A Question of Identity
Mychal Denzel Smith’s essay about black public intellectuals is a nuanced examination of a complex dilemma [“The Gatekeepers,” Essay, December]. At one point, Smith expresses guilt at “monetizing” black pain by writing for white editors about the black experience. He assuages some of his angst by the end of the essay, but I’d like to relieve his burden even further. How would a white guy like me, living in the rural heart of Trump-ish Idaho, be able to benefit from the deep insights of black intellectuals if it were not for his work and that of others cited in his essay?
Reading James Baldwin as a young man enhanced my worldview in a way no Hollywood movie or TV sitcom ever could, and Smith’s essay has enhanced it even more.
I greatly enjoyed Smith’s essay on black public intellectuals, and I was particularly interested in his observation that expressions of black pain have not, with a few exceptions, succeeded in changing white hearts and minds. But I wish he had mentioned Walter Mosley, a novelist who has consistently done what Smith feels black intellectuals should do: Mosley engages white audiences often and openly, but the vast majority of his energy and capital is spent communicating to black readers. He has long been critical of racism in the publishing industry and has focused his energy on supporting independent black publishers. I suggest that in future essays Smith include Mosley, who is, by his own criteria, so worthy.
Smith’s essay includes two distracting, broad swipes at white Americans. The first is when he says, with regard to slavery, that “to accurately record the true nature of these atrocities” nineteenth-century slave narratives would have had to “acknowledge the complicity of all white people, not only slave owners, in its horrors.” But he then fails to convince us why that complicity should extend to those of us living now, especially those of us descended from white ancestors who were not slaveholders.
The essay closes with a second gratuitous claim about the kinds of dialogues that “white people would rather we did not have.” To write off white people as a whole is not only incorrect—I know many white people who would welcome such a dialogue—but also commits the very error that he charges white audiences with.
How are we to move forward as a society if those who have known justice in the present want payback for historical injustices endured by their race, sex, or ethnicity? Such arguments overlook the reality that we own only our own personal suffering, and further the division of our society into smaller groups based on these categories. Such divisions will only hold us back.
We must be willing to come together through shared values of merit and intelligence above all else. Otherwise, we will end up with a society in which no one with merit or intelligence will want to live.
Singing a Different Tune
Kenneth E. Hartman’s memoir about his parents’ unhealthy marriage is touching, but by soft-pedaling the nature of the murder he committed, he seriously compromises the underlying story of redemption [“They Dance Cheek to Cheek,” Memoir, December]. Hartman was sentenced to life without possibility of parole in California, which in that state requires a conviction of murder in the first degree, together with a finding of a “special circumstance.” (California governor Jerry Brown commuted his sentence in 2017.)
The gloss of a drunken fistfight leading to such a sentence for a nineteen-year-old invites enormous sympathy, especially in light of the hardships Hartman faced as a child, and allows the reader to better appreciate the effects of childhood trauma. But would the piece read the same, or qualify for publication, if the author were more honest about the murder he committed?
The Right to Remain
Kathy Dobie simply echoes the NYPD’s Deputy Chief Michael Osgood’s insistence that the military-style tactics the department’s Hate Crime Task Force uses to circumvent suspects’ Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights are no big deal [“Investigating Hate,” Letter from New York, December]. Without offering any evidence, she asserts that they are simply “one more step in a fact-finding process that’s as likely to clear the innocent as snag the guilty.”
This argument is overly simplistic. The quest for suspects who are “prosecutable” distorts the criminal justice process. The police and prosecutors are paid to apprehend and convict people, and they corrupt the Bill of Rights with their willingness to play fast and loose with it.
In discussing the plight of Christians in the Middle East, Janine di Giovanni overlooks that Christianity is disappearing from many parts of the world [“The Vanishing,” Report, December]. Even Ireland and Poland, among the most traditionally Catholic nations in Europe, have begun to exhibit growing hostility to the overwhelming political and social power of the church.
A notable exception is the United States, where pitched, religious language (for example, describing the Iraqi invasion as a “crusade”) has only steepened the decline of Christianity in the Middle East. The current administration, too, has damaged the Christian community by moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
If the author is looking for a central reason for “the plight of Christians in an age of intolerance,” she should consider the consequences of actions taken by the United States.
Elm Grove, Wis.