Since its release in July, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World And Me has won a National Book Award and garnered international attention for its deep, thoughtful account of black life in America today. The book explores systematic racism and violence towards people of color, race as a socially constructed concept born through racism, and documents Coates’ own life journey as he discovers and experiences the vulnerabilities of his own body. Between the World and Me does explore some historical topics, but it’s primarily a work of literature; an invitation to learn about one person’s experiences, reflect on your own life circumstances, and possibly come to a better understanding of the world’s inner workings.
No book is fully shielded from criticism–and Between the World and Me is no exception–but one persistent and unfortunate critique is that Coates does not offer enough hope of a better future for his readers or provide a tangible solution for solving America’s racism. This argument fails to listen to Coates on his own terms and says more about the reader’s own feelings, desires, and preferred narratives than a true understanding of the substance of Between the World and Me. Indeed, such a critique is akin to knocking Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet because it doesn’t have a happy ending, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men because it fails to portray the American West as a place where everyone enjoys prosperity and success, or Wiesel’s memoirs for not finding a solution to combat future acts of anti-semitism. There is also a political element to this “hopelessness” critique in that many of the people levying this charge believe that racism is a thing of the past, or at least an overblown distraction utilized mostly for political profit and not grounded in practical reality. Philosopher Andre Archie, for example, laments Coates’ politics as “hopeless” and asserts that “the status of blacks and their cultural products has risen so much that even the most dysfunctional aspects of black culture have been embraced by various segments of the white community,” whatever the hell that’s actually supposed to mean.
In a recent follow-up essay for The Atlantic Coates rightly asserts, in my opinion, that good art concerns itself more with enlightenment and understanding than making people feel good. Hope is merely one emotion in a spectrum of emotions that good art intends to highlight. To demand a happy conclusion and boundless hope at every corner is to demand immunity from the emotional hardships of life itself.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of hope and how it relates to the ways historians think about and construct narratives of the past. In a post about popular misconceptions of the usefulness and purpose of history, University of Exeter professor Laura Sangha outlines three common takeaways from history:
- That history is a collection of facts and mostly feel-good stories about Kings, Presidents, and the natural progress of humanity.
- That history provides us with easily understood, tangible “lessons” that can allow us to avoid repeating past mistakes.
- That history can tell us “where we came from” and help us make sense of the present. (Sangha acknowledges that there is some truth in this claim, but that we often overstate the true value of history in explaining where we are today).
Each of these misconceptions is, in a way, reflective of a desire to turn history into a story that make us feel good. By assuming that there are lessons to be learned from history that help avoid past mistakes, we comfort ourselves with the idea that past hardships have been conquered and are of no concern to us today, and that this knowledge acts as a sort of bulletproof vest against future difficulties. “Slavery ended a long time ago!” says the person who fails to see that millions of people around the world remain enslaved today. By assuming that the stuff of history moves in a linear fashion towards upward human progress instead of in fits and starts and complex shapes, we run the risk of leaving out a great deal of hardship and humanity in the quest to create a feel-good narrative about the present. Again, it says more about us than it does the past. This is the fatal flaw of whiggish, nationalist histories (in both book form and through public iconography) that attempt to simplify past conflicts and frame the state and its heroic leaders as beacons of ever-growing, self-evident freedom for their people. Founding Fathers. Bill of Rights. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson. Liberty. Natural Rights. Sacrifice. ‘Murican history.
If the story of history is one of happiness and progress, however, then the action of any one person in a society becomes irrelevant because the state of humanity will improve regardless. It even becomes pointless to learn about history itself because the ending has already been written for you. But historical thinking has taught me that changes to a society over time require interpretation and explanation precisely because they don’t move forward in any uniform fashion. World War II happened only eighty years ago. Warfare, genocide, and slavery still exist. These things demand an explanation. Hopeful historical narratives make us feel good, but they don’t necessarily lead to enlightenment and understanding.
The late historian John Hope Franklin recalled an incident in the 1960s when he was asked by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to compile a history of civil rights in the United States from the nation’s founding to the present. The commission expressed disappointment in the final product, however, because it was too hopeless a narrative for them. The commission, according to Franklin, had hoped for “a note of greater tolerance and moderation” that would highlight a heartwarming story of “negro progress” in American history. Franklin responded “I am afraid that I cannot ‘tidy up’ the history that Americans themselves have made.”
History is not about making us feel good – it’s about empathy, understanding, and respect for the complexities of our shared but ever-evolving humanity. There is beauty in this struggle, just as much as the joy in discovery. History helps us better appreciate both.