Power Couples, and the Strangeness of Place

In 2007, two loves came into my life.

The year before, I met the woman who would eventually become my wife, the one I called my One Great Love. She lived in a town that, as the song lyrics go, is a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of.” Our very first date was there, and throughout the first year of our relationship, she spent time showing me around this glorious Apple, New York City.

My lady lived in West Harlem, right between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. One of the most beautiful spots in Manhattan, I would pilot my 2004 Mazda6 Sport wagon up the Henry Hudson Parkway, the best views of the mighty Hudson River rolling past me. Then, on reaching my destination, there was of course the obligatory twenty-to-thirty minute hunt for a parking spot.

As things began to change yet again in my life–homelessness; a growing rift in my family over the very woman I’d left pretty much everything to be with, job instability–New York began to mean something I never thought it would. Sure, I spent hundreds of dollars in tolls driving back and forth to be with the woman I loved, but more than that, I had begun to see New York City as a place of healing; a cathartic haven where the pain of past mistakes could be left behind in the dust, never to be picked up again. In April of 2008, I would move to this town, and called 508 West 142 Street my first home.

This past Presidents’ Day, I once again found myself in West Harlem for work. A construction project on the 1 line stopped service between 137 Street-City College and 242 Street-Van Cortlandt Park, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. On a long break, I walked through the neighborhood, taking in the sights and experiences along Broadway. I walked up Broadway to West 142 Street, and made a right. The nostalgia only got stronger as I walked up the hill towards my very first home in New York City. And as has been my lot nearly three years now, a heavy sadness came over me.

I remembered the first night my lady and I went out and experienced NYC’s night life together, hanging out at the 40/40 Club in Chelsea. I thought of the day she took me to Katz’s Deli, exposing me to the best pastrami on the planet. I remembered the day she took me down to get my first taste of Vietnamese food, to this day my favorite Asian cuisine.

My sadness became almost unbearable that night, because none of those things mattered anymore. On November 17, 2014, exactly four months after losing my lady’s trust over a financial matter, the story of our love ended. My lady became the direct target of my first emotional breakdown.

To this day, it is the greatest mistake I have ever made in my life.

*

What, exactly, is a “power couple?”

If you ask people, they might mention the all-time, go-to power couple of Jay-Z and Beyonce. Those people will talk about what makes those two such a “power couple”: their great wealth, their artistic compatibility; or godhood (just ask any member of the Bey-hive).

As I see it, a “power couple” is defined by the fires walked through together; how many valleys are traversed without losing sight of the things which brought them together. Our broken marriage is proof that a “power couple” isn’t defined by other people’s predictions, desires or hopes; only through the strength, faith and love each person has for one another, especially when money runs out. Or when living situations change.

Power couples don’t fold up and quit when trust is on the verge of being lost, or when things go south in a particular situation. Power couples fight for the right to be together, even when the battle happens to comes from within; when there are no external forces to fight. Power couples build each other up when one falters; will know when the other is hurting, or going through something within. Power couples who stand the test of time are examples of what other couples can be, and should strive towards.

I wonder all the time if my lady and I were ever destined to be a power couple. Obviously with an impending finalization of a divorce, that question has been answered with a resounding no. With so many thoughts and emotions racing through my head these last two and a half years, I’ve struggled with how to view our time together; were they eight years of lessons learned, or a complete waste of the best time of our lives? Did I bring our marriage to an end by my own hand that night, or was it just a perfect storm of unfortunate events over many years? Was it the diagnosis of my mental disorder? Was it interference by her parents?

I’ll probably never know.

*

Living here in New York City, all on my own, feels weird.

I’ve been up here in New York nearly two years now. Despite the incredible gains I’ve made within my own self, I wrestle with the pain of having lost someone so dear to me; even more than my own life. I hurt from the pain I caused her, as my emotional breakdown fell directly on her four months after I lost her trust over a financial matter. At the risk of sounding myopic, her love and words meant everything to me, and I haven’t been able to fully heal emotionally and mentally from such a loss. I have neither spoken to or seen her in over a year.

But even more than that, I have never been able to fully enjoy New York the way I’ve wanted to. When I lived up here with my lady, this city became my “spiritual mother”, healing my wounds and changing my scenery. Despite some struggles, this city healed me, and made my problems seem miles away. My lady and I built a real home up here. We were truly happy up here together.

I’ve returned to my spiritual home, but this time, it’s completely on my own. New York is still very much a place that wants to be that place of healing once again, but I just have not been able to fully let her in this time. It’s funny; how could a city, bursting with life, activities and energy, not be a place where I can heal again?

Or is it because I can’t seem to get past what was “supposed” to happen?

I waited seven years for Transit to call me after I took the test to become a conductor. I had told my lady for years that once the call came, that was our cue to return to New York City. When we left NYC in 2010, I saw nothing but disappointment, heartbreak and pain in her eyes as we drove over the George Washington Bridge. Having lived up there before I did, she never really wanted to leave NYC. She had dreams of becoming a fashion designer, and wanted to stay in the city for life.

By the time Transit called, we were already separated. The trust she had in me, especially after the night we split, was long gone. Her roots had grown far too deep to just simply pick up and leave Baltimore. Besides, her running “career”–something that had become a bone of contention between us, as she used running to build her emotional wall between us after the financial matter happened–was now in high gear. She wanted to “run till her legs fell off”, as she told me one day.

