In examining the legacies of the Fourteenth Amendment for the nation’s literary history, this reading and discussion series looks at books that address issues of diversity, identity, and inequality in exploring how, for many Americans, the promise of citizenship falls short of their reality.
- Between the World And Me by Ta Nehisi Coates
- A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar
- Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chestnut
- Once in a Promised Land by Laila Halaby
- The Round House by Louise Erdrich
By any account, we are still living out the reverberations of the transformative moment that gave rise to the Fourteenth Amendment. Its 150th anniversary coincides with a presidential election year in which the nature and meaning of race and the significance of the nation’s history of slavery are of urgent popular concern. An important part of the backdrop and at times the foreground of these narratives is violence, in the form of legal and unofficial discrimination, sexual and physical abuse, murder and mass killings, colonialism, and military occupations. Read together, these diverse works of literature serve to remind us that more expansive version of American citizenship brought about by the Fourteenth Amendment was formed in the wake of searing violence and historical traumas—the long arc of slavery in the U.S. and the bloody Civil War that brought about its end and also the massacre of Native Americans and their forced removal from tribal homelands.
Between the World and Me
Over the last half century, landmark constitutional law cases concerning sexuality, marriage, and reproduction have consistently positioned the citizen’s body as the proving ground of the 14th Amendment’s ideals and guarantees. Yet the narrative about personal privacy, freedom, and equality these Supreme Court decisions form overlooks that it was the changing political status of the black body that originally occasioned the amendment’s transformation of American citizenship. In bondage, that body had defined the limits of citizenship and continued to do so in a tenuous and, for many, entirely nominal freedom that belied the 14th amendment’s goals of civic inclusion and equality. That these goals and thus our nation’s democracy itself remain unrealized can be seen foremost in how the black body and all those who must inhabit it in America exist in unrelenting peril, unrecognized by others except when viral images of police and vigilante violence shock the public conscience. These atrocities, argues acclaimed journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates in his polemical 2015 non-fiction book Between the World and Me, but illuminate the longer history of enslavement and its aftermaths of which the 14th Amendment is a part. “In America,” he writes, “it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage….The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden.”
A National Book Award winner, Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and occasion of Coates’s recognition with a coveted MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship, Between the World and Me is a profound meditation on the significance of race and anti-black racism for the nation’s history and ideals and for the daily experience of being black in America. Written from the intimate perspective of a father’s letters to his teenaged son, the premise of the book, which interweaves history, reportage, autobiography, and astute, lyrical social analysis, is that the defining aspect of African-American life is that, as Brit Bennett, reviewing the book for The New Yorker, writes, “your body can be taken from you easily, and with little consequence.”
Coates’s reputation as one of our era’s most incisive and forceful writers about American race matters was cemented by his 2014 feature story for the magazine The Atlantic, where he is an editor and national correspondent and writes a regular monthly column, “The Case for Reparations.” Reflecting extensive research on the histories of housing discrimination and real estate redlining, the essay unpacked the links between the vast wealth gap between present-day black and white Americans and the institutional racism that evolved in the aftermaths of slavery and segregation. According to poll data cited by Coates himself in a follow-up essay, 75 percent of white Americans oppose reparations for slavery Americans; in their view, the racial wealth gab in the present has “little” or “nothing” to do with the legacies of slavery and the question of what the nation might owe the descendants of the enslaved without basis or merit. Coates’s provocative and persuasive “case” carefully shows how the systems of slavery and Jim Crow wreaked social and economic damage that was, as he writes, “extended and compounded by ongoing discrimination, how this continues to devastate black communities, and why a debt was owed.”
