Ta-Nehisi Coates’s bestseller on race in America, Between the World and Me, provoked a half dozen book-length responses from across the political spectrum, but only Jason Hill’s We Have Overcome offers a reply that adequately confronts the core of Coates’s argument. That core is an apparently bottomless nihilism, and Hill’s answer is rooted in what he calls the “specific values” that underlie American culture. The two visions couldn’t be more different, and their differences say a lot about race relations today.
Calling Coates nihilistic is no exaggeration. He doesn’t celebrate hopelessness—or anything else, really—but hopelessness is his message. The thesis of his book is that America is irredeemably racist and that black Americans are so “captured” by it that even on their best days, they inhabit a “dark and essential [sic] planet,” whence they stare across the void at “the American galaxy.” His enemy is the American Dream, which he considers a cruel delusion ginned up by whites to enrich themselves on black labor.
This distinguishes his book from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, on which it was ostensibly modeled, because for all his indignation, Baldwin remained committed to the principle of racial equality and sought to “establish some kind of dialogue between those people who enjoy the American Dream and those people who have not achieved it.” Such dialogue is pointless, though, if the Dream is, as Coates holds, a brutal and ludicrous fraud.
Actually, Coates’s true predecessor is not Baldwin but Bigger Thomas, the antihero of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. In one memorable passage, Thomas, after killing an innocent girl, eats breakfast with his family, relishing the sensation of power that originates from the fact that he knows a secret they don’t—one that would shatter them if they knew. He grins in contempt for them, thinking himself disillusioned:
He felt that they wanted and yearned to see life in a certain way; they needed a certain picture of the world; there was one way of living they preferred . . . and they were blind to what did not fit. . . . All one had to do was be bold, do something nobody thought of. . . . [T]here was in everyone a great hunger to believe that made him blind, and if he could see while others were blind, then he could get what he wanted, and never be caught.
The miserable irony of this passage is that it’s not his family who are deluded, but Thomas himself. They aren’t living a lie—he is. What he thinks is his cleverness is only an illusion, and the source of that illusion is transgression—a lurid drug, which gives him an addictive high. Those who take it often think they see new truths when they’ve actually blinded themselves.
Baldwin disliked Native Son for just this reason. The novel, he complained, shared racism’s essential premise in its “rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty” and its “insistence that it is [Thomas’s racial] categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.” He found the character maddening because Thomas accepts the role assigned him by segregation “and feels constrained therefore to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth.” Precisely the same is true of Coates, whose conviction that racism cannot be transcended is really an expression of irrational rage—one that blinds him to the reality of his own freedom.
Jason Hill isn’t blinded. We Have Overcome examines the philosophical bedrock of the Dream and finds it sound. Every nation has experienced slavery, but at its birth America repudiated this evil in principle by recognizing every person’s right to—and responsibility for—his own life. That is the “moral meaning of America,” writes Hill, and it “is the only way that a heterogeneous but common humanity can be forged in our great republic.”
This isn’t just rhetoric. After emigrating from Jamaica, Hill grew up in Atlanta, where—as he explains in his autobiographical passages—he encountered plenty of racism but never let it eclipse his opportunity to make his own life. Racial injustices are real, he concludes, but they represent a betrayal, not a fulfillment, of America’s principles. And he fears that the “diet of abject victimology” Coates offers has “alienated [black] children from their birthright” and risks crushing “their heroic chance of being an engine of change.” Worse: Coates is essentially agreeing with the racists’ demonstrably false claim that America is only for whites.
Baldwin once said that black American history represents “the perpetual achievement of the impossible.” As Hill’s book shows, that achievement comes only to those who refuse to surrender the Dream.
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