I tried to explain to her that the opportunity with Transit was my way of paying her back for all the years she worked her butt off to keep us afloat throughout all the years I was in and out of work. I finally had something more solid than any other career I’d tried my hand in, and I wanted her to be a part of it.

But alas, it didn’t happen.

And the rest is, well, history.

*

Throughout these years, my writing has suffered greatly. Under must circumstances, I could easily pen something about politics, a movie I’d seen, or just my feelings on any given topic.

But ever since this second separation and impending divorce, I have found myself incapable of writing anything of consequence. My pain has been nothing less than excruciating, as I’ve never felt so ripped apart in my life. My first divorce had its own pain, but what made it much easier to get through was that my lady was there to relieve me of the pain of my loss.

This second time–two divorces before the age of thirty-five–hurts in a way few can comprehend; I don’t even fully understand it myself. I lost a woman I fell deeply and completely in love with, but a mirror was placed in front of me, forcing a serious confrontation with myself. The first marriage could easily be written off as a matter of immaturity, but this time, there weren’t really any excuses. I’d gotten married at age thirty, and we were together five years prior to us getting hitched.

Something wasn’t right, and seeing as I had no one to keep me from actually taking the time to truly examine myself this time, I had to be the change I wanted to see, to borrow from Gandhi. I hadn’t taken the time to sort myself out between the two marriages, and now, I was given that opportunity to do so.

Which is what I’ve done. After a rocky start–including a stint of living in my car– I’ve managed to finally get things to some sort of equilibrium. I’m managing the disorder I have, and am on a real road to recovery. Things are well on the job and, while not fully satisfied with where I am in my life, I am working hard to live my best life.

I certainly wish my lady well, as she is no doubt on her own road to recovery. I won’t lie; I miss her so much. I wish things were different between us, and that we were up here together, in the place where we were truly happy. But instead of any ill feelings and bitterness, I will simply wish her well in everything she does, and be there for her in any way I can, should she ever want to be my friend. I doubt that will ever be the case, though.

For my part, I can only hope that I’m able to fully recover from the pain of the past, and fully embrace my spiritual mother as my own once again. Springtime is coming soon, and as we all know, there is nothing better than New York City when the weather is warm.

Here’s to a new season of healing.

Getting Delores Back

On Wednesday morning, approximately around 3:30 a.m., I was awakened by my mother-in-law, who had heard the sound of a diesel truck pull up directly in front of the house. She screamed for me to go out front, as the diesel engine belonged to a tow truck, which had arrived to carry out the most unwelcome task for the fiscally irresponsible. After ninety-one days past due, the bank I had financed Delores through finally came to take her back.

I threw on clothes faster than I ever have, being the size and weight I am. I ran outside to see Delores already hitched, propped by her front wheels. I begged the truck driver, himself a family man, to leave Delores where she was so I could get together what little money I could to send in a payment. But the driver refused, saying that if he left her there, he would lose his own job.

After getting together a few of my personal items, including my first pair of running shoes, my baseball glove, and a bat gifted to me by teammates of a community college baseball team I played with nearly two decades ago, the tow driver rumbled away, Delores silently at its back. I shed no tear that would belie my grief, but deep inside, despair, anguish, embarrassment and shame tore my soul to shreds.

Delores was gone, and I had failed.

♦               ♦               ♦

In October 2011, we bought a 2008 Volkswagen Passat, Cobalt Blue in color. It was perhaps the nicest vehicle I’d ever owned. It was my very first time owning a German marque; in many respects, vehicles that come from Deutschland are believed to be the platinum standard of automaking. Practically speaking, it was a big addition to our pile of stuff; after nearly nine months of being unemployed, I had taken an offer to work for a bank branch in Bowie, Maryland. My wife’s car at the time, a 1999 Nissan Altima SE with a library’s worth of stories in its own mileage, would not be sound for an everyday commute of nearly forty miles each way.

2011 was a shit year for Jessica and I. We had just gotten engaged in April of 2010, and had begun to slowly make plans to build a permanent life around each other. The woman I know as the great love of my life had become more dear to me than life itself, having been the only thing keeping me somewhat sane after going through an ugly separation, and catching heat from my family over my impending divorce three years earlier. I proposed to Jessica at Union Square, and after driving throughout Manhattan, she finally said yes, in front of all places, Yankee Stadium.

Trouble was brewing. The job market cratered in New York City that year. Jessica had spent six years getting her undergraduate in the hills of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and an associate’s in Fashion Design in Tribeca after that, and was a casualty of the fashion industry’s restructuring. I was selling cars at a luxury dealership on the West Side of Manhattan, and lost that job in May. My grandmother’s health had begun to rapidly deteriorate, and my extended family was on edge as the inevitable drew closer. Our Bronx apartment that had given us issue after issue developed leaks in the ceiling over the kitchen. The question we had started to ask ourselves in the midst of all this, one that we seriously did not want to answer on our own, began to answer itself:

Is it time to move back to Baltimore?

The answer became yes. In July of 2010, we left New York, emotional baggage and all. Neither of us wanted to leave, especially Jessica. She had spent her entire life trying to get to the Big Apple, and here we were, four years after her initial arrival, crossing the George Washington Bridge with our belongings for the last time as New York residents. I had gotten a job with an Audi dealership in Baltimore County, and was prepared to start fresh. Jessica and I would live separately the rest of that year, she with her mother, and I at my grandmother’s house. Thus would begin our rebuilding stage, in the city we were both from, yet neither of us truly wanted to be here. It would be here in Baltimore that I would watch my grandmother decline, inexorably to the end.

