Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Power of Fiction

Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most influential public intellectual in America.  Jesmyn Ward, a pretty impressive writer in her own right, recently spent some time with him at the New York City coffee shop where Coates likes to write.  Coates has just completed his first novel: The Water Dancer.  Ward’s piece at Vanity Fair is an excellent read for what it reveals about Coates and what it reveals about the anxiety that another writer feels when interviewing a public intellectual of Coates’s stature.

Here is a taste:

It’s hard to do that work. Coates articulates this anxiety perfectly when he talks about the difference between the purpose of nonfiction and the purpose of fiction. Creative nonfiction, he thinks, “is not up to the task of humanizing. That’s not what it’s for.” He continues, “Also, I’ve got to tell you, you go to a very different place when you have to imagine a single person, versus write about mass. It’s not the same. I wonder, like, how you deal with the central tragedy and violence and darkness and horribleness that is happening, and the dehumanization without writing a work that itself dehumanizes.” He shakes his head. “My mom, actually, she can’t finish it”—The Water Dancer—“and… I actually feel like I intentionally held back. I feel like Hiram was very privileged in terms of being a slave.” He takes another bite of food. “How do I write about something, as horrible as it is, and not repeat the thing? You know what I’m saying?” And, he repeats, he has to resist the American legacy of myths. He has to resist the lure of the adventure story. He has to resist the lure of the cowboy. He has to resist the lure of the savior. It’s a hard thing to resist the great stories of your youth in an effort to discover new myths, new heroes, new legends that reveal a wider reality.

One of the things Coates must now do is figure out how to balance the two: how to write nonfiction and fiction, how to juggle his renown with his calling. “So many writers and so-called public intellectuals are driven by their desire for fame, celebrity, and money that this is practically all they see when they see someone like Ta-Nehisi. But he does what he does out of a deep sense of responsibility that has never changed,” says Jackson. “It’s a responsibility to his family—to his parents, his wife, his son. But also a sense of responsibility to black people. This is not to say that he fetishizes race or that he’s a nationalist. But that he knows that black people are keepers of a sacred tradition, not just of resistance, but artful, creative, generative, and generous resistance in the name of truth.”

Read the entire piece here.

Scholars of Public Intellectuals Choose the Top Five Public Intellectuals in America

Elshtain

Daniel Drezner is the author of The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of IdeasIn a recent piece at The Washington Post he picks the five most important public intellectuals at work today.  They are:

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates
  2. Masha Gessen
  3. Francis Fukuyama
  4. Ron Chernow
  5. David Autor

Another scholar of public intellectuals, Alan Jacobs,  assembled a list of the most influential public intellectuals in this millennium.

  1. Richard John Neuhaus
  2. Cass Sunstein
  3. Samantha Power
  4. Ta-Nehisi Coates
  5. Clayton Christensen

 

Cornel West Takes a Shot at Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates and West

In The Guardian.  A taste:

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy, has captured the attention of many of us. One crucial question is why now in this moment has his apolitical pessimism gained such wide acceptance?

Coates and I come from a great tradition of the black freedom struggle. He represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible. This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.

The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.

Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.

In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of “defiance”. For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.

Read the rest here.

Pessimism and Optimism in American Culture

Norman_Vincent_Peale_NYWTS

Norman Vincent Peale, Author of The Power of Positive Thinking

Over at The New Republic, senior editor Jeet Heer reflects on the meaning of optimism and pessimism in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and Barack Obama, the theology of Norman Vincent Peale, and the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Here is a taste of his piece: “The Power of Negative Thinking”:

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, during his long imprisonment under Benito Mussolini’s regime, famously wrote, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” In an American context, this combination can be found most potently in Abraham Lincoln, whose very awareness of the enormity of the problem of slavery pushed him toward the radical solution of abolition. There are few more negative national appraisals than Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, where he said, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Traditionally, modern politicians shy away from such a dismal portrait of their own country, for fear of furthering polarizing the nation and thereby making governance more difficult. Yet as both Trump and Bernie Sanders proved in 2016, pessimism is an effective mobilizing tool because it raises the stakes of an election, bolstering the case for risk-taking change. If such a case proved convincing for Trump in the waning days of a popular presidency and steadily improving economy, then surely it would be even more convincing under a historically unpopular president who is undoing efforts to fight climate change, proposing tax cuts for the rich, sabotaging health care for the poor, demonizing non-white people, monetizing his presidency, and posing an existential threat to American democracy itself.

