I recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown. I’ve written before about the way Coates’ writing often provokes people to ask whether he is hopeful, particularly in the realm of racial equity and justice. I’ve suggested that because what so often passes as hope for Americans is actually more like optimism, Coates’ apparent hopelessness is a more Christian expression of our reality than the one espoused by many Christians, privileged ones like me in particular.
Austin has also noticed this obsession with hope in how people look to Coates for some sort of comfort. She writes, “People read his words about America – about its history, about its present, about the realities of living in a Black body – and then demand hopefulness. It boggles the mind.” Indeed, though from the vantage point of those whose privilege has shielded us from this nation’s racism, maybe not. As Coates observers,
The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this.
And so, rather than face the realities which Coates describes, we ask about hope. Or, rather, we ask to be given hope. To be soothed with hope.
As with Coates, Austin’s book demonstrates the madness of these questions. In particular, it is her descriptions of working within predominately white spaces that gives us an idea about the assumptions behind these questions. There is something obscene about asking the person who has described the system of oppression that constantly crashes upon her body to make me feel better. Yet, time and again, this is how it goes down. When we ask about hope, many of us are actually saying, Let us not talk anymore about your suffering or our complicity with it. Tell me, instead, that I will be OK.
For Austin, in order to remain engaged in the work of justice – not to mention the pursuit of dignity in a racist and sexist society – what passes for hope in this country had to die. “The death of hope gives way to a sadness that heals, to anger that inspires, to a wisdom that empowers me the next time I get to work, pick up my pen, join a march, tell my story.” This death, in other words, is not something to fear. And in this there is new life. Realignment. Rediscovery.”
On the other side of this death, says Austin, is the shadow of hope. From within this shadow we believe and work having shed all optimism. “It is working in the dark, not knowing if anything I do will ever make a difference. It is speaking anyway, writing anyway, loving anyway. It is enduring disappointments and then getting back to work… It is knowing that God is God and I am not.” Though she doesn’t quite say it, I think the shadow of hope that Austin describes is one in which faith is given an honored seat. Whereas American hope demands proof, no matter how deceptive, the shadow of hope allows us to move forward, even in the deepest shadows, by way of faith.
Austin has given us something far better than the hope so many have clamored for. She’s given us the truth.