I attended the final session of One Book, One Oak Park on July 28, a discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, and wanted to share my impressions in order to continue the creative conversation on race.
Five panelists participated: author and Columbia College professor emeritus George Bailey; Columbia College professor, author and filmmaker, Stan West; author and state university Assistant Professor of History Lionel Kimble; Roosevelt University Professor John Fountain; and Nakisha Hobbs, principal and co-founder of the Village Leadership Academy in Chicago (substituting for Rep. La Shawn K. Ford).
The panel of five African Americans, which included one woman, was emceed George Bailey. Each expressed their perceptions of the book in light of their own experiences.
Stan West told of his time in Paris where he felt he got his 2/5ths back, (3/5ths of a person being how slaves were recognized in the Constitution.) Another panelist said he felt the same way when he got off the plane when he visited Ghana. Another said, if history is taught correctly, it must be painful, especially in the light of the question, “Who owns the land that you occupy?”
The evening seemed to pass quickly as George Bailey raised more questions. “What do blacks think of whites and what do whites think of blacks?” Suggesting further that there should be another panel in the future to answer the question, “What does it mean to be white?”
There was a short time for questions from the audience. The first implied the question of reparations. A reference was made to Coates’ major article in the Atlantic Monthly, an in-depth look at reparations that is worth reviewing. Another comment came from Carl Spight, referring to an excerpt from a poem Coates used in his book. When Carl researched the poem, he found the meaning to be quite different from the way Coates used it. Another person spoke to not identifying fully with Coates.
Each person who asked a question seemed to have more to say than their question suggested, but it was a continuation of the long process of creative communication on race that the library staff intended. The evening ended all too quickly. Coates’ letter to his son reminds me again of the importance of self-improvement and what we all hope for our children. Angela Duckworth in her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, places Ta-Nehisi Coates with the qualities of leaders of Fortune 500 companies when she wrote that he is a “paragon of grit.”
Afterward, I talked with Dr. Lionel Kimble. I mentioned a couple of people who gave excess monies to charitable causes, such as Bill Gates and Michael Jordan, whose money went to the NAACP and Bill Gates’ to assist the world poor. Dr. Kimble responded so did Oprah Winfrey, whose money went to a young girls school in Africa. It raises the question, “Who should we care for?” Any attempt to temper the lives of the poor world-wide, by implication, lessens our own standard of living.
As the discussion ended George Bailey provided a two-page handout. It was distributed with no comments. The handout is titled with the following link from Sarah Watts: http://www.salon.com/2016/07/18/white fragility is real 4 questions white people should ask themselves during discussions on race.
1) Am I trying to change the subject?
2) Am I using inappropriate humor to deflect?
3) Am I getting defensive or angry?
4) Am I going out of my way to focus on the negative?
Overall, the discussions regarding Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book brought us closer to continuing creative conversations on race. Thanks to the library staff for providing the opportunity.
Norb Teclaw is a retired OPRF High School instructor and longtime Oak Park resident.