Topic 10 Posts

Books

Thoughts, musings, and excerpts from books, both literary and nonfiction.

The applicability of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to government sponsorship of residential segregation will make sense to most readers. Clearly, denying African Americans access to housing subsidies that were extended to whites constitutes unfair treatment and, if consistent, rises to the level of a serious constitutional violation. But it may be surprising that residential segregation also violates the Thirteenth Amendment. We typically think of the Thirteenth as only abolishing slavery. Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment does so, and Section 2 empowers Congress to enforce Section 1. In 1866, Congress enforced the abolition of slavery by passing a Civil Rights Act, prohibiting actions that it deemed perpetuated the characteristics of slavery. Actions that made African Americans second-class citizens, such as racial discrimination in housing, were included in the ban. In 1883, though, the Supreme Court rejected this congressional interpretation of its powers to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment. The Court agreed that Section 2 authorized Congress to “to pass all laws necessary and proper for abolishing all badges and incidents of slavery in the United States,” but it did not agree that exclusions from housing markets could be a “badge or incident” of slavery. In consequence, these Civil Rights Act protections were ignored for the next century.

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law

I reject the widespread view that an action is not unconstitutional until the Supreme Court says so. Few Americans think that racial segregation in schools was constitutional before 1954, when the Supreme Court prohibited it. Rather, segregation was always unconstitutional, although a misguided Supreme Court majority mistakenly failed to recognize this.

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, "I'll do it if I feel like it." One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.

John Steinbeck, journal entry, featured in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath

A man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Why did men fight? The old man had always been a dutiful thinker, never an inspired one. Now his exhausted brain slipped into its accustomed circles: the withered paths, like those of the donkey in the treadmill, round which he had plodded many thousand times in vain. Was it the wicked leaders who led innocent populations to slaughter, or was it wicked populations who chose leaders after their own hearts?

T.H. White, The Once and Future King

"You must remember I am the King of England. When you are a king you can’t go executing people as the fancy takes you. A king is the head of his people, and he must stand as an example to them, and do as they wish." He forgave the startled expression in Lancelot’s face, and took his hand once more. "You will find," he explained, "that when the kings are bullies who believe in force, the people are bullies too. If I don’t stand for law, I won’t have law among my people. And naturally I want my people to have the new law, because then they are more prosperous, and I am more prosperous in consequence." They watched him, wondering what he meant to convey. He held the look, trying to speak with their eyes. "You see, Lance, I have to be absolutely just. I can’t afford to have any more things like those babies on my conscience. The only way I can keep clear of force is by justice. Far from being willing to execute his enemies, a real king must be willing to execute his friends."

T.H. White, The Once and Future King

A few weeks ago, Kenyatta and I had dinner with another couple. They are old friends of ours, and like us, children of black consciousness. Kenyatta and the couple were talking about the beauty and wonder of Paris (I’ve never been.) They were contrasting that with all of the race critiques we came up on, some of which we still hold. And some point one of us said something to effect of, "You know you really gotta give it up. These white folks got done did something."

When you are a young intellectual black kid, you often find yourself in this desperate search for some sort of anti-Western tradition. That Saul Bellow quote—"Who is the Tolstoy of the Zululs"—really captures a lot of the dilemma for those of us looking for a "native" tradition. That search ends all kinds of ways for different people. But for us, I think it ended in the rejection of the premise, in the great Ralph Wiley riposte that “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.”

That line was sorcery for me. It found me a black pathologist, and set me free by revealing that my own search for something “native” was an implicit acceptance of the very racism that I sought to counter. The way out was not to find my own, but to reject the notion of anyone’s "own." If you reject the very premise of racism—the idea skin color directly contributes to genius or sloth—then all of humanity becomes "native" to you. And so empowered, I could—out of my own individual identity—create my own intellectual and artistic pedigree, and I was free to have it extend from Biggie to to Wharton to Melville to Hayden.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Federalist Papers"

People write tragedies in which fatal blondes betray their paramours to ruin, in which Cressidas, Cleopatras, Delilahs, and sometimes even naughty daughters like Jessica bring their lovers or their parents to distress: but these are not the heart of tragedy. They are fripperies to the soul of man. What does it matter if Antony did fall upon his sword? It only killed him. It is the mother’s not the lover’s lust that rots the mind. It is that which condemns the tragic character to his walking death. It is Jocasta, not Juliet, who dwells in the inner chamber. It is Gertrude, not the silly Ophelia, who sends Hamlet to his madness. The heart of tragedy does not lie in stealing or taking away. Any feather-pated girl can steal a heart. It lies in giving, in putting on, in adding, in smothering without the pillows. Desdemona robbed of life or honour is nothing to a Mordred, robbed of himself—his soul stolen, overlaid, wizened, while the mother-character lives in triumph, superfluously and with stifling love endowed on him, seemingly innocent of ill-intention. Mordred was the only son of [Morgause] who never married. He, while his brothers fled to England, was the one who stayed alone with her for twenty years—her living larder. Now that she was dead, he had become her grave. She existed in him like the vampire. When he moved, when he blew his nose, he did it with her movement. When he acted he became as unreal as she had been, pretending to be a virgin for the unicorn. He dabbled in the same cruel magic. He had even begun to keep lap dogs like her—although he had always hated hers with the same bitter jealousy as that with which he had hated her lovers.

T.H. White, chapter eleven of “The Candle in the Wind”, being the fourth part of The Once and Future King.