Between the World and Me, which takes its title from an unflinching poem about a lynching by Richard Wright, was originally conceived as a collection of essays about the Civil War. The police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the failure to indict anyone for his murder compelled Coates to radically shift the focus of his book project. What Coates perceived as a miscarriage of justice and his relatively privileged son’s incredulous reaction to it returned him to the righteous indignation he felt after one of his Howard University classmates, Prince Jones, was killed in 2000 by a police officer who had pulled over his car, of which he was the sole passenger. The officer was not indicted nor even pulled from his duties. For Coates, the rage he felt at the time became the impetus for his journalism and writing ever since, and this necessarily bleak, powerfully written book bears the impress of that anger, which, he writes, “burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.” The murders of Brown, Jones, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, among others, can function as moments of awakening for white Americans, newly scandalized into awareness of the chasm that exists between the idyll of everyday safety and pleasure that most whites take for granted and the abiding fear and precariousness that shapes black experience. While that experience is the focus of Between the World and Me, the book takes a broader perspective, arguing that these men’s killers are not themselves ultimately responsible but are rather “agents” for the larger forces of history that endow race with meaning. Coates’s meditations on violence, history, and the meaning of race in America return again and again to the idea that racism is systemic and that the reach of that system is extensive and all pervasive and yet that the task of understanding such a vast and deep-rooted problem is a matter of practical survival. “This is your country,” he tells his son, “this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
A Map of Home
Randa Jarrar’s semi-autobiographical debut novel is a vivid, frequently hilarious Muslim American update to the bildungsroman tradition, centering on a spirited female protagonist of mixed Palestinian, Egyptian, and Greek heritage. A Map of Home’s narrative follows the series of dislocations and relocations that shape the complex map of home out of which Nidali forges her personal identity. Born in Boston, Nidali spends her childhood in Kuwait until the Iraqi invasion forces her family to take refuge with relatives in Egypt. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait occurs on her thirteenth birthday, Nidali’s newfound awareness of the violence and displacements of life during wartime coinciding with the literal end of childhood. After a lengthy period of transition, Nidali and her family, which now includes a brother born in Kuwait, return to the United States, settling in Texas where she spends her high school years. Global violence, as much as family concerns, account for Nidali’s nomadic childhood. Jarrar’s heroine comes of age while negotiating multiple cultural traditions on the home front and the political effects of the Gulf War and the Palestine-Israeli conflict.
Such intersections of the personal and the political are not uncommon within the annals of immigrant literature, whose authors often use coming-of-age narratives and generational tensions to explore the new American’s dual experiences of belonging and outsiderhood. Neither at home in the traditions of the old country nor fully assimilated to the new, the immigrant protagonist forges a distinctively American identity that straddles both. A Map of Home reimagines these themes around an Arab-American identity that is itself multi-ethnic and a character who is both a citizen by birth yet also a foreigner, having spent much of her life outside the U.S. This complex treatment of familiar themes extends to Jarrar’s depiction of Islam. Religion is not the focus of Nidali’s largely secular family life, simply another part of its diverse traditions, which include her Greek grandmother’s Christianity.
Notably, A Map of Home is not an uncritical paean to the pleasures of cosmopolitanism but instead explores, from the vantage of its protagonist’s childhood experiences, the worldview shaped by the dominance of American popular media culture. At one point, Jarrar notes how Nidali and her friends in Kuwait would obsessively rewatch a particular scene in the 1980s teen flick, License to Drive, best known to American audiences as a star vehicle for “the two Coreys” (Feldman and Haim). In the scene in question, one characters sarcastically remarks, “This isn’t…Kuwait.” Nidali observes how she and her friends “were thrilled to hear the name of the place where we lived—a place we believed to be a tiny spot of spit on the map of the world—uttered by a gorgeous actress in an American movie.” They failed to notice, however, the critical tone in which their country’s name was invoked. It was enough, she writes, that “America actually cared that we existed, and this somehow made us feel like we were worth existing.” The reader’s awareness of the Gulf War still to come redoubles the irony of this passage.
