Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently added a National Book Award to his MacArthur Foundation “genius” award given to him in gratitude for telling rich white folks what they want to hear: unlike all other former slaves and their descendants in the world and throughout history, being black is a “struggle” that “black bodies” cannot survive without their help and noblesse oblige. In his acceptance speech, he dedicated the award to his deceased friend Prince C. Jones, Jr. with whom he has much in common. They both lived a life of privilege with little struggle in life (except for the beatings that Mr. Coates received from his father that he then dished out to the other kids in the neighborhood and his teachers); received much family, emotional, material, and financial support from their extended family and numerous friends all of whom were college educated; received excellent educational opportunities from their parents and the American education system; and then received a free ride to college. Mr. Coates spent five years of that free ride engaging in sexual conquests and then having a child (but at least stayed and continues to live with the mother) but never graduating. Prince Jones ended seven years of that free ride not by finally graduating but by intentionally ramming his jeep — that his mommy bought for him — into what he knew to be an unmarked police car resulting in his being shot to death by the police officer in the car. Prince Jones left behind a baby mama and a daughter — another fatherless black family. Given that Mr. Jones was twice arrested for beating the mother of his child including once when she was 8 months pregnant, with the addition of the multi-million dollar civil settlement from the offending police department some good may come out of his death after all.
What the “journalist” Mr. Coates left out of his story about his friend Mr. Prince Jones, that he left out of his book, and that he left out and always leaves out of all of his discussions about Mr. Jones, as the Washington Post was at least honest enough to admit, is: “Black Victim, Black Cop, Black County.” The officer that shot Mr. Jones, Cpl. Carlton B. Jones, was a “black body”, the term that Mr. Coates uses in his book to refer to himself, to his son, to Mr. Jones, and to others of his “tribe” or “race”, terms that he uses despite claiming that such terms are the product or source of racism (he cannot make up his mind which). Cpl. Jones worked for and was trained by the “black elite” of Prince George’s County. This is one of the many dishonest exclusions if not outright distortions of Mr. Coates’ polemics that caused me to write the book Between the World and Us and that caused me to continue on into this blog.
But, to whom should I dedicate this blog? At first, as an act of irony, I was going to dedicate it to Mr. Coates’ grandmother who “cleaned white folks’ houses” in the same way that my poor, immigrant, uneducated white mother did after coming to this country as a refugee from communist Yugoslavia and a life of peasant farming going back generations. After cleaning their houses while also cleaning tables at restaurants for a few years, my mother was able to get a night job as an office cleaning lady that eventually led to the attainment of the holy grail of working class work: a union job (cleaning offices as part of the SEIU). When I was a younger man that could cry, it would bring tears to my eyes when I thought of how little I saw her during my high school years. By the time I got home from school, she had already gone to work. When I got up in the morning, she was sleeping having not gotten home until 2 or 3AM from work. I still remember a few nights when I was awake in my bed and she would quietly open my door and peak in just to see me. To this day, I do not know why I did not say anything or greet her. It just did not seem to be the right thing to do at the time. God, if I had a time machine, I would change those moments. Her cleaning lady job put food on the table, paid the mortgage, and avoided welfare for us during the years that my father was disabled from his construction laborer job and only able to find part-time work when he found any. She was glad to have the job and was good at her job.
The same must be true for Mr. Coates’s grandmother. Her hard work resulted in great success: his whole family including his parents and his siblings, except for Mr. Coates, are college educated and well off and thus have succeeded in the American Dream that he ridicules (his siblings work as engineers, lawyers, and business owners as did his father and mother).
As is true of all social elite especially writers going all the way back to Aristotle, Mr. Coates looks down on the menial, physical work done by his grandmother as demeaning. It is good enough for the likes of the poor such as my mother but not for his “gem of purest ray serene” to “waste [her] sweetness on the desert air.” Pride in one’s work and respecting the work of others, including the hard physical work in which the vast majority of humanity has toiled and is toiling, is to be restricted to the creative work of such geniuses as Mr. Coates and is not to be granted working stiffs with no hope in the present but only in the future.
However, I rejected such irony because such dedication would not be fair to his grandmother. If his story about her is true, which I doubt given Mr. Coates’ tendency to distort reality, no doubt she appreciates and wants her privacy in the same way my mother does. Though being a cleaning lady supporting your family is honorable work that should be a source of strength, social support, and an individual sense of worth as all work should be, it really is miserable work.
