A Nasty Piece of Cornbread: Chait, Coates, and White Progressivism

This post originally appeared on the personal website of Tressie McMillan Cottom.


I once set out to write a book of southern aphorisms. It was going to be a serious treatment of (mostly) black (uniquely) southern “mother wit” as philosophy. Then, grad school and so on and so on.

If I were to undertake a project today I would start with a favorite handed down to me from my Aunt Jean who is fond of saying that someone is a “nasty piece of cornbread.”

Cornbread, if made properly, is delicious. Even when it is made poorly it is hard to argue with the beautiful form and function of ground meal, fat, dairy and heat alchemy that sustains, fuels, and serves up sustenance as well as culture and community. Cornbread is, in hip-hop parlance, that good-good.

So, when someone is being a nasty piece of cornbread they are combining the ingredients and process of a remarkable foodstuff in ways that poisons its inherent goodness. They are being nice-nasty. They are serving you cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.

I read Chait’s latest response to Ta-Nehisi Coates on shades of gray among liberal and conservative treatments of race and the cultural of poverty. I probably shouldn’t have. I had checked out of the public debate on this after the first round, and even then after barely skimming. I saw all the keywords for a battle about white guilt and structural racism that, frankly, is the story of my entire work life. I’d rather spend my few non-work hours watching The Golden Girls.

But sociologist and tweep, Dave Parcell put them all in one convenient package and I clicked. I am weak.

But not as weak as Chait’s argument.

Look, Coates doesn’t need anyone caping for him. He is formidable even when I disagree with him. Further, the gendered tone of the entire debate has too many javelins flying for me to expect a sister in a wonder woman outfit to be as welcome as, well, wonder woman rarely is when the real superhereos are about real superhero bizness.

I did want to point out a few things for my own intellectual satisfaction.

Love it or hate it, Coates lays out an empirical and theoretical argument. In response, Chait begins, continues and ends with a condescending dismissal of Coates, the person.

Wrapped in a nice-nasty package of platitudes about the former (ie younger, better, more idealistic) Coates, Chait bemoans the angry, cynical darkie Coates has become. I am not playing for dramatic effect here. I offer you:

What struck me, instead, is that Coates turns the question of Obama’s role as head of state into a profoundly pessimistic take on the character and future of that state:

"America has rarely been our ally. Very often it has been our nemesis. …

I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust."

I have never previously detected this level of pessimism in Coates’s thinking before.

Chait remembers a kinder, more empathetic Coates and he is not this fella writing about white liberal paternalism.

Except, he is.

This is a turn so common in the long history of black intellectuals and white publics as to be mundane. Black anger about white violence, white racism, and the veneer of white civility is acceptable to white liberals only when it is in service to their role as caretaker. It is a role that requires the illusion of hope. Without a hopeful angry ward, Mr. Drummond is just some weird dude keeping his black adopted sons in a gilded cage. Hope is what transforms the relationship into a cause, a movement, a penance.

Of course, requiring hope is not functionally different from requiring drug tests for public welfare (when you are one of the publics, no less) or requiring women wear long johns to be justifiably victimized by a rapist or being told to bide your time as the majority catches up to the idea of your humanity.

Hope only feels less intrusive, less violent and less damning than these arbitrary thresholds when you swallow the cornbread without chewing. Once ground in molars of empirics or human rights or morality or obligations of the State, the funkiness of the bread spews forth. It’s like cornbread but nasty. And black intellectuals have been remarkably consistent in finding what Coates finds: that nasty cornbread is no cornbread at all.

I said on Twitter that I cannot recall a single black intellectual that was not condemned by white liberals for their paucity of hope. DuBois was crazy for embracing communism when empirically it would be crazy to have embraced his America where Ida B Wells was documenting the regularity of black lynchings. Crazy, he was, for not having hope in the face of those empirics!

Paul Robeson was consistently the smartest person in any room he inhabited. When his nation recalled his citizenship he made a powerful case for the benefits of socialism. He may be remembered today as a black history month milestone in the sanitized march of America’s progress, but at the time his sanity was questioned. What could be wrong with that brilliant, ostracized, stifled black genius that a little hope wouldn’t cure?

And do not even get me started on the women who are not only crazy for questioning the white man’s hope but who are crazy by function of their biological penchant for hysterics. The relatively privileged Mary Church Terrell had an education few blacks of any gender had at the time. But she had to fight first her father’s dismay at her wasting her lady breeding to pursue  formal education. She went on to do just that, making friends with powerful white women in the suffrage movement only to have them warn her to not make her speeches too “harsh”. Harsh isn’t hopeful.

And hope is integral to the greater project of white paternalism and black intellectual products. To be recognized, rewarded, disseminated, or sustainable black intellectualism must perpetuate the fervent epistemology of American progress. This epistemological frame is so rigid, so deeply rooted in the psyche of the majority culture that it turns good thinkers into circular logic jerks. It must be defended at all costs to reason or argument even when reasonable arguments are offered up in compliance with the rules set forth by the epistemology! I give you exhibit B.

I think I could go on and on about the arsenal of hope wielded against black thinkers, writers, and artists and people in the public domain. Chait’s final analysis is that Coates ignores evidence of progress in his myopic rejection of hope. Chait offers no theoretical link between evidence of progress as incompatible with Coates’ larger argument about the structural similarities of liberal and conservative arguments about blacks, culture and poverty. The mere suggestion that Coates has lost his moral center — his dark hope — is offered as sufficient evidence that the larger argument isn’t worthy of engaging. That is a fight to be had by hopeful black people, as determined by the solicitors of hopelessness.

It’s a proper sonning, complete with sports metaphors that reduce it all to (as someone on twitter pointedly said) a game of “whose…um, intellect is bigger”.

The whole thing is one big nasty piece of cornbread.


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