The Marrow of Tradition
Reviewing The Marrow of Tradition soon after its publication, William Dean Howells, the turn-of-the-century American literary establishment’s most influential critic and editor, declared that Chesnutt’s 1901 novel marked a decline in the quality of its author’s published writing, which at that point included two story collections, a previous novel, and a biography of Frederick Douglass. Howells was an early and important champion of Chesnutt, securing his fiction a national audience by publishing the short story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” in The Atlantic Monthly in 1887—the first time the prestigious journal had featured an African-American author’s work. At a formal level, Howells admired The Marrow of Tradition’s as a compelling work of realist social fiction, its plot loosely based around a white supremacist coup d’état in Wilmington, N.C., occurring just three years earlier, in which a democratically elected local government dominated by African-Americans and white Populists was violently overthrown. Wilmington’s black community saw many of its businesses and homes destroyed and dozens of black lives lost at the hands of white mobs that brought together members of the white ruling elite with the working poor. Set in the fictional town of “Wellington,” these events unfold largely from the perspective of Chesnutt’s educated African-American protagonist, Dr. William Miller, who rues the inconvenience and personal injustice of Jim Crow segregation but avoids engaging with his town’s increasingly hostile racial climate until his own family is drawn, tragically, into the ensuing violence. “No one who reads the book can deny that the case is presented with great power,” Howells admitted. Rather, his objections lay with the novel’s apparent pessimism regarding prospects for black citizenship in an American society that remained both riven by racial conflict and in denial regarding the legacies of slavery and what African-American literature scholar Rafia Zafar has called “the ever-present specter of failed Reconstruction.” “The book is, in fact,” Howells complained, “bitter, bitter.”
Penned over a century ago, Chesnutt’s justifiably “bitter” novel revisits the events of 1898, refuting the sensationalized and apolitical picture of what had been widely and inaccurately depicted as a “race riot” by offering a dramatic examination of the roots of the violent government takeover in Wilmington and its catalyzing events. The novel’s address to historical events seamlessly weaves comic, suspense, and sentimental novelistic elements focused on the intimate lives and tangled relations of the Millers and the extended family of one of the white coup plotters with an incisive analysis of the intersecting economic, political, and cultural contexts in post-Reconstruction North Carolina. The novel’s various subplots, which include the near-lynching of a faithful domestic servant and former slave wrongly accused of murdering a white woman, convey the complexity of race, class, and gender in post-Reconstruction North Carolina in terms that are compelling and all too recognizable to contemporary readers. As well, Chesnutt’s sense of how the claims of history, for the community he depicts, are systematically denied yet remain undeniably present resonates with ongoing national conversations regarding racism and state violence and the changing meaning of whiteness in an increasingly multiracial society. In an early chapter, The Marrow of Tradition also provides a trenchant critique of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, which famously opined that “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks and whites in the routine spaces of public life did not violate the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of equal citizenship and due process before the law. As a plot point, this is a minor aspect of the novel but in connecting the infamous court opinion to the events in Wilmington, The Marrow of Tradition presents one of American literature’s most profound meditations on the uneven legacy of the 14th Amendment’s construction of African-American citizenship.
Once in a Promised Land
Laila Halaby’s second novel, following her award-winning 2003 debut West of the Jordan, concerns the relationship of Jassim and Salwa Haddad, a childless Jordanian couple in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Setting the novel in Tucson, Halaby, who is herself Jordanian and grew up in Arizona, examines the nation’s post-9/11 mood from the perspective of ordinary Arab-Americans living thousands of miles away from the sites of the attacks and the communities immediately affected. The Haddads have left Jordan to pursue their own American dream, which for Salwa, has even greater stakes. As a Palestinian, she is doubly displaced from two homelands. The couple’s idyllic suburban existence projects an image of prosperity and personal happiness that belies the reality of lives pressured by marital discord and spreading anti-Arab racism. Jassim is a hydrologist, passionate in his belief that water should be accessible to all. For an immigrant from a desert monarchy, Jassim’s work to maintain water tables is a poignant form of democratic idealism, but it also makes him vulnerable to an FBI witch-hunt for suspected terrorists. Salwa, a prosperous real estate agent, is secretly mourning the miscarriage of a pregnancy she’d kept hidden from her husband, who says he doesn’t want to have children. Jassim, for his part, doesn’t tell Salwa that a boy he injured in a car accident has died. Dual infidelities compound these tragedies as the couple struggles to salvage what’s left of their increasingly untenable American lives.