♦               ♦               ♦

Alice Delores Marie Shired was born October 21, 1933. The day she was born is one of note in our family; it is a date shared by her daughter (my mother), and my father’s mother, who was born the same day in 1926. Growing up, October 21st was known as ” All Mother’s Day”, and was a pretty big event for our family.

My grandmother and I, circa 2008.

My grandmother and I, circa 2008.

I am my grandmother’s first grandson, and our connection was made almost immediately upon my arrival on this earth. There is a story my mother tells of my grandmother being on the phone at the hospital, and my father holding me in his arms and putting the phone up to my mouth to talk to her, not even a couple hours old. My grandmother cried tears of joy when she heard me speak. I’m fairly certain that this was my first encouragement to pursue a career in speaking, or a guarantee that I’d never shut up. You’d have to ask my wife about that.

My grandmother and I were always very close, and there wasn’t much we didn’t do. As a little boy, sometimes I would watch The Price Is Right while on the phone with her. When I got older, I would watch the show with my grandmother in her room before she got her day started. Throughout that time, my grandfather, Robert L. Brown was there, sipping his Milwaukee’s Best at the bar in his basement. By way of his service to this nation during the Korean War, and decades put in at Bethlehem Steel, they moved from the ‘hood of West Lombard Street by Baltimore’s Westside Shopping Center, and settled in the heart of Glen, part of the city’s largest community of orthodox Jews.

Grand-Dad died of cancer in January of 1998, and not too long after, my grandmother’s health began to fail. Perhaps the death of her Beloved proved too much for her to handle; not too long afterwards, my Grandma had her first stroke.

Then there were the heart attacks. Then the dementia.

And then the organs shutting down.

Eventually, my grandmother would end up going to dialysis three days a week. The one good kidney she had left failed long ago, but her condition had not stopped her from opening her home to me when I became homeless in 2008, right before I left for New York. Thankfully, it did not stop her from welcoming me back when I returned in 2010.

I helped out in any way I could. In the morning, I would help her get down the stairs for my aunts to take her to dialysis. I sometimes would get meals for her, picking up things to eat on my way home from work. If there were messes made, I cleaned them up for her.

And when there were times she needed to be carried up the stairs, I did that too, most notably in October of that year, when I would carry her up those stairs one last time.

Jessica had picked me up from work, and we were discussing something. Maybe we were arguing or something as we traveled down I-83, but something told me to veer off onto Northern Parkway, to check on my grandmother. We arrived to find her in the living room, cold and shaking. She had been on the couch for several hours, and was confused, and hungry. She couldn’t walk, so Jessica and I carried her up the stairs ourselves. Once there, Jessica put Grandma in her pajamas while I made something hot for her to eat.

Three days later, my grandmother would leave her home, never to return.

♦               ♦               ♦

My grandmother would shuttle constantly between Union Memorial Hospital and the rehab clinic south of it, especially after her finger went black. The middle finger of her left hand that was the first piece of her body to wither and die. Some in our family thought it was from the port in her arm used to flush her system during dialysis. However it started, it put her in a lot of pain.

I was doing well at the Audi dealership, despite the circumstances there. It wasn’t easy to sell cars there when the sales manager handed over every internet lead to the salesperson that had followed him up from Annapolis. But I was making it work, and was heading over to see my grandmother every Tuesday, no matter where she was. It was right around this time I started putting away money for a really nice apartment in Station North, just above Baltimore’s Penn Station.

I saw an ad for the place on Craigslist: a three-bedroom, two-bath spot on East Lafayette Avenue. The stated rent seemed like a pretty good deal, especially for an apartment north of Penn Station that was over 1300 square feet in space. The close proximity to the Amtrak station–which meant direct access to both Washington, DC and New York City–was a major selling point. A former Facebook friend went so far as to call the neighborhood an unofficial “suburb” of the city that meant so much to us.

I went to see the place, which was absolutely beautiful. I had never seen such an immaculate apartment, with such incredible expanse. It seemed like the perfect place to start our new life in Baltimore, Jessica and I. We would be able to have everything we wanted, and be happy for once in our living situation. The experience in the Bronx had left us with a bad taste in our mouths about renting.

I decided to surprise my wife-to-be with this new apartment. For all my horrendous habits with money, I managed to save up enough to put a deposit down on the apartment of my dreams. And this time, I wanted to make it all a surprise. After all, I thought, isn’t that what a man’s supposed to do, welcome his lady into the home he built?

There were hiccups along the way, and the management company wasn’t able to hold the apartment for us. However, they informed us of another property they had acquired on Barclay Street that was about to be built–still in close proximity to the train station, but in a far rougher block in the neighborhood. Ultimately, this would be the place we would make our new home. This whole time, however, my grandmother had deteriorated badly. My aunts, enduring much consternation over the decision, finally agreed to let doctors amputate her finger. No more blood flowed to that extremity at all. The nail on that finger had fallen off, and unbeknownst to us, gangrene had already begun to take my grandmother’s body, and had started to pop up in other places. In fact, one of the last things my grandmother said to me about her condition was, “I feel like my legs are dying.”

Two of the fingers on her hand were taken, but despite the therapy sessions and hospital visits, my grandmother was almost gone, and there was nothing that could be done.

