tv Book Discussion on Ordinary Light CSPAN November 28, 2015 2:30pm-3:01pm EST
i'm going to disappoint on that, that question. i'm not sure. i have, you know, spent my time studying, like, really, really specific things. the african-american experience in this country is broad, is textured, is multiple-layered, and it is very, very hard to have any sort of general expertise in it. you can have some sort of knowledge in specific areas. you start talking about the diaspora, you know, and it becomes even that much harder, you know? so the question like i immediately go to, what do we mean my africans? do we mean solidarity with ethiopians, with south africans, with senegalese, is it different? ghana has this program where african-americans can go there and get citizenship. is there some sort of different relationship there? can we generalize it in that broad sort of way? that's not to insult the question at all, you know, it's
a decent question. but i think it's one that, you know, requires study. it will require study from me be, you know, require more than i know right now to actually intently answer. >> all right. this questioner says not sure if you know the history of this neighborhood, fort green. ask can spike lee. but many poor people of color were displaced to make this area beautiful and, quote, safe enough for us, unquote. be how can we respond, how do you, to gentrification? >> by advocating for reparations repeatedly, over and over again. [applause] because, like, gentrification is just a funny word to say black people have less wealth than white people. that really is the bottom line. it would not -- neighborhoods change all the time, and, you know, in their makeup and their ethnic makeup.
the problem is black people don't really have the same level of self-determination to decide whether they want to stay and whether they want to leave. and the reason why they don't is because, you know, and this is just, you know, the clearest example i can offer, we have a huge, huge wealth gap in this country. for every nickel of wealth that an african-american family has, a white family has a dollar. twenty times the wealth. what expectation should there be that folks can live where they want or can have the same sort of choice about where they want to live as other folks when it's that big of a wealth gap? i know there are all sorts of programs, affordable housing, you know, making it easier for folks to buy homes, etc., but until you get to that root problem, that huge wealth gap which is the result of policy, which is not the result of magic, which is not the result of -- well, it is the result of a particular kind of social science and social engineering, but it is the result of
decisions that we made. when we built the middle class in this country -- i've made this case before -- we made decisions about who was going to benefit and the kind of social engineering we were going to practice to offer people the ability to build wealth through home loans. this is principal way we built our modern middle class. and we decided black people weren't a part of that. not only individual black people were not going to be a part of that, but whole blocks where black people moved would not be a part of that. how would harlem look if we hadn't have done that? how would fort green look if we hadn't have done that? what would this city look like if african-americans had the same access to the social safety net when we made all those great reforms in the '40s and the late '30s? what would be the difference then? what would the world have looked like if we had not, you know, made a decision to only offer unionized labor to certain people? what would the world look like?
what is the percentage of african-americans on the fire department right now? i know they've made some efforts, but at one point it was, like, some depressingly low number. what would the world have looked like without that discrimination? my argument is, you know, has been of late that adds up. and so when you start on the level of, like, looking at fort green and saying what the hell is going on here, how come black folks can't hold on to anything here, but see, it was game, set and match 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. you're too late. you know, you are in the fourth quarter with two minutes left, and you're trying to, you know, win game can, and you're on your own 2-yard line. and you're saying why am i on my own 2-yard line with only two minutes left? but see, there was a whole, you know, third quarter, second quarter, first quarter. there was a game that happened before that. and if you start with the analysis right there, you've missed it. you've missed it. and so, you know, i think like
when we get to the point of talking about gentrification, you know, like, you've got to dig deep. you've got to go further back. it didn't start here. you know, the expectation that certain folks would show up to this neighborhood and decide they want to live here and that black folks would be able to have that same sort of deciding power given the past history of housing policy in this country makes no sense. you know? gentrification is, you know, not so much lamentable as it is predictable. it is what will happen. period. some folks will have more choice about where they want to live than others. because that was our policy for so long in the 20th century, to limit the ability of black people to have the sort of decisions that other folks in this country do. so for, i mean, fort green is predictable in that sense. >> here's a, maybe a tougher or
pained question but a good one maybe for you to address before a new york audience about the book. you mentioned firefighters a minute ago. you wrote in your book that the firefighters who died at the twin towers were not human to you. do you still feel that way? >> no. no. i mean, the book is reflective of how i felt at the time. that part of the book comes after my friend be prince jones had been killed. prince was killed september of 2000, my son was born in august, and that's, you know, just a huge thing that the book turns on. my friend was killed by a police officer. the police officer wasn't prosecuted, wasn't disciplined, nothing happened. he was mistaken for some other suspected criminal who charges were never even brought against. he was followed from the suburbs of maryland into washington, d.c. out into virginia, and he was shot mere yards from his fiancee's house. his mother, mabel jones was the
child of sharecroppers, gone off to college, served in the navy, went to med school to become a radiologist, had done everything that, you know, you were supposed to do in america to improve yourself. and her child was just shot down. they did nothing, you know, nothing came of it. so when 9/11 happened and i saw all of that great pageantry, you know, for the police, for the firefighters and, you know, even the victims to be frank with you, i just felt cold. i had nothing for anyone. i had nothing for any victims at all. i couldn't see them as human. as i say in the book. because what made their deaths any more worthy of commemoration than the death of prince jones? i couldn't understand it. surely, they were victims of terrorism, but my friend was a victim of a kind of terrorism that is as old as this country.