Trump’s curious mixture of pessimism and optimism might be rooted in the flimsy self-help gospel of Positive Thinking, but it would be a mistake to confuse the message with the messenger. There is carnage in America indeed, even if it’s largely not the carnage that Trump claimed. The problem is that the solution he offered—his supposed skills as a deal maker—was quack medicine. But an accomplished politician could, as Trump did, appeal to suffering Americans while also selling a remedy that would, unlike Trump’s, actually address their troubles. In other words, the risk for Democrats lies not in preaching such a self-serving gospel. The real risk would be to dismiss Trump’s effective rhetoric simply because he failed to deliver on it.

Read the entire piece here.

Does Ta-Nehisi Coates Give Whiteness Power?

Williams

Thomas Chatterton Williams

I am still trying to get my head around Thomas Chatterton Williams‘s piece on Coates at The New York Times, but I think he may be on to something.  While I chew on it a bit more, I offer up a taste (and a link) for your consideration:

I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.

This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.

This summer, I spent an hour on the phone with Richard Spencer. It was an exchange that left me feeling physically sickened. Toward the end of the interview, he said one thing that I still think about often. He referred to the all-encompassing sense of white power so many liberals now also attribute to whiteness as a profound opportunity. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” he told me gleefully. “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”

However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.

Read the entire piece here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Historians

Coates

After his article “The First White President” appeared in The Atlantic, social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted:

Coates draws heavily from the work of American history, particularly historians of race and slavery.  I first encountered Coates when he writing blog posts on Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery–American Freedom.  I have been following him ever since.  Whatever one thinks about his views on race in America, Coates has done his homework.

At The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jordan Michael Smith writes about Coates’s relationship with historians.  Here is a taste:

When I spoke with him a few weeks ago, Coates was no less effusive about the significance of scholarship. “I really enjoy talking to historians, for the most part, because there’s so much — this is going to sound elitist but it’s true — there’s just a basic ignorance about facts in American history” among members of the public. He points to recent debates over the Confederacy, spurred by attempts to have monuments of Confederate leaders removed from public spaces. The disputes over whether Confederates were fighting to preserve slavery or states’ rights “would not fly in most history programs in this country,” he says. Even among journalists, he argues, there is a dearth of knowledge about something as crucial to understanding America as the Civil War.

There is in Coates’s work evidence of a fanboyish enthusiasm, an earnest affection for certain people, places, and things. They include rappers (his Twitter avatar is an image from an album by a member of the Wu-Tang Clan), the French language, and comic books. Among the adored are historians, political scientists, and sociologists. “He’s like our biggest supporter, and that’s really refreshing,” says Bryant Simon, a historian at Temple University. “I don’t know anyone else who deliberately” foregrounds a reliance on the work of academics to the same degree.

[Historian Manisha] Sinha describes Coates as “one of those rare writers who can effectively mine historians’ work. He has an intuitive grasp of the issues involved.” What Sinha finds particularly interesting is that Coates will develop his own take based on his reading, making him as much an active participant in the historicizing process as the people he reads.

Indeed, part of what sets Coates apart from other journalists or public intellectuals is that he tells his audience that historians’ works need to be consulted if they want to understand American history. Like any good high-school math student, Coates shows his work, illustrating which history books lead him to his conclusions.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Reading Habits of Journalists and Public Intellectuals

reading-and-learning-481x230

Check out Danny Funt‘s piece at Columbia Journalism Review titled “What does it mean for a journalist today to be a Serious Reader? In the course of the essay he discusses the reading habits of Adam Gopnik, David Brooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Traister, E.J. Dionne, among others.

Here is a taste:

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most respected magazine writers of the day, as much for the sharpness of his sword as the depth of his artillery, once wrote, “The intellect is a muscle; it must be exercised.” There’s a lot of equipment inside a gym—without knowing better, you might spend an hour doing a few curls and then bouncing around on a balance ball. A balance of news and broader information is desirable, but the optimal proportions can be elusive. Discussing reading habits tends to make people nervous about coming off, as one newspaper writer put it, “like a pretentious twit.”