♦               ♦               ♦

In March 2011, I received a text message while at an event in Mount Vernon, south of Station North. My cousin sent me the news I knew was coming: My grandmother was in hospice, dying rapidly of sepsis. The gangrene from her withered body had finally dealt her the blow she would not recover from. Sepsis, as defined by the National Institutes of Health, is a severe reaction to bacteria or other pathogens that afflict the body. It is an excruciating disease, one that inflicts severe pain, delirium, chills, and shaking. Very few people that go through sepsis survive.

Though I was expecting the news to come down, I was not mentally prepared for it. That previous month, I had been fired from the Audi dealership I was working, two days after I delivered two cars in the same evening. Having lost such a job was devastating, especially since I had become so fond of Audi during my years in New York.

That next morning, I went to see my grandmother one last time, along with one of my brothers.  When we entered the room, I saw Alice Delores Marie Shired Brown–a woman who had given so much of her own life to others, much less my own–curled into a ball, ravaged in her septic state. My brother lifted the cover over her legs, revealing one them had been amputated. The nurses had kept her morphine levels up to keep her comfortable, and after a nurse had come to check in on her, I spoke to her directly in her ear.

I thanked her for everything she had done for me; for the lessons in life, the times we watched The Price Is Right, and for her example of strength and resiliency in the face of her death. I thanked her for rebuking my tendency to worry about her so much, and for telling me that above all else, to be a strong man and leader.

I took my grandmother’s hand, kissed it, then after I told her I loved her, I said, “Go home.”

I have no memory of what I did the rest of that day. Seeing my grandmother in such a state left my mind in a numbed fog. Perhaps I ate something. Took a shower. Not really sure–

I awoke with a start around 12:30 in the morning, in a cold sweat and shaking. My bedroom had become frigid, despite the heat being on. I looked around briefly, then went back to sleep. Later that morning, I got a phone call from my mother, who broke the news.

On March 4th, 2011, Alice Delores Marie Shired Brown had returned to the Ancestors, and to the husband who went before her thirteen years before. She was the last of my grandparents to die. Strangely, in the week leading up to the funeral, I never cried once; I tried to be strong for my grandmother as I thought she would want, spending my time instead being thankful that her suffering had ended. The day of the funeral was no different. I truly believed I had it all together, until we made our way to her final resting place, and watched as her remains were returned to the earth. Jessica–who had developed a deep love for my grandmother after losing her own in childhood–and I finally let go of every single tear we had been holding in.

As I mentioned before, 2011 was a shit year.

♦               ♦               ♦

When we bought the Passat that October, this car represented a new, grand chapter in our lives. 2011 had started terribly, but only got worse as spring and summer came along.

The air conditioning unit went up in our apartment, and the woman who lived below us lost a massive amount of property due to the water damage. Mold quickly sickened my wife and our neighbor, who at one time I personally rushed both to the hospital at once. The property management company had been exposed as a thief, stealing water from the city by not having a meter from the alley.

And on top of all that, I couldn’t find full-time work. Resumes were sent out, and networking was done, but I got nowhere until I got the aforementioned job at the bank, which paid a great salary, health benefits, and even a savings plan.

Jessica named her Altima “Clara”, after her grandmother Clara Wade, her beloved “Nano.” This gave me the inspiration to name the new car after my own. That 2008 Volkswagen Passat would heretofore be known as “Delores.”

This vehicle honors not just the memory of the woman who helped shape my life, but also my father’s mother Rowena Wingfield, who was brutally murdered in her own home in 2005. The color blue was her favorite, and is a testament to her wisdom and her own regal character. Delores carried me down to Busboys and Poets the night I met the man who would become my father in journalism, Jonathan Capehart. Delores bears the logos of my school, the University of Baltimore, and carried in its trunk multiple copies of The UB Post during my time as a Staff Writer and Editor-in-Chief. Aside from the trips up and down I-95 to New York, Delores brought my wife and I safely to Virginia Beach and back, with two bad spark plugs.

This car–yes, a car–became not just a way to get around, but was a mark of my identity, and a reminder of the road I’ve traveled to get to get this far.

Which is why I feel so much shame in screwing this all up.

I humbly admit to my readers, my family, my mentors, and most of all, my wife: I should have been much more careful with this car. Hindsight has rendered me a regretful, stuttering mess in the wake of my own folly. I made too many mistakes. Instead of treasuring that which I had, I let this slip away. Getting laid off from a position that sought to bring focus and gravity to the subject of voting, especially in a year filled with so many reasons to exercise this precious franchise, did not help either.

This is the first time I have ever done something like this, to publicly ask for help. Perhaps I have taken too long to “get to the point”, so to speak, as putting the legacy of my grandmother in even this way was a very personal endeavor. My grandmother meant so much to me, and was one of a powerful cadre of people that directed me to go to school, and unlock my potential. I’m still not there yet.

I am asking for this assistance so that I can make things better for my family, and for my future. I did not want you, my readers, to have any doubts as to where your money will go, or what my motivations were.

Any and all help is appreciated by clicking on this link. Also, should you hear of any open fellowship programs or writing jobs, please let me know. Thank you, thank you; a thousand times, I thank you.

