Say there ain’t no hope for the youth //
And the truth is it ain’t no hope for the future
—“Keep Ya Head Up” 2Pac
2Pac in life and death was and is consistently praised for being willing to have contradictions in his art. Pleading with women to stay strong in the face of a misogynistic society (“Keep Ya Head Up”) and then two songs later informing them that you like to know a lot of women in the biblical sense (“I Get Around”) requires some strong confidence in contradictions. I don’t know exactly how many other rappers have been afforded similar leeway, but in regards to 2Pac it made him complex. 2Pac is one of the GOATs, but it’s interesting that one artist’s (or really any individual’s) complexity is another artist’s hypocrisy. Regardless, it’s fair praise, and I actually wish we allowed for a bit more complexity in our lives. Specifically, that two seemingly contradictory ideas can actually both be true and possibly even share some congruence. Check out the couplet above. The very name of the song implies a call for optimism, a plea not to give up, yet there’s a pretty bleak outlook on life in asserting that there’s “no hope for the future.” The question is: Why can’t 2Pac believe both of those things?
The accepted (allowed?) complexity of Pac keeps coming to mind when I consider the ostensible demand of optimism that seems to often be placed on Ta-Nehisi Coates when he gives an interview (And for this post, let’s just ignore the demands of Dr. Cornel West on Coates for now. Like the 2Pac and Biggie beef, this conflict appears to be gratuitous and deserves a separate discussion). The demand makes sense on a meta level. America has created, fostered and exported the American Dream, the belief that anything is possible with hard work and determination. And no matter the race, gender, class, orientation, religion or other identifiers, there has–throughout American history–been enough lottery winners who have overcome obstacles to substantiate the truth and belief in the Dream (Oprah did it. So can you!). Coates has even written that he once wrote with this in mind, “I believed that you could sketch a narrative of progress in this country from enslavement to civil rights. It seemed logical, to me, that this progress would end–some day–with the complete vanquishing of white supremacy.” Yet we also see enough, particularly with the advent of the connectedness and ubiquity of the internet, to know and understand–at least subconsciously–that this Dream is a myth for far too many people in our country (There’s only one Oprah. I’m screwed!). So when a writer such as Coates unabashedly and consistently pokes and tears at that myth, there seems to be this compulsion to force him into acknowledging progress and assert that we are getting better. In other words, comfort us and tell us there’s “hope for the future.” Otherwise…
Well, I think otherwise there is an uncomfortable reckoning. We just completed another MLK three day weekend in which his Dream was remembered but the animosity toward it was not, and most again ignored Dr. King’s insistence on dichotomy of thoughts and beliefs:
People are often surprised to learn that I am an optimist…I remain an optimist, though I am also a realist, about the barriers before us. Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation that professes itself to be democratic, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich, productive and awesomely powerful? The problem is so tenacious because, despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially. All too many Americans believe justice will unfold painlessly or that its absence for black people will be tolerated tranquilly.
Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.
That was from the essay “A Testament of Hope” written by Dr. King after the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act became law. There seems to be a consistent, convenient historical memory that Dr. King said some hopeful things, had a few marches here and there, and inspired the country while not challenging it. Can you imagine today’s 24 hour news cycle reacting to “America is deeply racist and its democracy is flawed”?! Actually, next year, let’s make that quote go viral and force the news cycle to react. That would be fun…slightly fun?…maybe?
Optimist but realist. Yes, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”; however, we cannot overcome “without radical changes in the structure of our society.” Today, there seems to be an overemphasis on the long arc with any emphasis on radical changes to continued prejudice or systemic racism often answered with what I like to call the “extinction belief.” You’ve heard this, maybe espoused it: My (fill in your family member here) says/believes (fill in racist belief here), but that’s the past. My generation knows better, and we don’t say/believe those things. Eventually those beliefs will die out (which is always macabrely funny to me…as soon as all of the old people die, things will be better!). But if the problem is the system itself (which, again, the hopeful Dr. King emphasized repeatedly), waiting for people to die doesn’t exactly cut it. If we’re not as a nation actively dismantling white supremacy, it still exists even if we have progressed and elected a Black President. Here’s how Coates in an interview on Pod Save America describes it (skip to 48:49):
I think the President wasn’t so much up against any sort of good or bad tendency among Americans as much as he was up against the force of History. You know we rehearse this over and over again, and we say ‘Well listen, we had 250 years of enslavement in this country, a period in time in which by 1860 our main export was cotton a result of enslaved Black folks an indispensable part of our economy…in the country itself. After that we had 100 years of Jim Crow. The latter portion of Jim Crow is within the biography of Barak Obama. It’s within the living memory of people in Congress. And so there’s a tendency to believe that when those policies disappeared, all of the stories that undergirded those policies – all the myths all of the ideas that made those policies possible – somehow evaporated with them. And I would argue that they didn’t. That if you spend the majority of a country’s history – and a majority of a society’s history – saying that a group of people who live within that society are not citizens, are inferior, that folks are free to lynch them, folks are free to terrorize them, folks are free to rape them, enslave them etc., that there’s an entire school of biology that you create that justifies this, that you angle your history in such a way to justify that, you can’t expect all of that to disappear in 50 years. That has a weight upon people. It bears on people. It bears on how they think about the world. And so the expectation…certainly the expectation of some of us that the election of a Black President would somehow absolve folks of that weight, of those ideas, of that mythology, of that iconograph, I just think is too much. History matters. And it’s not just the facts of history that matter, it’s the stories we’ve told ourselves repeatedly across decades and across generations.