I encountered no fanatical workaholics like Aristotle, who read with a brass orb in hand so if he dozed off and released his grip, a bang on the ground would startle him back to work. None was quite as industrious as the late writer David Foster Wallace, who advocated studying a usage dictionary on the toilet. Nor did I interview any stunt readers like Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs, who spent a year ploughing through Encyclopedia Britannica A to Z, 44 million words in all.

A couple years before his death in 2008, the legendary critic John Leonard estimated that he’d read 13,000 books for work. As he once explained, “I spend half my day writing about television, and the other half writing about books, and I read instead of sleep.” One way or another, Serious Readers must overcome a basic problem: There are only so many hours in a day.

In the Trump era especially, just keeping up with the news can be suffocating. At 7 each morning, the New York political analyst Jonathan Chait gets up in his Washington home and reviews the tweets he slept through, followed by policy news and Op-Eds in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. From 8 onward, with a break to cook and eat dinner with his family, he’s plugged into following news on the computer, taking short pauses to write when inspiration strikes.

“I’ve been draining down my long-term capital because the value of reading books is very high even if the payoff is delayed,” Chait says. “I can constantly get ideas from the news, but you need depth elsewhere.”

“You can’t live like this forever.”

Read the entire piece here.

“It was about the extension of white supremacy”

HoweI just finished lecturing on Andrew Jackson in my U.S. survey course.  (Actually, I still need to cover the bank crisis. I will do that in lecture on Monday).  One of the central themes of this lecture is that Jackson’s understanding of democracy was directly tied to white supremacy.

Everyone seems to be talking about Jackson these days. Slacktivist recently called my attention to a 2010 blog post by public intellectual and award winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates in which Coates quotes from Daniel Walker Howe’s Pultizer Prize-winning What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.  The quote comes from Howe’s section on Jackson and Indian removal:

Seeking the fundamental impulse behind Jacksonian Democracy, historians have variously pointed to free enterprise, manhood suffrage, the labor movement, and resistance to the market economy. But in its origins, Jacksonian Democracy (which contemporaries understood as a synonym for Jackson’s Democratic Party) was not primarily about any of these, though it came to intersect with all of them in due course. In the the first place, it was about the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent.

Slavery at Harvard

Faust and Coates

Drew Gilpin Faust and Ta-Nehisi Coates

I just came across this article Lydialyle Gibson’s essay in Harvard Magazine titled “A Vast Slave Society.”  It is a report on a one-day conference at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute on slavery at America’s first institution of higher education and other colleges and universities.  Speakers included Drew Gilpin Faust, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lizabeth Cohen, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Adam Rothman, James T. Campbell, Craig Steven Wilder, Vincent Brown, Natasha Trethewey, Annette Gordon-Reed, Sven Beckert, Julian Bonder, Daniel Coquillette, Alexandra Rahman, Alejandro de le Fuente, Hilary Beckles, Max Price, Christiane Taubira, and Daniel Carpenter.

Here is a taste:

OTHER SPEAKERS, including Faust, echoed that same sentiment, though with less specificity. “We cannot successfully move forward as a university, as a nation, or as citizens, without acknowledging this history and making it important to the understanding of our present,” said Harvard’s Beckert. “And to be meaningful, that acknowledgement will have to have economic and political consequences; it cannot be purely symbolic or rhetorical.” Stanford historian James T. Campbell, who a decade and a half ago led Brown’s effort to research its own past, said, “There has to be some response in the present to what you know about the history.” Conceding the impossibility of any full remedy, he added, “Nothing you do in the present even approaches the significance and scale and scope of the crime. That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.” Adam Rothman, a Georgetown historian involved in that university’s archival effort, asked how many in the audience thought his university ought to help subsidize the education of people descended from slaves that it had owned in the early 1800s. Most hands went up.