 

Reparations: Yet Another “Conversation”

(Isaiah L. Carter)

(Isaiah L. Carter)

I had to laugh weeks ago when discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece, “The Case For Reparations” with friends on Twitter. Having known what to expect from Coates for a while now, it did not shock me that people were waiting with the proverbial bated breath as they watched the trailer–yes, in the manner of a summer blockbuster film–heralding the piece validating everything that Black people all over the country that enslaved our ancestors had always known. Coates is viewed by many to be the intellectual scion and/or reincarnation of James Baldwin, so the adulation before the piece was written came at no surprise.

Allow me to declare something that will surprise most of my readers: Never before have I read such a complete, all-encompassing historical artifact. Coates deserves both all credit and praise (and will no doubt receive a Hillman award) for taking his time with this piece, and I personally congratulate this man for such an achievement. This is the type of writing that originally drew me to Coates in the first place, and before this work was written, I had no idea of the existence of Belinda Royall, a former slave who successfully petitioned the government for reparations. Nor had I ever heard of Clyde Ross, the 91-year-old who fought Chicago’s housing discrimination with the Contract Buyers League. Despite my differences with Coates, this was a very important piece.

What disturbed me most about this article is that after drawing one of the straightest lines of comprehensive historical progression, Coates provided nothing even remotely representing a clear definition of what modern reparations should look like, save for support for Rep. John Conyers’ H.R. 40. As he stated in his afterword the next day, this was his intent all along. Others began filling in the gaps Coates left, offering their own definitions of reparations in the context of housing discrimination, which some (including myself) believe is the overarching theme of Coates’ article.

But then, I had to remember something very important: This is Ta-Nehisi Coates, the one who has blatantly stated he really only wants to remain “intensely curious” about racism, and is not vested in actually solving anything. And as more commentary on Coates’ work continues to come out, it becomes more clear that a goal for making reparations a reality–a full redress for every ill and injustice ever suffered by Blacks in this country over nearly five centuries’ time–is something many of these Black Thought Leaders simply do not want to tackle. The stated goal, it seems, is just to “continue The Conversation.”

Consider this from Peniel Joseph, author of Stokely: A Life:

…in the Obama age, where the fact of a black first family frequently muffles the national conversation on race and democracy, Americans need a primer on why race matters now more than ever. This includes young black folk, who are at times confused or ambivalent about the way in which the seemingly distant past (to them, the 1980s, let alone the 1960s or the 1860s) connects to their contemporary lives.
A candid discussion of reparations will ultimately force us to “imagine a new country,” observes Coates, in a note of hard-earned optimism in an otherwise unfailingly sober historical and political assessment of race in 21st-century America.

Coates confirms this case here:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans. What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

This bit of commentary seems high-minded and noble. But when you consider those who have made monolithic Black oppression their brand identity, any trace of real progress by Blacks in this nation must be dismissed as some impractical, unattainable exceptionalism. This abstract of reparations–one wide open, all-platform, grand Conversation where a precise definition remains open-ended to anyone–is both disingenuous and insulting because its sole purpose at bottom is to retain overall relevance.

How can we know this? Let’s start at his interview with BuzzFeed deputy Editor-in-Chief Shani Hilton last week, who gave this response when asked why his cover story broke online readership records:

 When we came up with this idea on the edit side and we started talking about it and it got out into the company what we were doing, I would talk to business people and they would say, “Yeah, this is gonna be big.” And I was like, How is reparations going to be good for business? How is anyone going to walk into an ad meeting and say, “Yeah. This is what we’re doing?” I think a part of it is, one of the things I learned very early in my career is that if you made any claim or charge about racism, people click. So, I literally could have gone when I first started, and said, blog post number one: “Racism.” Blog post number two: “White Folks Did It.” Blog post number three: “Black Folks Did It.” And you could just go down the line because people, for some reason it sets their hair on fire. That’s it, right? I think that’s the first thing.

Get clicks. Set records. Further “The Conversation.”

Okay.

The second way to tell the lack of seriousness from these falsely so-called Black Thought Leaders is when they openly declare that advancing “The Conversation” on reparations to its inexorable next stage–the logistics–is somehow “missing the point” or, as NPR’s Gene Demby writes, evidence that one has not read Coates’ case past the headline. This position asks that one immediately shut off all intellectual endeavors in solving and repairing the impacts of this nation’s Original Sin at precisely the moment they’re needed most, which is frankly stupid when by one recent estimate, there is at least $10 trillion we could be discussing. If one dares to “imagine a new country” without presenting a single tangible solution as to how it is made reality, what is it all worth?

Is it possible that a serious discussion of reparations scares even the mighty Ta-Nehisi?

The Brookings Institute’s Megan Bradley offers this to explain why discussing the logistics of reparations are appropriate and necessary:

Outside of the legal framework, definitions of reparation, restitution and redress have become particularly muddled. For example, scholar Elazar Barkan’s definition of restitution has significant overlaps with the legal definition of reparation, but is much broader than the concept of restitution under international law. In his influential text The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, Barkan offers a comprehensive notion of restitution as the ‘entire spectrum of attempts to rectify historical injustices’ (Barkan 2001: xix). Barkan (2001: xviii) contends that the legal tools of remedy, that is, restitution, compensation and satisfaction, ‘are all different levels of acknowledgement that together create a mosaic of recognition by perpetrators for the need to amend past injustices’. Although broad, this conceptualisation is salient because it encompasses the diverse yet interrelated approaches available to remedy injustice, including high-level legal initiatives such as trials and property restitution mechanisms, political efforts such as apologies and truth commissions, and grassroots reconciliation and coexistence projects.