and there was nothing for him. that was how i felt then. one of the things that happens, though, is, you know, well, you get older. that's the first thing that happens. and part of getting older is that you can explain your pain, and you can explain why you feel a certain way. but that don't make it right, you understand? it's like i can explain to you why riots happen, but that doesn't make burning a cvs down correct, you know? "the new york times" published a series probably about three years after 9/11, and the series was specifically on the fire department. and it sought to talk about, like, the decisions that happened that day and why folks, you know, went into the buildings, because the fire department had a level of casualty that was beyond even the police department. and they did it in such a way that every, you know, it wasn't like this big thing like
firefighters, it was like this guy, joe, with a wife, with a kid, you know, with people that loved him, you know, with people that hated him, you know? i came to regard the destruction of individual life as a tragedy. and it does not matter how over people commemorate t that. my beef with other folks and how they observe that has nothing to do with whether i can have some level of empathy with the destruction of human life. those are two separate things. i can has been hypocrisy up one side and down the other, my pain, but it does not improve me to then not be able to see, you know, folks whose lives were taken from them as human. that was a process. that took a while. i certainly did not feel that way at the time. >> there's, there are so many good questions in here, unfortunately, i think i can ask one more, and then we need to bring it to a close, and this is
maybe a good point to end. a number of people are asking about your sources of inspiration and how you write, and this question maybe brings this conversation full circle a little bit to where you started. it's which comes, which comes first when you sit down to write, political intention or artistic intention? >> artistic intention, that's easy. artistic intention. artistic intention. always. i write about things that are not necessarily political. you always want to write beautiful any. that, for me, it makes me feel good about the world. >> all right. be i think we'll leave it there, ta-nehisi coates -- [applause] thank you very much. >> thank you. >> [applause] thank you.
serious readers. at 7:30 p.m. eastern, fox news contributor janine borelli on her book, backlash. then at eight, president george w. bush's former chief of staff john so knew knew -- sununu. at nine, taan niece city coates discusses his experiences being black in america. tonight at 10 p.m. eastern on booktv's author interview program "after words," roberta cap land is interviewed -- kaplan is interviewed about the supreme court case that struck down the defense of marriage act. and then at 11, rita gabis reports on her family history including her grandfather's position in the gestapo. that all happens tonight on c-span2's booktv. >> and now joining us on booktv, tracy k. smith. she's a pulitzer prize winner, and she's written a memoir
called "ordinary be life." -- ordinary life. professor smith, who was cath? >> ah, cathy is my mother. and in the course of thinking about this book, i realized that that person that i grew up knowing was so many different people. that's probably such an obvious statement. but one of my main wishes in wanting to write about my mother was to explore the impact of her death on my life, explore our relationship, think about the different versions of myself that i was with and without her. i also had the really strong wish to bring her to life for my children who were born after she was gone. it just struck me as so heartbreaking when i was pregnant with my daughter who's now 5 that she would never know person. and one night i was lying in bed, and my husband said why don't you write a book about
your parents? why don't you write the book that will kind of tell her who they were? and i had such a feeling of anxiousness and fear at the task, that i knew that was exactly what i needed to do. the book, though, became a lot more than that. it became a story about figuring out who i was and who i had been. and so i think some of the largest discoveries that a reader or my daughter might make are probably not about my mother, but about her mother. of. >> host: one of the things i got out of "ordinary life" was the differences between you and your mother and your experiences growing um -- growing up african-american in the united states. >> guest: right. the generational difference is one really big marker that determines, you know, a different set of experiences, obviously, that she had growing up in the south in the '30s and '40s and '50s that i had growing up in california and
massachusetts in the '70s, '80s, '90s. when i was a child, i had a hard time framing the questions that i had about her experience into worlds. i think i -- into words. i think i knew that there was a huge piece of african-american history that contained pain and that my parents had been, you know, experiencing that, and it hurt me to think about that. and so for whole segments of my life i kind of shied away from it. i remember learning about the civil rights movement in grade school and seeing those images of people with the fire hoses and the national guard and feeling, feeling so worried retroactively for the people in my family and the way that i chose to deal with it as a child was simply to back away from it, to allow silence to, you know, create a kind of buffer. i wanted to ride into that