As schools move forward in their efforts to reckon with centuries-old questions that have suddenly become urgent, Coates offered a few bits of advice. For one thing, he said, “Do not limit the study of enslavement to slavery.…Recognize that the plunder of enslavement does not end with enslavement.”  He also counseled them to “listen, and don’t be self-congratulatory, and don’t get too mad.” People will be angry with them, he warned, and with good reason. “The worst thing you can do is retreat into your shell.…You’ve got to listen. You’ve got to listen, and you’ve got to hear that anger. It comes from a deep, deep place.”

Read the entire article here.

 

Coates and Obama Talk Race: Part 3

coates-obamaHere is an excerpt from Part 3 of their conversation on race published at The Atlantic. (See our previous post to get up to speed).

Obama: …And then you’ve got Skip Gates being arrested, which, to me, I was saying something pretty obvious. They ended up handcuffing this middle-aged, elderly man on his own porch. No matter how much he cursed you out, you overreacted, and it probably would not have happened had there not been some assumptions about who he was based on his race. Again, immediately folks ignored the discussion.

So this is part of the reason why when I hear people say we need a dialogue about race, or we need commissions on race, or this or that, I’m always somewhat skeptical, because trying to engineer those kinds of conversations on a national level in a way that could actually capture reality is very hard. What can happen, I think, is for us to act in ways that show mutual regard, propose policies that safeguard against obvious discrimination, extend ourselves in our personal lives and in our political lives in ways that lead us to see the other person as a human worthy of respect. It’s what we do more than what we say, I ultimately think, that saves us. All right?

Coates: All right.

Obama and Coates Talk Race: Part 2

coates-obamaHere is an excerpt from Part 2 of their conversation on race published at The Atlantic. (See our previous post to get up to speed).

Coates: Okay. The second part, you’re talking about how the country has changed, and the consciousness, and I think we both agree that 150 years ago that wasn’t true. And I wonder, is it the work, perhaps maybe not of presidents but certainly of people outside of government, to change that mind-set? And if one can come to see, for instance, that, yeah, it is true that nondiscrimination should be a basic value that we share, that, as I would put it, responsibility for our history is one, too?

Obama: Right. And I think that it is. I want my children—I want Malia and Sasha—to understand that they’ve got responsibilities beyond just what they themselves have done. That they have a responsibility to the larger community and the larger nation, that they should be sensitive to and extra thoughtful about the plight of people who have been oppressed in the past, are oppressed currently. So that’s a wisdom that I want to transmit to my kids. And it may be that we found an area where you’re more optimistic than me. But I would say that’s a high level of enlightenment that you’re looking to have from a majority of the society. And it may be something that future generations are more open to, but I am pretty confident that for the foreseeable future, using the argument of nondiscrimination, and “Let’s get it right for the kids who are here right now,” and giving them the best chance possible, is going to be a more persuasive argument.

One of the things you learn as president is, as powerful as this office is, you have limited bandwidth. And the time goes by really quickly and you’re constantly making choices, and there are pressures on you from all different directions—pressures on your attention, not just pressures from different constituencies. And so you have to be pretty focused about where can you have the biggest, quickest impact. And I always tell my staff, “Better is good.” I’ll take better every time, because better is hard. Better may not be as good as the best, but better is surprisingly hard to obtain. And better is actually harder than worse. [Laughter]

It requires enormous energy for us to cut the African American uninsured rate by a third. A lot of scars. Bernie Sanders would say, “You still have millions of African Americans who aren’t insured, and if we had a single-payer system, that wouldn’t be the case.” And that’s true. But it is my judgment that had I spent the first two years trying to get a single-payer system, all those folks who now have health insurance that didn’t have it would still be uninsured. And those are millions of people whose lives are impacted right now. I get letters from them right now. “You saved my child’s life.” “I did not have to sell my home when my wife got sick.” And that is what, as a policy maker, I’m trying to achieve during the short period of time that I’m here.

