I’ve already read, or, in the case of Black Widow, ongoing things which I’m in the process of reading. Right now my eye is trained on a book that my historian friends have been demanding I read for the past few years—W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction In America. I just started yesterday, and already I can see why the book has so many fans in the academy.

Over the past 40 years or so, there’s been a movement among some American historians to put white supremacy at the center of their field of study. Much of my own work, and my current understanding of American history, pulls from these historians—Edmund Morgan, Beryl Satter, Ed Baptist, Thomas Sugrue, Arnold Hirsch, Eric Foner, Barbara and Karen Fields.

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