silence in this book as well and find ways of interrogating that anxiety that i had and also trying to come a little bit closer to maybe a kind of empathy with my parents and their parents and the experiences that they would have been dealing with as young adults in the u.s. during a time when racial tension and racial violence were at, you know, a tremendous height. you know, thinking about the difference between then and now, sometimes i'm very saddened by the fact that it's not be as vastly different. you know, there's a section in this memoir where i remember a story that i was told about a great uncle or great, great uncle who had been murdered by a white man for money that he had obtained from selling some of his own property. and nothing happened, you know? justice was not served. it wasn't even a question. and thinking about that now as i
went back and was editing the book in preparation for publication during, you know, this year when we've had so many verdicts that don't really feel that different was really chastening, i guess. >> host: tracy smith, you also talk about an incident in your childhood where you're in school and a teacher tells you you're special, and you're very excited about that. >> guest: yeah. i was in high school. i was in high school, and one of my teachers in a really well-meaning way said, you know, there are going to be a lot of opportunities that are going to come your way, and you should take advantage of them. i thought that was great, that's what i wanted to hear. i was going somewhere. he tempered that statement with something that i don't think was wrong, you know, as an adult looking back. he said you're an african-american woman, and that's going to open certain doors for you, and you should be receptive to that. and when i heard it framed like that, something kind of crumbled inside of me. maybe it was in part, you know,
the flip side of that same piece of myself that wasn't comfortable thinking about racial difference, the way that it implicates us in terms of experience. that is a possibility. i also, you know, lived with that voice in my head for years and, you know, getting into college and wondering to what extent was it a factor of my demographic identity and to what extent was it about my own abilities? i think a lot of people wrestle with this. i think it's, you know, it's a complicated issue. and i think there are a lot of disparities in terms of the ways that blacks and whites or people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds live and the opportunities that they come into contact with. so i think it's a valid thing to try and seek diversity in the institutions like princeton and like harvard where i went. but the feeling of shame that
that might sometimes trigger is something that i feel like we need to talk about. i think it's result of a lopsided or shortsighted conversation about race and about affirmative action which was, you know, a topic that was kind of loud when i was coming of age. and i don't think we've figured it out. >> host: somebody who grew up in california, why'd you choose harvard? for undergrad? >> guest: yeah. i wanted to be in a place that, to my mind, had visible history. you know, growing up in california where everything seemed brand new, i was really enchanted by the mystique of the east coast. old things and brick buildings. but i also, in some ways it was probably a very unimaginative choice because harvard just, to me, seemed like a great place to be studying.
and i don't think my perspective on it was that nuanced at time. i just thought this was one of the best schools in the nation, and what would it mean if i could go there? who would i become? what would i learn, and who would i be coming into contact with? ultimately, i think it was the right choice. i had a really wonderful four years there, and i found poetry there which i don't know that i would have in the same way at the same time had i been somewhere else. >> host: what did poetry mean to you? >> guest: i think when i was an undergrad, i was initially encabotted by the way that -- enchanted by the way that a poem in looking at something that was very small, local and perhaps even seemingly inconsequential could open up a powerful kind of revelation for the reader. and the more i thought about it and the more i attempted to write poems, i realized that's a revelation that's happening also for the poet. you know, poems are not these premeditated things. they're about making choices in
language, listening to what those choices yield and then taking the next step. it's almost like this curious pursuit. and it just seemed like a really helpful tool with which to examine the everyday as i knew it. at that time in my life, although i wasn't consciously making the connection between poetry and some of the larger experiences that i was wrestling with such as my mother's illness, being able to stop time in a poem and ask all the write questions, the kinds of questions that elude you in realtime, that seemed like a power that i really needed. i wasn't writing many poems that were directly about my mother's illness at the time, but i think that thinking about memory and, again, thinking about looking at the right thing in the right way, how that could tell you something you didn't think you knew, all of that was really comforting, grounding for me. when i think back to that time,
i also realize that kind of devotion that i felt for what language could do in a poem was probably a really wonderful alternative to the language of faith that i'd group up with -- grown up with. i think i was sort of struggling to find a kind of comfort within belief, and especially in thinking about the kinds of you know, like, freedoms that you're eager for at the age of 18, 19, 20, the individualuation that's still happening very actively at that time, it made me hungry for a kind of distance from the person i had been as a child when i was my mother's child and i was living at home. and somehow poetry allowed me to take different kinds of steps into a sense of who i was and also what was important to me as a person. >> host: do you ever surprise yourself while writing a poem? this came out?
