Good Books

I make sense of the world through books. In this space, I share thoughts on books I’ve encountered that have a bearing on my work understanding and challenging social norms. I call it Good Books not because they’re all titles I recommend, but because they are all a part of my quest to help other people get smarter about making a just and peaceful world.

4136L2x6YJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A Colony in a Nation – Chris Hayes

“Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom,” John Laurens sings at the end of the Battle of Yorktown in Hamilton: An American Musical. Moments later George Washington replies, “Not yet.”

In the most literal reading of the text, it’s a setup for the next historical episode, in which Washington negotiates the terms of the British troops’ surrender. But our knowledge of the subsequent centuries of American history imbue the exchange with far greater meaning. (Indeed, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his crew made the subtext text on this track from the Hamilton Mixtape.)

We live in a great time for this kind of repurposing of history, perhaps because it is also so necessary. Before 2015, no one knew that we needed a hip-hop take on the Founding Fathers with a mostly non-white cast; now it seems impossible to think about their legacy for a mostly non-white nation without Miranda’s recasting. These romantic retellings give us a way of reckoning with the past that is more authentic and useful than pious assessments of our ancestors’ sins.

To my mind, this is the best way to interpret A Colony in a Nation, the new book by MSNBC mainstay Chris Hayes. The book is a meditation on policing and race in America informed by Hayes’s lived experience as a reporter in the years since the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. that followed the shooting of Michael Brown. But as with his show All In, Hayes’s questions about where events fit into a larger whole mean more than any particular reported fact.

The book’s provocative title is derived from an unlikely source, a law-and-order speech by Richard Nixon. Hayes cites Nixon to illustrate the way in which right-wing America has portrayed “tough on crime” policies as guarantees of rights to safety and property in African-American neighborhoods. Tricky Dick tried to blend the foundational American myth and anti-colonial rhetoric to portray himself as the true civil rights candidate.

Of course it was a lie; Nixon and his inheritors in the GOP stoked white fear and resentment for political gain. And as episodes like Ferguson demonstrate, “tough on crime” policies further reduced black communities to “colony” status. Anyone can see the resemblance between police in armored vehicles and our occupying armies abroad. Many would say we are meant to.

But Hayes shows that we too can play the reinterpretatve game. In the book’s key chapter, he interpolates incidents he witnessed in Ferguson with the precipitating causes of the American Revolution — the continent’s first transition from colony to nation.

We all have our own American Revolution. While your local Tea Party patriot emphasizes the rebels’ resistance to taxation and the ACLU insists on their secularism, Hayes portrays the Republic’s founding as a struggle with unreasonable police actions and confiscation of property. In the gathered crowds chanting “hands up, don’t shoot” he sees the struggles for the right to peaceful assembly in the First Amendment. And the authors of the Fourth Amendment would certainly understand the sentiment of the black Ferguson homeowner insisting police leave his yard, yelling “This my property! This my shit!” Like Hamilton, this blending of historical and contemporary voices forces us to reconsider the significance of the past and present.

Not all of Hayes’s book is so masterful. His style is to relate to each aspect of his subject through personal anecdote, and this can sometimes seem limiting. For example, he frames the story of the (non-)relationship between the contemporary decline in crime and “broken windows” policing through his own experiences growing up in New York, which some readers will find to be an inadequate canvas for a complicated topic. But Hayes is honest about the way white privilege limits his perspective, and he gives credit to the more groundbreaking work of others where it is due. In fact, the most impactful pages of the book may be an anecdote at the end where he contemplates whether calling 911 on a group of rowdy black teenagers picking on strangers in the park would translate his privilege into violence. Before reading his book, this might have struck me as precious progressive grousing; afterward, it seems like a legitimate question of how we treat our fellow citizens.

As the events in Charlottesville make clear, we live in a time when we are coming to terms with racial injustice in the present by renegotiating our relationship with the past. There will be a thousand different ways in which different people make sense of this renegotiation, from Hamilton to 13th to “Accidental Racist” — and I include the last to demonstrate that many of these will be well-intentioned but ultimately embarrassing. For me, Hayes’s work was a useful addition to the corpus, a helpful guidepost on our collective journey from colony to nation.

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