This week marks the five-year anniversary of the publication of my essay, “Why Claudia Jones Will Always Be More Relevant Than Ta-Nehisi Coates” in Black Agenda Report (BAR). Because of that piece (which I was invited to contribute by BAR’s Roberto Sirvent), I got the opportunity to correspond with the mighty Glen Ford (RIP) for the first time, and I would go on to contribute to BAR numerous times and to help launch The Black Agenda Review. (In fact, it was in an hour-long conversation with Glen after a BAR interview that the latter was conceived.)
At the time, I had just started as an assistant professor at Carleton College. I was beginning to shift my focus from a book I had been working during my postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign on the rise of anti-Marxist epistemologies in Black Studies (a project about 25% finished to which I’ll return at some point) to the entanglements of antiblackness and antiradicalism (which ultimately became the subject of my forthcoming book project, Black Scare/Red Scare). I can’t remember exactly why I decided to write a critique of Coates’ “The First White President” other than the fact that I had recently read several radical critiques of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma that also seemed to apply to an essay written nearly seventy-five years later.
Whatever the reason, I was clearly incensed, as the outline I created for my BAR essay included sections like “tired tropes” and “inaccurate concepts”; I wrote that Coates’ use of “bloody heirloom,” for example, “decontextualizes and de-historicizes the processes of racialization and antiblackness that move beyond attitudinal inheritance. Conjuring ‘racism’ allows for the types of intellectual laziness and analytical imprecision that evade real engagements with the structural and material conditions of Black folks.” I also found it problematic that Coates “Critique[d] white liberals’ downplaying of race, without critiquing Black Liberalism’s emphatic insistence on attributing everything to the ethical and moral failures of racism without a broader analysis.” My annoyance with “The First White President,” is perhaps best captured, though, by the hilarious original title of the essay: “Why Claudia Jones Would Slap Ta-Nehisi Coates: Structural Analysis and the Banality of Black Liberalism.” I don’t know if I was serious about that title, but it certainly captured the sentiment of the essay.
Below are five of my favorite “bars” from “Why Claudia Jones Will Always Be More Relevant Than Ta-Nehisi Coates”:
- The article epitomizes the fundamental aporia of Coates’ brand of Black liberalism: that whiteness and racism constitute and stabilize U.S. politics even as they present an “existential danger to the country and the world.” In other words, whiteness and racism are totalizing structures, both thesis and antithesis. Much like Myrdal’s erroneous explication of racism as a set of individual attitudes, Coates disastrously employs “whiteness” as a type of metaphysics that is neither contextually specific nor historically situated, and that defies any grounding in social relations.
- “The First White President”—simultaneously myopic and overreaching—is essentially predicated upon the tautology that whites elected Trump because of racism, and racists elected Trump because of whiteness.
- If we take Coates seriously, then we need not interrogate that the complex phenomena he simplistically calls “whiteness” are reproduced through specific technologies of racialized violence historically situated in regimes of capitalist expansion, including: the rollback of Reconstruction to stymie the sociopolitical development of freedmen; Jim Crow era lynchings meant to arrest the economic progress of Black folk but cloaked in specters of the Black rapist; the surveillance of Black political and literary activism during World War One because demands for civil rights were vilified as “pro-Germanism”; race riots in 1919 and beyond meant to beat back the most minute assertions of Black self-determination; and the criminalization and punishment of Black (inter)nationalism, anticolonialism, and anti-imperialism as seditious and anti-American.
- For Jones, white supremacy was not a matter of attitude or morals, but rather of property rights, access to resources, and the hierarchical organization of American society. In fact, she rejected the idea that racism and discrimination were acts of individual choice and stressed that they were forms of structural domination that needed to be eradicated if liberation for all people was to be achieved.
- However, the latter critique gives the impression that there is, in fact, no Black left. This elision… assumes that all the leftists are white, and all race analysis is liberal. More problematically, it reifies the tendency of Black Cold War Liberalism to erase, denounce, or discredit Black radicals… who provided a viable alternative to mainstream demands for liberal rights and recognition.
In revisiting my essay, I think it reflected the “academic battle rapper” style that characterized my first few years after graduate school. To be sure, if my essay “Caste Does Not Explain Race” is any indication, I haven’t completely given up that approach. However, as my review of Elizabeth Hinton’s America On Fire hopefully demonstrates, in this phase of my writing I try to spend more time with what the author did contribute and to be more thoughtful in my critique of why the gaps, oversights, and liberal specifications are problematic. I think this has to do with taking seriously the very dire global situation and realizing that we need all hands on deck. I find merit, if not necessity, in identifying points of unity and utility in writing that, in a general sense, illuminates and challenges the same types of issues, problems, and structures with which I’m concerned.
I would encourage all writers, scholars, intellectuals, knowledge producers, etc. to revisit your work. You’ll likely discover that you were simultaneously smarter and less informed than you remember. You’ll probably find a few lines that hint at where you were going next, and quite possibly where you are now. My essay reminded me, for example, just how long I’ve been fascinated by Doxey Wilkerson (who will be the subject of another book project.) You may cringe here and there, but it’s also likely that you’ll find at least one passage that you’re proud of and that you want to thank your former self for.
I’m certainly grateful for “Why Claudia Jones Will Always Be More Relevant Than Ta-Nehisi Coates.” It introduced me to outward-facing (“public intellectual”) scholarship, allowed me to make a tiny contribution to one of my favorite sources of political education (BAR), helped to cultivate important relationships, provided a sort of time capsule of ideas I was working through at the time, and allowed me to develop my critical voice. Five years later I think my little polemic, to use the words of the great Gerald Horne, “passes muster.”