>> guest: oh, yeah. i mean, ideally, that's the goal for any poem. and if it doesn't happen, i feel like maybe the poem isn't done yet or maybe the poem isn't ready on the written. i wrote -- my last book of poems was thinking a lot about my father who passed away about seven years ago, and i didn't know what i was after. i just knew that when i sat down to write, i wanted to be able to dwell on aspects of our relationship or on my memory of him that would make me feel close to him again. and one thing that i discovered, and this is probably thematically connected to some of the things i discovered in writing this memoir was that i was looking for a version of god, this figure that has been in my life since probably, you know, conception. god is a touchstone in my family. somebody who or something no
matter what i do wasn't going to go away. i wasn't seeking to kind of pry myself from a sense of belief; but, rather, find a way of feeling confident that the figure to whom i had entrusted my father was sufficiently large and sufficiently mysterious. and i think that the figure in old testament, got at the sistine chapel, didn't seem to fit the mold for me at that point in my life. i was really fascinated by what i could comprehend of physics and thinking about space as a literal place, thinking about some of the images from the hubbel space telescope and how they've given us a sense of the vast beyond that we're somehow a part of. i wanted to try and marry my private sense of belief and my private sense of grief to something as large and permanent and unknowable as that backdrop.
and so that was a big surprise. [laughter] i didn't think that that's why i was writing poems at that time. and i'm curious about what the next set of poems will yield in terms of surprises -- >> host: where'd the title "ordinary life" come fromsome. >> guest: i was looking for a long time for a title for this book. and a colleague of mine, evan white, said sometimes a good title can just come from a quiet phrase within a book. so i was going back and rereading the book, and i decided to stop listening for these huge, loud markers which is what i had been trying to do initially and to think about gestures that might say a lot about some of the subtler feelings that are at play in this book, the meditations that it kind of stems from. and there was a moment in, you know, late in the book where i remembered being out in an orchard at night with two friends from high school who had
also lost their mothers. and we were out there looking up at the night sky and listening to all the night noises and trying to figure out what we believed and who we were now that we were these motherless girls. be there was this wish -- and there was this wish that flickered in my mind to be able to run back into the safety of the house where somebody's mother would be and say, come on, girls, time for you to be getting to belled. and just the odder -- to bed. and just the ordinary life of a house that's intact and everyone's there and everyone's present. that image seemed to say so much about what this book was trying to recollect. if i look at it from the outside, i think it might also have to do with the small space that we occupy for a short period of our lives with the family or with the central others that make us who we are and how temporary that is and how there's so much beyond, so
much, you know, either glaring brightness that, you know, sears the mind in a different way and yields these other kinds of clarities or the dark space of, you know, what waits for us, what we might not know how to name. so thinking about it in terms of, you know, these -- [inaudible] seemed helpful to me. >> host: there's a period toward the end of your mother's life where she sat up in bed sick from cancer and said, i know tracy's going to be a writer. >> guest: yeah. >> host: why did you include that? >> guest: it was a moment that really frightened me when it happened and also made me very hopeful. it was a strange event because my mother was, you know, heavily made -- meld candidated at that time, and -- medicated at that time, and sometimes she would say things and then say, oh, i'm just confused, just ignore that. and on this night she said, she was kind of muttering, and i
said what's going on, who are you talking to? she said, oh, there are two angels here with me, and one of them just told me that you're going to become a writer. and and i felt not worry that this might not be rational thought, i felt myself in the presence of something that was very tremendous and terrifying for that reason, you know? thinking that if it is true that at the end of our lives the veil between this world that we know and the world that we are about to enter or maybe even return to becomes porous, what is there? what is there watching? and to also hear my here reflect on this conversation she was having, that just suggested to me a few things. one, that she might really be
going, you know? i knew she was dying, but i also was living with the kind of denial that maybe this isn't real. maybe everything will change, and everything will be fine. so it kind of made me have to accept that she was accepting that her life was ending and then what would that mean? what would that force me to have to accept as well if i were going to be faithful to her sense of her life? it also, i guess, frightened me because it also meant that maybe someone was telling her you can stop worrying about your child, this is what will happen. she will be okay. and then, of course, it also in affirming a wish that i had myself of being really wonderful. all of those feelings terrified me in conjunction with one another. ..