Now, you as a thinker, you as a writer, you as a philosopher, you want to stretch the boundaries of thinking, because you’re not constrained by trying to move the levers of power right now. And so I think that these are all worthy topics of conversation. Sometimes I wonder how much of these debates have to do with the desire, the legitimate desire, for that history to be recognized. Because there is a psychic power to the recognition that is not satisfied with a universal program, it’s not satisfied by the Affordable Care Act, or an expansion of Pell grants, or an expansion of the earned-income tax credit. It doesn’t speak to the hurt, and the sense of injustice, and the self-doubt that arises out of the fact that we’re behind now, and it makes us sometimes feel as if there must be something wrong with us, unless you’re able to see the history and say, “It’s amazing we got this far given what we went through.” So part of, I think, the argument sometimes that I’ve had with folks who are much more interested in sort of race-specific programs is less an argument about what is practically achievable and sometimes maybe more an argument of “We want society to see what’s happened, and internalize it, and answer it in demonstrable ways.” And those impulses I very much understand, but my hope would be that, as we’re moving through the world right now, we’re able to get that psychological or emotional peace by seeing very concretely our kids doing better and being more hopeful and having greater opportunities. And your son thriving at some United Nations model conference, and me seeing Malia and Sasha doing amazing things. And some of the mentees that I was talking to at A and T overcome incredible disadvantages and starting to gain confidence in what they can do in the world. And I’ll stop there.

Read the entire conversation here.

Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates Talk Race and the Presidency

coates-obamaThe Atlantic has published a fascinating discussion between Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the powerful Between the World and Me.

Here is a taste of the first of three conversations:

Coates: …I didn’t really grow up around white people, but even the abstract construction was as a malignant force in my life, which I had to make my way out of much, much later in life, in my 20s, when I had intimate contact. And I wonder how much of that general optimism you think emanates from your biography. The exposure too, the cosmopolitan nature of all you’ve seen.

Obama: Yeah. I mean, look, I think all of the above. I think I was deeply loved by my mom and my grandparents. I felt that, and I carried that with me. I spent time outside of the United States, which gives you a perspective on how people of all kinds of different races, and ethnicities, and religions, and backgrounds can figure out ways to divide themselves and try to be superior to others. So that I ended up looking at race in America as one example of a broader human problem, rather than something that was unique and I was trapped in. Right? But I also, I think, benefited from the very particular era that I was growing up in, because in some ways, the last 55 years—the years I’ve been on this Earth—have a very particular trajectory of progress that is incomplete, is partial, that middle-class African Americans enjoy in ways that really impoverished African Americans do not yet feel. But that trend would feed my optimism as well.

Now, you know, what’s interesting is the work that I did as an organizer in Chicago would help to temper that optimism and ground it so that it wasn’t just a bunch of happy talk. And it’s one of the reasons why, for the generation just ahead of me, I would learn of the anger, frustration, bitterness of my elders and respect it and understand it even if I ultimately did not agree with it.

More on History and Hope

Last week I wrote a couple of posts in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece “Hope and the Historians.”  I began by posting a quote from the article.  I then published a reader feedback post with some commentary on Coates’s piece.  Here is what I wrote:

I don’t know of any historians worth their salt who begin their investigations of the past in search of something “hopeful.” I need to think about this some more, but I am not sure that “hopefulness” is a category of historical analysis.  I am not sure who Coates is referring to here. Perhaps he is referring to folks who dabble in the past to make political points in the present.  I would not call these people “historians.”

I would also say that Coates is making a theological statement here.  His remarks about human nature have an Augustinian quality to them,  Coates’s words read like a rebuke to the progressive view of human history that defines our profession.


My tentative suggestion that “hopefulness” is not a “category of historical analysis” got the attention of Chris Gehrz over at the Pietist Schoolman.  Chris writes: “John tentatively declines to describe hopefulness as a ‘category of historical analysis’ and instead concludes that ‘Coates is making a theological statement here.’  I’m not sure it’s that easy, at least for historians who adhere to a religion that holds hope to be one of its three cardinal virtues.  

