The more I studied, the more I was confronted by heroic people whose struggles were not successful in their own time, or at all. To the extent that they were successful, black politics was a necessary precondition, but never enough to foment change. It became impossible, for instance, to think about emancipation without the threat presented by disunion, to talk about the civil-rights movement without the ghost of Nazism or the Cold War. It began to seem to me that black politics was the wind at the American window. At rare moments the window opened and black people pushed through. The window seemed to open for one reason and one reason alone — some threat to white interests becoming intolerable. “Hope” struck me an overrated force in human history. “Fear” did not…
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic
Ta-Nehiso Coates recently published a couple of pieces on hope on The Atlantic’s website, one on its place in art and the other on its relationship with history. They made me think (because when doesn’t he) about the relationship between his understanding of hope and mine. Because, I don’t think he’s wrong in either of these pieces, but I also don’t believe that he is wholly right about the nature of hope – which I think he understands as the optimistic belief that tomorrow (and its tomorrows) will be better than today – either.
Steve talked about some of the various different ways that humans understand history, and then focused on a particular, Christian understanding of history and its relation to hope – one which is teleological, but without continual upward progresssion of the Whig Interpretation:
A story that has a quiet inevitability in retrospect, can be wildly unpredictable in the telling. A life that has a quiet inevitability in retrospect, can be wildly unpredictable in the living… Biblical hope is always confident of the ultimate outcome, but never certain of the route to the end.
Because Coates doesn’t have a Christian perspective on where the world is going, it’s not necessarily suprising that his work doesn’t embrace a hopeful vision of the future. I’m not suggesting this as a problem or something that he is missing, more stating is as a fact – worth acknowledging given that a number of those critiquing the absence of hope in his writing do take a Christian perspective, as did Martin Luther King who’s ‘The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice,’ has been invoked in contrast to Between the World and Me. King’s long arc, as I understand it, extends beyond time, and won’t be fulfiled until we’re post-Second Coming.
The hope is not a hope that tomorrow will be better, and the tomorrow and tomorrows after that. It’s a hope that although this world is not all we might want it to be, it is also not all it should be, and that there will be a future in which it will be as it should be once again.
But what I really like about Coates’ approach is its frankly brutally honest assessment of where we are now and the likelihood of a full restoration moving forward. He writes about Wharton’s Age of Innocence (rapidly moving up the TBR pile):
This is not a work of life-affirmation, nor a treatise on the ultimate triumph of love and freedom. Olenska says that life has fastened her eyelids open, that it has made it so she can never live in “the blessed darkness” again. I find something of myself here. Hope is not the value that Wharton seeks to impress upon us. Enlightenment—an escape from “the blessed darkness”—is.
– ‘Hope and the Artist’
And about the effect that hope has upon a historian’s writing.
I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.”
– ‘Hope and the Historian’
You see, I don’t think that you can take the Christian perspective on seeing hope without saying goodbye to the darkness that Coates wants to be rid of. I think that if you’re wedded to Christian hope, you have to be wedded to truth as well. And that is a truth personified, Jesus, (the way, the truth and the life – because John really had a way with the phrasing…). It’s not exactly a coincidence that this truth is also talked about as light:
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…
– John 1:4–5
It’s a logical impossibility, surely, to hold a hope in a future new creation without acknowledging that the present is a mess, especially in the light of Christ.
Coates talks about how you ‘manage’ life and continue to fight for the future without putting your faith in hope – emphasising the way of
being in what he calls the struggle:
And to some extent, this is the essence of discipleship, surely? For Christians, the end matters, but so does how one engages with the world as it is. If you want to embrace this hope, you also have to be honest about the mess. To do anything about the mess, whether you believe you’re doing it without the assistance of eternal verities or with them, must surely start with being brutally honest about the state we’re in and the things that have put us here, and move on into living in ways that try and show why we think the future we hope for is worth hoping for.
Coates has never struck me as either particularly hopeless or cynical, just honest. I like honesty.