No, my dedication should be and is to the forgotten soul in need of much empathy in the Prince Jones half-story told by Mr. Coates: Cpl. Carlton B. Jones. Mr. Coates as with the vast majority of pundits these days gets rich sitting in the stands watching the gladiators fight life’s battles and then criticizes their technique, tactics, and strategy — another one of the privileges of life in the United States granted to Mr. Coates. This is a privilege not given to workingmen and women, white or black. This was not a privilege given to Cpl. Jones.
As a workingman, Cpl. Jones joined both the Army Reserve and became a police officer because according to his deposition he was “inspired by the vision of racial harmony invoked by Martin Luther King, Jr.” As many a workingman did throughout United States history, he joined the military and gave the rest of society a blank check for his life to use as it saw fit to defend the Constitution of which Mr. Coates is always invoking its protection — though never willing to risk anything to protect it. Regardless of how naive this inspiration was, I admire the willingness to do it as I did and am grateful personally that he as a “black body” did so regardless of the overall or ultimate ethical nature of the military. Having grown up in a segregated working class neighborhood that defended itself against all it perceived to be a danger to the little its residents had, all strangers or outsiders both white and black ones, the military was my first opportunity to work with and become shipmates with a “black body.” He and all other “black bodies” who joined the military throughout the years and became trusted shipmates and comrades did and do much to reduce racism in this country, vastly more than either pretend intellectual elites such as Mr. Coates or pretend warriors such as the Malcolm X’s and Black Panthers of the world too busy concentrating on their struggles for personal power to be mates or comrades to anyone else. Though I am not a fan of police officers, I do understand and admire his inspiration to become a police officer to put the bad guys away and to fight for truth, justice, and the American way of life.
Unfortunately, as young idealists such as Cpl. Jones soon learn, it is not always clear who the bad guys are, and truth, justice, and the American way of life are not what Martin Luther King nor any other politician, white or black, makes them appear to be. As Clarence Darrow once said, “there is no justice in life, in or out of court.” As Mr. Coates’ journalism, books, and awards establish, truth is what those in power say is true — most of the time, in the world of the blind, the one-eyed man is not king but a danger to be eliminated. That aspect of the American way of life consisting of the High Noon image of a solitary peace officer standing up against the bad guys is an idealistic one but also a delusional one. As many a military veteran has learned and as Cpl. Jones learned the night that Prince Jones decided to ram him with his jeep, despite intense training, the facing of death and danger with rational reserve and then spitting in their faces sounds nice and looks cool on television, movies, and in the books by writers such as Mr. Coates who have never faced such a situation and most likely never will, but it is a completely different matter to face in reality. Facing what appears to be an attempt to kill by someone willing to kill is scary, especially the first time. If John Wayne or Russell Crowe faced Prince Jones on the night that Cpl. Jones did, perhaps they would have been able to transfer their screen persona into life and everyone would have survived completely unharmed. Based on my life experience, I doubt it. As many a man or woman in similar circumstances throughout history have done, Cpl. Jones got scared, could not think straight, and began to shoot wildly at his attacker. A mistake with which he must live for the rest of his life.
The undisputed fact about life is that if one tries to work, to do things in life, to actually fight the battle and problem that is life, one will make mistakes about which the critics such as Mr. Coates sitting in the stands watching can then critique, ridicule, write about, and be rewarded. However, my hat and dedication is to those in the arena fighting the battle that is life. Cpl. Jones seems to have disappeared from the county police department and I have not been able to locate him anywhere. No doubt, if he still is or ever was the idealist that his court deposition makes him appear to be, he is somewhere still suffering from the guilt of his mistake. He is doing so without the empathy of public sympathy but with the public humiliation of having his mistake constantly marketed and publicized by Mr. Coates so that he can sell books. Wherever he is, I wish him good hope. As a military veteran and thus as a warrior, he should not need and I hope he succeeds in dealing with his guilt without the publicity and public sympathy that Mr. Coates needs and craves. At least, as a fellow workingman, I hope that we are comrades in the never ending struggle with the powers-that-be that we are destined to lose — in this life at least.