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'Survival Math': BW's Conversation with Coates Interviewer Mitchell S. Jackson


If there is a lesson to be learned from the Black Lives Matter movement, it's that the dangers, responsibilities and rules of living in America aren't the same for everyone. Long before BLM, however, people like Mitchell S. Jackson fought to illuminate that principle for others. The title of Jackson's latest book, Survival Math, released earlier this year, suggests that even in the wealthiest nation on earth, there are still many whose lives are games played for the highest stakes: life and death.

"Survival math are the on-the-spot decisions one has to make when they’re faced with a really serious threat. That’s on the surface," Jackson said. "People who are disenfranchised are always having to make survival-math choices, which are the broader choices that help them avoid poverty and the criminal justice system."

Jackson, who will be in Boise on Monday, Oct. 7, to interview author Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Morrison Center stage for The Cabin's Readings & Conversations series, draws the portraits of real people whose lives have been functions of "survival math" as someone who has lived that life himself. When he was a sophomore in college, he was incarcerated on drug charges; but unlike many people who have been wrung through the justice system, Jackson's career as a writer has been on the up-and-up, and he has taught creative writing at several prestigious institutions of higher learning across the country. He said it was a no-brainer when his agent called him up to gauge his interest in interviewing Coates in Boise.

Though Jackson said he's interested in Coates' journalism and nonfiction work—work that has made him a national-caliber thinker on history and race relations—it's Coates' latest book, The Water Dancer, released in late September, that interests him the most.

"I think [Coates] gets so many questions that go over the same subjects. I’m going to try to connect this to his other work, but I’m interested in how he put [The Water Dancer] together, what kind of revisions he made. People don’t talk to him a lot about craft, they ask about the issue of black lives in America," Jackson said.

The intersection of style and substance are of keen interest to Coates and Jackson both. In The Water Dancer, there are scenes that, though fictional and stylized, mirror and reflect on mechanisms of oppression. In Survival Math, Jackson deploys similar strategies to shade what's ultimately a work of nonfiction, using endnotes and other postmodern strategies to break up the reading experience and draw the reader's attention to Jackson's desired point.

"It’s not just sociology. It’s making art out of those circumstances," he said.

Jackson has done this through a variety of media, from fiction and nonfiction to essays. In an essay about Childish Gambino's "This is America," he argued that Donald Glover's much-discussed 2018 music video uses surreality to expose fissures in race relations. That surreality is on full display in the essay itself, which is bookended by examples pulled from his own life: A gun he bought on the street in his dealing years had been stolen from him—a fact that struck him as someone attempted to invade his home.

"Lucky for me, a white neighbor heard [the invaders] too, and scared off the would-be robbers by threatening to call the police," Jackson wrote. "Calling the police never once crossed my mind. And that, too, is proof of America. Mine and his."

Still, the idea that a black man and his white neighbor's different levels of trust in law enforcement might signify broader social divisions is lost on some people. Jackson said that in an age of social media and 24-hour news channels, that ignorance is oftentimes willful ("to me, that seems like people don't want to know"), but like his fiction and essays, Jackson's strategy for reaching unreceptive people is to make the plight of disenfranchised people real.

"I try as much as I can to talk about things I have personal familiarity with, something I can humanize," he said. "You can't ever just be preaching."