Coates and others of his ilk bid this nation to live in a perpetual state of remorseful, unending penitence; to forevermore wallow in the regrets of American white supremacy within bounds only they can set. He writes, “The payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.” The problem with this argument, other than Coates’ premise that America is cursed ground specifically engineered for Black extermination (though factual, one may wish to ask an Indian about that some time) is that as a nation, we are already very much introspective, as John McWhorter points out:

Despite frequent claims that America “doesn’t want to talk about race,” we talk about it 24/7 amidst ringing declamations against racism on all forms. Over the past year’s time, I need only mention Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling. Over the past few years, three of the best-selling and most-discussed nonfiction books have been Isabel Wilkerson’s chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Rebecca Skloot’s book about the harvesting of a black woman’s cancer cells (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), and Michelle Alexander’s invaluable The New Jim Crow. And let’s not forget recent major release films such as The Help12 Years a Slave, and The Butler. Can we really say that these are signs of a nation in denial about race, racism, and its history?

I certainly can’t. While only a deluded fool would dare deny the legacy and continued effects of white supremacy in these United States,  it is nothing short of perverse to incessantly draw the Black gaze to the perceived monolithic riches of white people to one’s own station in life and hopelessly declare Blackness as a destitute, zero-sum game. An incomplete “Conversation” on race that refuses to focus on how we improve our own future merely feeds the beast of confirmation bias.

But finally, the greatest impediment to reparations lies not in any grand cabal of white supremacy; it rests firmly in the yet unchallenged ethos of individualism, which permeates every facet of our existence and has resisted repeated historical challenges, as Allen Guelzo wrote in 2002:

American law, both in terms of statute law and common law, is rooted in long historical assumptions about where rights are located. From the time of the American founding, we have understood rights to be located in individuals. We recognize no titles of nobility: this means not only that the American republic repudiates the notion of a titled aristocracy, but that it does not recognize any special category of rights belonging to a class of people. There is, in the politics of the Founders, no essential quality of nobility that all aristocrats are presumed to share and others not, and which we are all obliged to recognize legally. By the same logic, we recognize no national language, no national church, and no national race, because we do not locate civil status or rights in groups, whether those groups are ethnic, religious, or racial. So, when a crime is committed, we want to know about the guilt or innocence of the individual, not someone’s racial group, religion, or other characteristic. And when a civil judgment is issued, we want to compensate the individuals who were actually harmed, even in a class action, not the race or church or bowling league they belong to.

The grain of American jurisprudence thus runs completely against assigning blame on the basis of group identity (something which we have shown most recently in our instinctive recoil from the practice of racial profiling). It expresses the measure of resistance we have toward identifying individuals as anything but individuals, and it poses a philosophical stumbling block for reparations litigation right on the threshold of the courtroom.

It is individualism and esotericism that derails progress and eliminates real traction for political and social change in this country. Stories abound of movements that begin with much fanfare and hope, then become easy targets of punchlines and scorn once revealed as aught but shameless self-promotion. Coates’ grand sermon delineating the sins of this Nation and demanding its repentance boost his brand and his profile, but true reparations–the admittance of wrong; the apology and recompense by the offending party, and the forgiveness of that party by the victims–would be the single-most collectivist act ever committed in this country,  an amazing feat given that not only do few believe in paying for the sins of generations long dead, but that many are not interested in forgiveness of wrong either.

Thus, the impasse remains, and the hurt further entrenches.

Racism, the Erosion of Trust, and the Lost Art of Objective Analysis

The 44th Executive of our Nation.

“I want my country back.”

When screamed into the public discourse at a town hall five years ago, these words became the call-to-arms for the purest, most virulent fringes of conservatism to unite. For centuries, the United States, for all its initial tropes about freedom and liberty from the British crown, had held to a very basic ideal: that you were only considered a “real American” if you were a white,  land-owning man. This was rigorously enforced through indentured servitude, chattel slavery, and de jure segregation. Slowly but surely, the oft-mentioned “arc of justice” bent towards racial equality, reducing in the minds of many the impact of overt, naked bigotry.

When Barack Obama was elected President the first time, it upset centuries of deeply held beliefs and norms about the purity of the office. Blacks could serve as members of presidential cabinets, even as high as Secretary of State, but anything even remotely leading the Executive Branch was off-limits. The Right first viewed Obama’s rise as a horrible mistake of history; another of those “firsts” the Blacks love oh-so much, and would be forgotten just as quickly. But when Obama was elected to his second term as the Executive, the truth the Right refused to acknowledge before eventually came out. This President was now more than some passing fad the electorate would grow out of; he and the demographics that voted for him were now the harbingers of the Right’s demise. Despite the warnings of pundits, pollsters and the occasional plagiarizing libertarian Senator, the Republican Party was now that of the Aging White Rich Guy, with nothing between them and complete societal irrelevance.

These things are not new. But through all of this hatred and chaos remains the task of examining the science of these matters with clear, pragmatic distinction, able to emotionally disconnect from the issues and properly analyze the data set before us. Understanding the history and devastation of racism in America is a multidimensional–and multicultural–debate that is not for the simpleminded, and to his credit, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine attempted to do so, in a cover story entitled, “The Color of His Presidency.” However, his analysis has been repeatedly and aggressively criticized in the press, which is both sad and indicative of many of the points he was trying to make.

