To The Storytellers.
Critical Reflection #7
To my favorite author, Toni Morrison.
We all tell stories. We all share stories. But not everyone is able to tell stories that answer questions. Not everyone is able to develop a sense of how language and sound work together. But you do; brilliantly. And so does Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of, Between the World and Me. Coates utilizes experience to be shared, exchanged, and to break through the isolation of individual selfhood such that the listener/reader actually makes the teller’s experience his/her own.
Just as your literature grapples with the history of enslavement, Coates similarly grapples with the history of the American Dream and the falsehood it emanates to “the Dreamer(s).” He explains his critique of the American Dream by stating that, “Democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies-torture, theft, enslavement- are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune” (pg.6). Coates explores the values and dangers of the Dream and how it affects not just those who believe in it, but also himself, and how he had to learn that there is still value found in painful stories of the past.
Throughout the novel, Coates repeatedly differentiates between the Dream and the Dreamers, and what unites them, or perhaps what injures them. He writes that the black struggle in the United States has a dualist tradition. It expresses opposing visions of the social destiny of black people; the result is that, “You must struggle to truly remember [the] past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice” (pg.70). I believe this is what instantly drew me back to your work because you and Coates both make it your mission to change “black literature,” and to address it to all audiences and not just white audiences.
Certain people will do anything to preserve the Dream. They want to believe that the past has little effect on the present. However, “This is the foundation of the Dream — its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works” (pg.98). Nevertheless, Coates is arguing that being black is the experience. Being black gives a deeper understanding of life than that afforded by those stuck in the Dream. Furthermore, he writes that sometimes we forget where we come from and who we are. Sometimes society tries to hide the truth of who we are. But that is why it is so important to remember history, especially black history, because to Coates and to everyone else who resonates with Coates’ message, is that, that is “your own Dream.”
You once wrote that, “The world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art” This connected with me because sometimes we hope that people notice our triumphs and success, which is only natural, but sometimes we start losing focus. We get lost. We become obsessed. But being your own story means you can always choose the tone. We can choose how we decide to live our story and who we choose to share it with. You taught me that. You taught everyone who has read your work that there is no overcoming the past without telling and learning from the stories of the past. It is an oral tradition that keeps stories alive. It keeps the people mentioned in the stories alive and remembered.
Perhaps that is why Coates fears for his son. He fears that he will be torn down by the Dreamers who he admits will not always be able to protect him from. He wants to live a different life than he, but he has come to the realization that there is no escaping the fear. The fear of police gunning him down, the fear of streets and members who might try to break his jaw, shoot, or break his body. These are all things that Coates grew up knowing in which he always had be “on guard.” While this makes Coates sound as if he has not taken notice to the changes in the past decade, it also presents something very “real” that lives within people have been oppressed: this has been and is their life.
You, Toni Morrison, you and Ta-Nehisi Coates are storytellers. You write about dangerous and difficult things. However, you do it because writing is your safe haven. It is where your dreams inspire other dreamers who are beginning to find themselves “Down here in the world [with us]” (pg.143).