That first sentence is fantastic. It removes the focus completely away from individuals; as a matter of fact, it essentially asserts that an individual’s racism or wokeness is really beside the point when considering the system we exist in. This is why the “extinction belief” will always fail if the only reliance is on a hope that eventually things will change. First, that doesn’t seem to be happening based on the age range of some pretty popular rallies around the country (like this one or this one or this one), but more importantly it’s entirely too passive in the face of centuries of an established system.
The failure to acknowledge, recognize, and/or combat the system of white supremacy is the base of Coates’s pessimism, but I don’t believe this is necessarily nihilism. On his promotional tour for Between the World and Me a couple of years ago Coates ended up on The Daily Show for a good interview, and John Stewart in inquiring about his views afforded Coates the opportunity to explain his ideas beyond a simple binary of optimism and pessimism. The result (skip to 6:50):
One of the things I try to get across…is this notion that struggle is important whether success is assured or not. It’s worth trying even if you think it won’t work. I have no idea if we can live in a world without subjugation; but when the final tally comes up, I would like to say I was on the side of the people who were trying to not live in a world with subjugation. And I think there’s something in that. Whether you are successful ultimately or not. I think there’s something there.
That certainly doesn’t sound like the sentiments of an individual who is collecting all of his toys and going home but rather someone who considers himself navigating this world with eyes wide open. It’s actually pretty close to the optimist but realist sentiment Dr. King espoused. Later in the Pod Save America interview I linked earlier (at 50:57):
Jon Favreau: I guess my question is: Do you think it’s possible to have a full and accurate understanding of our racial history, not ignore any of it, understand how bad it was and what we’ve done in the past, and still be hopeful that we have agency to right those wrongs?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I think it’s the only way to be legitimately hopeful.
He just believes that “a full and accurate understanding” without avoiding the legacy and continued presence of white supremacy has not occurred yet. So if Coates has been pretty consistently clear that he will continue the Beautiful Struggle (props Talib), why the constant drive to have him preach hope? Um:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
— “White Fragility” Dr. Robin DiAngelo
Put simply, it’s uncomfortable to some when he refuses to do so. Check out Stephen Colbert’s interview of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
They begin in agreement even when tackling the NFL protests around the 2:50 mark. The “stress” begins around the 5:05 mark when Colbert brings up the topic of hope. Note how argumentative – I’ll leave it to you to judge emotions – Colbert becomes when Coates refuses to declare that he’s hopeful. Interestingly, Coates is not absolutist here and does eventually offer a “Maybe” to the question of if he could “personally see any chance for change in America.” He’s not saying change is impossible; Coates is simply not hopeful that it will occur. Rather than listen to an explanation of why Coates is not hopeful (as Stewart did btw), Colbert immediately attempts to contradict and shut Coates down using a euphemistic version of the “extinction belief” around 6:03…and fails fairly spectacularly. Colbert is a nice go-to for intelligent, thoughtful critique and analysis on a wide range of social issues and is often very funny. But in this particular instance of barely scratching the surface of white supremacy, he is completely unable to accept another’s perspective. Look, empathy is hard. Exhibiting empathy for a lack of privilege you have never experienced is even more difficult. This isn’t to “slam,” “eviscerate” or “own” Colbert. This is simply a perfect example of White Fragility performed in front of us like it was a skit at a well-intentioned corporate retreat on inclusivity.
You know who isn’t uncomfortable with the complexity of fighting without hope? Ta-Nehisi Coates. Reading his work, watching his appearances and listening to his interviews, the man is actually pretty damn consistent. Subjugation, in our country white supremacy, may be a fact of human history, but he has chosen to fight it through his talents as a writer. I’ve heard that belief before…
We ain’t meant to survive, ‘cause it’s a set-up //
And even though you’re fed up, huh, you got to keep ya head up