Where Chait Was Wrong…

DEFINITIONS ARE FUNNY THINGS in the construction of narratives, and nowhere is that more true than in Chait’s three words “prominent Republican figure.” When not placed within a clearly defined context, one is free to interpret that phrase however they wish. How do we define prominence? Is prominence determined by who shows up in media the most, or who has actual lawmaking power?

Pat Buchanan is a “prominent Republican figure”–if this were the year 1988. In 2011, however, Buchanan openly referred to Barack Obama as a “boy”, doing so in one of the most remarkable displays of career suicide ever recorded in an MSNBC interview with Rev. Al Sharpton. As if to compound his fall from the mainstream, Buchanan would go on to write a book on how bad America will be for white people in eleven years.

Despite his past significance in Republican politics, Buchanan was not the most “prominent Republican figure” to call President Obama a “boy” while in office, as Chait alleged. In terms of lawmakers, that disgrace goes to Rep. Mike D. Rogers, a Republican from Alabama’s Third District with seats on several House subcommittees:

We survived Jimmy Carter … we can survive this ol’ boy. … This is very similar to the mid-1970s. We had a long war (Vietnam), a corrupt administration, the nation elected a peanut farmer from Georgia and had high home-mortgage rates. Then at the end of four years, the American people said ‘enough’ and elected Ronald Reagan. It took him two years to dig us out, and we had two decades of prosperity. Then we backslid and we elected a community organizer from Chicago. History repeats itself.

In this respect, Chait was mistaken. While no biographies have been published yet calling this President “Boy Obama” (and given the current state of the conservative publishing industry, none likely will), Obama has endured reprehensible animus throughout his presidency on behalf of conservatives, having been called a “skinny, ghetto crackhead” by L. Brent Bozell III, founder of Media Research Group. Arguably the most “prominent Republican figure” over nearly three decades, Rush Limbaugh has racially assaulted President Obama repeatedly, referring to him as the “Halfrican American” in 2007 and appropriating a Los Angeles Times headline for a Paul Shanklin song entitled, “Barack the Magic Negro.”

And while the Clinton presidency was in many ways worse in terms of Republican partisan sentiment (who could forget those wonderful conspiracy theories about Vince Foster and Ron Brown), Clinton never had to cough up a birth certificate to prove he was a citizen of this nation.

This is what Chait got wrong. However, this piece was filled with much more that he was right about than people are giving him credit for.

What Chait Got Right

THE PRESIDENCY OF BARACK OBAMA is one that has produced much in terms of exposing America’s maturity deficit, showing how ill-prepared we are as a nation to have the “much-needed conversations” about race necessary to bring this country closer together. But even more than this, the criticism of people with views that do not differ all that much from their own has taken a nosedive in maturity as well. Consider this portion of Chait’s piece, in which he seeks to mark a clear distinction between a classical and social history of the Obama era:

…if you instead set out to write a social history of the Obama years, one that captured the day-to-day experience of political life, you would find that race has saturated everything as perhaps never before. Hardly a day goes by without a volley and counter-volley of accusations of racial insensitivity and racial hypersensitivity. And even when the red and blue tribes are not waging their endless war of mutual victimization, the subject of race courses through everything else: debt, health care, unemployment. Whereas the great themes of the Bush years revolved around foreign policy and a cultural divide over what or who constituted “real” America, the Obama years have been defined by a bitter disagreement over the size of government, which quickly reduces to an argument over whether the recipients of big-government largesse deserve it. There is no separating this discussion from one’s sympathies or prejudices toward, and identification with, black America. 

Here lies our first evidence of objective analysis being lost. As “conversations” have stratified across the country (as seen everywhere from Twitter hashtags to weekend news shows), the one thing lost above all else is trust. Chait talks about a scientific study done for UCLA by Michael Tesler and David Sears in 2010 that showed how race was indeed the primary motivator for most of the heated political discourse seen throughout Obama’s first term:

Like the [Dr. Henry Louis] Gates incident, Carter’s controversial racial comments generated considerable media attention. Claims of race-based opposition to Obama, in fact, received more attention than any other topic in the blogosphere from September 14 to September 25. Not surprisingly, 40 percent of respondents interviewed during this time period recalled hearing “a lot” about “charges that racism is a factor in criticisms of President Obama and his politics.” The president immediately attempted to dampen this race-based media firestorm by telling four Sunday morning talks shows airing the week of Carter’s comments that the vitriolic opposition facing his administration stemmed primarily from his policy positions, not his race. Whether or not these accusations of racially motivated opposition were actually true, the fact that they garnered so much press interest suggests that the Obama White House was operating in a more race-conscious atmosphere in its early months than were previous presidents.

As seen through the eye of empiricism, these findings were undeniably critical, but otherwise liberal critics attacked these findings as not being personal enough. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie basically wrote that the facts Chait found should not matter nearly as much as firsthand anecdotal accounts, accusing him of treating race as an “intellectual exercise” devoid of “lived experiences.” Melissa Harris-Perry, an MSNBC host and political science professor, strangely said the same thing, both saying in short that Chait’s view wasn’t Black enough.

