and then procrastinated writing about it until the very last day when I had to take it back to the library because I’m awful.
Ta-nehisi Coates, my role-model in writing, my best friend in my imagination, had this to say about the Brad Paisley/ LL Cool J collaboration, so astute I hooted out loud:
One of the problems with the idea that America needs a “Conversation On Race” is that it presumes that “America” has something intelligent to say about race. All you need do is look at how American history is taught in this country to realize that that is basically impossible.
Eula Biss, a white (although she complicates this in her book) writer, wrote a book called Notes From No Man’s Land: American Essays, in 2010 and it is extraordinary. Reviewing this book in Salon, Kyle Minor writes,
Eula Biss’ “Notes From No Man’s Land” is the most accomplished book of essays anyone has written or published so far in the 21st century. If it has not taken up residence in the popular imagination of readers in the same way Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” did in the late 1960s, perhaps it is because we live in a time in which it is more difficult for books to assert themselves with great cultural force in the way they once did, or perhaps because Biss, unlike Didion, has yet to receive the strong support of the systems of power that bring great books to the attention of a broad readership.
I would also argue this book hasn’t received the attention it deserves because it is a prickly and uncomfortable book about race. Ta-nehisi has always been incredible on the subject of why this “conversation on race” is so rarely done right:
I have had conversations with very well-educated people who, with a straight face, have told me that there are Black Confederates. If you ask a very well educated person how the GI Bill exacerbated the wealth gap, or how New Deal housing policy helped create the ghetto they very likely will not know. And they do not know, not because they are ignorant, stupid, or immoral, they do not know because they are part of country that has decided that “not knowing” is in its interest. There’s no room for any sort of serious conversation when the basic facts of history are not accessible.
Eula Biss, in an interview about revising the essays in this book in 2008:
I was revising this collection during Obama’s campaign and I remember feeling dismay at one point because the national conversation about race in that moment felt so misguided, so atrophied, so impoverished. Almost everything I heard about race on the news was silly or stupid and so I began to worry that my book assumed some basic understandings that just didn’t exist in this country yet.
In one of her great essays, Biss describes teaching a class at the University of Iowa while working on her master’s degree:
Racism, I would discover during my first semester teaching at Iowa, does not exist. At least not in Iowa. Not in the minds of the twenty three tall, healthy, blond students to whom I was supposed to teach rhetoric…. Sexism does not exist either, at least not any more. My students considered my interest in these subjects very antiquated. These things, they informed me, with exasperation, had already been resolved a long time ago, during the sixties.
This book is so rare and so uncomfortable because it is tackling a subject most people refuse to acknowledge even exists, or refuse to acknowledge as complex. I need to buy this book, and re-read it, and stew in it, and write longer on it soon. But please read it, if you want to be challenged, and amazed, and floored.