Gerhz goes on to make an argument for why Christian historians should integrate the theological idea of hope into their work:

So what does this mean for the Christian historian? If, to paraphrase the same apostle, we may not interpret the past as others do who have no hope, what would that look like? Christian hope has meaning precisely because it requires us to be honest about the need of sinners for redemption and restoration. But hope both reaches back before the Fall, to God’s good intentions for Creation, and reaches out past the Cross, to the impossible reality of the Resurrection….
Even if I could convince Coates that my theological conviction does not preclude professional integrity, he might just retreat to an earlier line in his essay: “Hope may well be relevant to their personal lives, but it is largely irrelevant to their study.” In short, he’d suggest that I can do no more than keep private belief in a separate compartment, out of the way of public practice.
Since we don’t even share a belief in God, I’m not sure I could make any further progress with Coates. (Whom I really do admire, this important disagreement notwithstanding.) But for fellow Christians, let me suggest that we not abandon “hope-learning integration.”
Consider how we read the birth accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. To a significant degree, they provide evidence undergirding a Coatesian interpretation of history: the bureaucratic caprices of a distant emperor whose local client engaged in mass murder with no apparent repercussions suggest the tenacity of injustice. But in the seemingly irrelevant story of a poor young woman, her carpenter husband, and their newborn son, those sources also support a very different interpretation of the movement of history.
Of that child’s “kingdom there will be no end,” his mother was promised. But it’s not like the kingdoms of Caesar and Hitler, writes Ben Corey: “It’s an upside-down kingdom that grows in upside-down ways.” In a blog post reprinted by Mennonite World Review the same day that The Atlantic published Coates’ essay, Corey found hope in the decline of an American Christianity wedded to political power and nationalist ideology.
Time will tell if Corey is right that “we are at an interesting point in history and are standing right in the middle of a death/growth cycle,” but isn’t it possible that his principle might work in retrospect as well as prospect? If so, then Christian historians ought to be attentive to the past signs of growth for a kingdom that “operates on principles that are contrary to anything else we find in the world.” Such a truthful-hopeful interpretation will likely make much of evidence that may seem to be beneath our notice — evidence the size and significance of a mustard seed, or a bit of yeast.
I agree entirely with Gerhz’s thoughts about hope.  I believe in hope.  I like how Christopher Lasch described hope (and distinguished it from optimism) in The True and Only Heaven:
Hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity.  Hope implies a deep-seated trusted in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. 
If Eric Miller is correct in his magisterial Hope in a Scattering Time, Lasch was not a Christian.  He did not view hope as a theological concept.  I do.  I cannot understand hope apart from a Christian understanding of redemption.  The kingdom of God is both now and not yet.  As a Christian I am called to work toward building that kingdom by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my Creator.  My faith also teaches me that because of the brokenness of this world, even the best attempts at reform or change or moral progress will have limited results.
So let me revisit a question raised by Gehrz:  What does hope mean for the Christian historian?  I think it means a lot for a historian interested in historiography, the philosophy of history, or what theologians offer refer to as eschatology.  But I am not sure how useful it is for the practice of doing history, of resurrecting the past (so to speak), of understanding human activity as it exists over time. 

I think historians should interpret, describe, write about, etc. people in the past who had hope. For example, I don’t see how one understands the history of slavery without understanding the meaning of hope.   Historians should not shy away from hope as a concept that has motivated millions and millions of people in the past.  They should take it seriously in their work.
I also don’t want to be understood here as saying that there are no resources in the Christian faith to help the historian in her work.  As I argued in Why Study History?, the theological concept of “sin” is a very useful (and to some degree verifiable) idea to help explain human behavior.  So is the Imago Dei, the idea that all human beings have worth and value and should thus find a place in the stories we tell about the past.  These theological beliefs seem more useful because they explain, from a Christian point of view at least, the identity of the human beings we study.  Hope, on the other hand, is something we strive for, we pray for, we seek.   

In the correspondence and comments I have received about my original posts several folks have suggested that as Christians they cannot embrace Coates’s hopelessness. I agree with them.  But like the doctrine of “providence,” I am not sure how a belief in “hope” gets us any closer to understanding the past.

Others have brought up the teaching of history as a hopeful act.  Again, I agree that teaching students to hope (and work) for meaningful change in this world is a very good thing.  I also think that students can be inspired by hopeful people who they encounter in the past.  But I don’t see how a historian’s belief in hope–Christian or otherwise–helps us make sense of the past.

I know my thoughts here are very scattered and rough (please remember that this is a blog). I am willing to be persuaded.  In fact, there is a part of me that wants to be persuaded.  I remain hopeful that someone can convince me that hope might be a useful tool in my Christian historian’s toolbox in the same way that it is a Christian virtue I want to cultivate in my life.