The post-9/11 national mood is a central concern of the growing genre of the so-called “9/11 novel,” which typically approaches the cultural impact and political fallout of that day by focusing on the lives of New Yorkers and their Tri-State neighbors. Once in a Promised Land is unique in its choice of setting and protagonists, shifting focus away from Manhattan and surrounds, making the “ordinary Americans” through whose lives we are asked to consider these events ordinary Arab-Americans. That premise provides an indispensible take on the themes of violence and belonging taken up by this reading series. Through this portrait of wholly assimilated immigrants who no longer feel welcome in their chosen country, we glimpse how the spectacular violence of terrorist attacks on the other side of the country becomes, much closer to home, a rallying cry for a paranoid and xenophobic brand of patriotism.
The Round House
Louise Erdrich is one of the most celebrated authors of contemporary American fiction, having published to date fifteen novels, in addition to volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and an acclaimed work of nonfiction—an essayistic memoir of the writer as a new mother.An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a band of the Anishinaabe, or Ojibwa, peoples of the Lake Superior Region of North America, Erdrich is a prominent figure in the so-called second wave of the Native American Renaissance, a literary movement critics date to the publication of M. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1969 novel House Made of Dawn, the success of which enabled a new generation of Native fiction writers and poets to find publishing success and critical acclaim. Among Erdrich’s many awards, which include a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, recognition as a Pulitzer finalist, and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, is the National Book Award earned by her novel The Round House, published in 2012. Like William Falkner’s Yoknapatwapha novels, which use a Mississippi county of his own creation to stage the complex interrelations of past, present, and historical memory in the Jim Crow South, Erdrich’s most of writing—including this novel—is set within and around a fictionalized North Dakota reservation, with many of her novels involving recurring characters and interwoven storylines. And as with Faulkner, the distinction between past and present in these tales is persistently destabilized, her frequently lyrical narratives merging Native American history and tribal legends with modern consciousness and contemporary concerns. The life-worlds of the reservation lands and the communities that border them are overlooked and neglected aspects of the American experience that, in Erdrich’s fiction, become fundamental to understanding the nation’s history and culture.
In The Round House, a loose sequel to 2008’s The Plague of Doves, Erdrich turns her attention to how federal law has directly shaped the physical and psychological landscape of reservation life. Unlike earlier novels, this book offers a single narrator, who recalls the darkest episode of his childhood, a tale of traumatic violence that lays bear the limits of the legal ideals and system of justice for which the 14th Amendment remains a powerful emblem. The narrator’s father, a tribal judge, was one of the narrators of The Plague of Doves, which retraced the history and aftermaths of a brutal murder for which four Indian men had been erroneously put to death; in this novel, his voice—both affecting and lawyerly—echoes in his son’s. The more focused narration of The Round House keeps in view for readers both the story of the violent crime and its tragic aftermath, alongside the complex legal arrangements that structure Native sovereignty and subjugation and make the pursuit of justice in this case a futile cause. The crime that catalyzes the narrative is the brutal rape of Joe’s mother, which occurs near a sacred round house. While the round house itself is located on reservation land on thus under the authority of tribal courts, the white suspect is himself beyond their jurisdiction. Federal law cannot be applied because the immediate location of the crime was either part of a state park and thus subject to the authority of the North Dakota or on land sold by the tribe, which invokes an entirely other set of statutes. In the face of this legal morass, having witnessed his traumatized mother’s physical and mental decline as her assailant goes unpunished, thirteen-year-old Joe and his friends embark on their own pursuit of justice. The moral questions this riveting novel raises about revenge, the meaning of justice, and the uses of the law provide a raw-edged point of entry into understanding the legal limbos of Native American history. As a contribution to this book series’ course of readings and discussions,The Round House helps to expand and illuminate the broader legal landscape of race and citizenship within and against which the 14th Amendment emerged.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.