Monday, March 28, 2016

Two 2015 Memoirs: by Ronald C. Wendling

In my own 2015 memoir, Unsuitable Treasure:An Ex-Jesuit Makes Peace with the Past, I explain the high school pleasure I took in, of all things, translation. Placed in an academic program that required me to take two ancient languages and one modern, I found myself astonished that two words looking and sounding extremely different could stand for the same object. The Latin domus and the French maison, for example, both referred to a house not that much different from the one I was growing up in, and the word amor captured an experience of those dogged old Romans (see photo at left, taken in Sicily in 2012) resembling what I was feeling for my high school sweetheart. And when I translated such seemingly foreign words into their English equivalents and ordered them into an English sentence or paragraph making grammatical sense, I was unconsciously importing the objects and ideas of another culture into my own and in that slow, painstaking way, broadening my world.

Only much later did I realize that translation had been for me the start of a long process of assimilating alien worlds through language and struggling to find where I stood in relation to them. This is where I feel connected with Ta-Nehisi Coates, a much younger writer than I who sets about locating his identity in Between The World and Me, a title he borrows from a poem by Richard Wright. Coates discovers who he is by remembering the streets and schools of West Baltimore, which taught him how essentially defenseless the black body is and how black men and women must acquire the skills to protect theirs. He lovingly remembers Howard University, where he assimilated the traditions of black thinking and writing that made him proud of his color but where he also lost a black friend shot by a black Washington, DC police officer. He also remembers New York City where he “translated” into his world realities that increasingly enlarged his horizons: African drummers in Union Square, Korean fried chicken, and black boys with Chinese-American girls. Then there was Paris with its baguettes, espressos, Le Jardin du Luxembourg and the Musée Rodin.

Like James Baldwin before him, however, Coates discovers that France has a history and a public policy in some ways the same but largely different from the country of his origins. America’s accepted history and policy, he writes, is that of dreamers who, as Baldwin also says, “think they are white”—in other words, that they are not unavoidably part of and one with blacks. From Baldwin’s and Coates’s point of view, our country cannot accurately be said to have a race or racist problem. Only the dreamers think that way because they refuse to accept that our history from the cotton fields to the jobs programs of the contemporary prison system is one that has, intentionally or not, turned the black body into an ongoing financial windfall, an endless refinancing of the American dream. This imaginary and self-justifying denial is a form of forgetting that Coates’ memoir, his remembering, seeks to counter. It is also the chasm or distance that Coates identifies in his title as between the world and him.

For the dreamers to stop forgetting they would have to acknowledge the vast human cost of slavery, of ongoing efforts to gerrymander votes, of the redlining practices that encouraged the development of our suburbs.  But we dreamers will do no such thing because to do so would be to compromise our separate status and place us in the ranks of the merely human—of those who can be broken.


Nancy Jacoby said...

I am delayed in commenting here, but I wanted to thank you for writing and sharing this piece. It provides ample food for thought, and it reminds me that I must put Coates's work on my to-read list. A good reminder before this literary prizewinner slip just out of sight behind those to come. I can't think of a better time given that the topics central to Coates's memoir are coming to the forefront in our upcoming presidential election and, if we are lucky, in our daily conversations with friends and family. Though I am a woman, I still belong to a privileged class. I welcome books that help me understand the lives of others and suggest ways that I might join them in solidarity with their struggle.

Nancy LiPetri said...

A powerful post that had me, too, thinking of how timely it is in this election year. Sounds like a must-read for all of us. Thanks for the insight, Ronald Wendling!