Cowan: The tokenization of Ta-Nehisi Coates

This year’s common reading book by Ta-Nehisi Coates is asking readers to examine race and how it affects Oregon. (Alec Cowan/Emerald)

When the University of Oregon selected Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me for this year’s common reading book, there was a boiling optimism. A now-staple of contemporary literature, the book is being used in classrooms around the country to energize a discussion on a subject that Oregon has always struggled with: race.

Published in July 2015, Between the World and Me was immediately on a powerful trajectory. At breakneck speed, it won the National Book Award in November 2015 and topped the New York Times bestseller list in January 2016. It’s sold well over a million copies and has rocketed Ta-Nehisi Coates to the pinnacle seat in today’s topical discussion on race, and since, the Atlantic journalist has been described as “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States.”

Between the World and Me is a story about what the Common Reading program has referred to as “the conversation”: the generational wisdom of what it means to be black in America — what to expect, how to face the deep-seated racism — imparted by elders of color to their children. Coates has described the novel’s birth as drawn from his own experience and anger after his friend, Prince Jones, was unjustly murdered by police, and that it was meant to ask questions and draw rage but never to be taken as a staple of racial discussion.

Wherever he goes, however, his reputation haunts. Coates, in numerous pieces and interviews, has denied the title of “consultant,” or “race expert,” only desiring the role of a discontent writer thinking out loud. Unfortunately, as often arises with popular writers of color, Coates and Between the World and Me have fallen victim to a mass tokenization.

This unwelcome effect is often described by Coates himself. Saturday Night Live featured a white girl holding Coates’ novel in her hands for their sketch, “The Bubble”; the writer has received emails from braggadocios readers claiming that the book “helped them win arguments.” After only a few years of fame, Coates is now looked to by many white readers as the definitive spokesman on race, whose role requires consultation on what he thinks is acceptable behavior, language and action in regards to race.

He has become another cog in the machine of racial confessors designed to absolve white people of their guilt.

It is important to consider, then, what role Oregon plays in this story. African-American students make up 2 percent of the student populace, while white students make up a towering 60 percent. The narrative abroad has boiled to this point: when does a story become appropriated? When, in the course of a book’s life, does it become shut off from an audience because it becomes, as Coates has put it, “about what white people think about it”?

“I think it’s a challenging topic to discuss,” said Sharon Kaplan, the Program Coordinator for the Common Reading program. “I think it’s not an easy thing and it’s hard for a lot of us, for one, thing, to know what other people experience and look from other points of view.”

Kaplan acknowledged the difficulty the book presents and that coming to terms with history can be daunting. It’s difficult to choose a book that is accessible to such a broad audience.  The Common Reading program selects a book each year for students to read and provides copies of the book to all incoming freshman, and they also offer multiple events for students to attend throughout the year. The program has recommended numerous articles on their website for understanding the lineage that this book follows: Why aren’t there black people in Oregon?”; the “Mims Houses Memorial Monument Dedication speech”; “Untold Stories: Black History at the University of Oregon.” The documented struggle of the state with diversity is laced with breadcrumbs through history.

“I think it raises intriguing questions in a climate where, you know, 95 percent of this curriculum at our institution just refuses engagements in race,” said Dr. Daniel HoSang, an ethnic studies and political science associate professor, who is also the head of the ethnic studies department.

HoSang said that he uses the book in his own classes to energize conversations, and that he’s glad it’s in front of more students. He has his reservations, but sees the book as an opportunity for understanding across all identities.

“Some of the forms of dispossession of violence that he’s talking about, they’re not specific to Baltimore, or black communities or communities of color,” said HoSang. “They’re becoming, in some ways, much more familiar to working white communities — rural, dispossessed white communities.”

HoSang said he uses Between the World and Me to open connections between students and worlds they might not otherwise understand. In this regard the book’s outcome is dependent on how students experience it, which makes it difficult to predict if Oregon will contribute to this tokenization. But regardless of these individual experiences, there’s one underlying message: do something.

“The implication there is that all of us have a duty to think critically and to think seriously, and with the black face that was on our campus, with the continued marginalization and struggles of black students and faculty, everyone has to take this on as a question,” said HoSang.

The crucial question the university must ask is whether Between the World and Me is an earnest campaign for understanding or another device to feel progressive enough to be different. Too often the liberal pockets of the United States make gestures such as this to reassure themselves of their identity and absolve themselves of responsibility to communities of color, and, considering the alarming presence of racism, the mass gentrification and the tenuous history of race in Oregon, one would be hard-pressed to not look at this event as just that. That isn’t definitive of how our future will look— it’s only recognizing that all possibilities are open.

“He asks you to keep asking questions, and to keep digging into things,” said Kaplan. “And that’s something we have to deal with, and it’s hard. It’s a very hard book, but we don’t want to stop — we don’t want to not do it because it’s hard, and so, we’re doing it.”

Indeed, we are.

Hear the full story on this episode from the Emerald Podcast Network, produced by Franziska Monahan.


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