Perhaps if Chait had written a piece that hit all the necessary buzzwords of one that has “checked his ‘privilege’ at the door” (a phrase that has become the new hotness when wishing to render dissent of any kind completely silent), he would have been hailed as one of the greatest assets in understanding how racism and scientifically proven racial hypersensitivity have affected the way people view the new political landscape. Instead, his analysis was treated as an affront to Black pain, and was given the echo-chamber treatment at MHP’s table while barely being allowed a chance to defend his premise.

This leads to several questions: In discussions on race in this country, what evidence should be used, pure scientific analysis or endless stories of “microaggressions”? Has faith in academic institutions eroded so much that people now view empiricism as some form of white oppression?

Also: was progressive ideology always this anti-intellectual?

Secondly, let us examine another point Chait was rigorously criticised for:

One of the greatest triumphs of liberal politics over the past 50 years has been to completely stigmatize open racial discrimination in public life, a lesson that has been driven home over decades by everybody from Jimmy the Greek to Paula Deen. This achievement has run headlong into an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination. If conservatism is inextricably entangled with racism, and racism must be extinguished, then the scope for legitimate opposition to Obama shrinks to an uncomfortably small space.

The racial debate of the Obama years emits some of the poisonous waft of the debates over communism during the ­McCarthy years. It defies rational resolution in part because it is about secret motives and concealed evil.

He continues:

Few liberals acknowledge that the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power. Conservatives feel that dread viscerally. Though the liberal analytic method begins with a sound grasp of the broad connection between conservatism and white racial resentment, it almost always devolves into an open-ended license to target opponents on the basis of their ideological profile. The power is rife with abuse.

The controversial nature of this statement is held in its absolute truth. To deny that we live in a society where to be openly branded a racist regardless of veracity often leads to public shame and humiliation (and in increasing cases, loss of status and livelihood) is a gross denial of recent history and progress.

Examples of this can be found in myriad: Joseph Williams, whose statements about Mitt Romney’s comfort level around white people in 2012 (the 47% video would eventually vindicate him) cost him his job with Politico and imperiled an illustrious three-decade career in journalism. Martin Bashir, on whose show Williams made his fateful comments, would lose his job after declaring that Sarah Palin should be subjected to the same punishment that slaves on Thomas Thistlewood’s plantation endured for her likening of the national debt to slavery. The aforementioned Melissa Harris-Perry was publicly reduced to a tearful apology for making a joke about Romney’s Black adopted grandson, Kieran.

Recent events have proven that this terrifying power is seen on the Right as well. Cliven Bundy was yet another courageous conservative “Everyman” getting stepped on by a bloated federal government until he decided to state his level of expertise on Black work ethic (involving “Nigras” and picking cotton), losing nearly every shred of mainstream conservative support he had. Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team, was already infamous for his housing discrimination practices before taped conversations with his mistress would render him persona non grata by the National Basketball Association, which banned him for life and fined him $2.5 million, the maximum allowed by the NBA’s constitution. Conservatives fell silent once it was discovered unequivocally that Sterling was a registered Republican.

And in a remarkable display of bipartisan racist intersectionality, Suey Park, a 23-year-old “hashtag activist”, was the darling of liberal media outlets such as Salon and The New Yorker for her #CancelColbert campaign, until it was found that she collaborated with conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, best known for her defense of the internment camps that Japanese families were held in during World War II.

If being called a racist is not a terrifying power–especially in an era of heightened public awareness via social media and overall basic enlightenment–why were the heinous sins of Donald Sterling brought out for a new generation to identify and denounce? If being called racist or accusations of employing them were not things avoided on levels approaching paranoia, why then are Williams and Bashir still unemployed?

In terms of policycraft, it has become quite easy to spot racism from the Right, especially after being given so many gifts of disgusting sentiment over the Obama years. From Rep. Steve King’s reprehensible comments about illegal immigrant drug mules and their “cantaloupe-sized” calf muscles, to Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint’s ridiculous revisionist history of the reasons behind the Civil War,  there is much to rightly condemn the Right on. As Chait pointed out in his piece, the Left indeed found Lee Atwater’s “nigger, nigger, nigger” remarks back in 1981 to be a “Rosetta stone” of sorts in seeking to decode conservative motives in lawmaking.

 So what would drive a person to believe that despite all the rancorous, very openly racist rhetoric the Right spouts, and all the subtle bigotry found throughout conservative dogma, that it is “completely insane” to believe that Republican politics is at its core an institution specifically designed to destroy minorities?

One answer could be that a view like this still holds to the possibility of actual bipartisanship being missed. If Republican racist absolutism were a real thing, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) would never have gotten together with Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont back in January to attempt to revive the Voting Rights Act. Neither would Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), a Black liberal and a Black conservative, have ever collaborated on a bill last month that would create paid apprenticeships to help young minorities find a trade. But because no one ever expects actual governance to take place in such a bitterly divided political climate, the sentiment of persistent ethnocentrism becomes the prevailing narrative.

The thing that all people should be striving for is to clearly identify the issues our country faces. Our goal should be to work with those willing to work collaboratively, and shun all who seek to benefit from sheer ethnocentric rage, no matter where it comes from. The racism that has pervaded the Obama era exists without question, and seeing its effects on dialogue and trust in this country has been discouraging at best. But finding solutions–actually moving past conversation mode– to overcome it all is imperative to our nation’s survival and status, both here at home and around the world. We are indeed in the “pangs of a new nation not yet born”, and the last six years has made that evident. But as is the way of all growing pains, they cease, and we emerge both older, wiser, and stronger in the process.