[CN: Anti-black violence, n-word mention]
It’s really exciting that a piece of literature so completely dis-interested in appeasing whiteness is getting the scale of attention this book is receiving. Yes, you should read it. Yes, it’s every bit as beautifully written as they are saying it is. It really is an open letter to Coates’s son; it has the language of a letter in its simplicity, its anaphoras. The paragraphs are breaths, extensive and measured, containing an incredible rage at a cosmic injustice, and they end on powerful and sometimes enigmatic imagery.
You can almost see the struggle of the publishing industry in trying to market this book. The blurbs i hear on it, regurgitated from press kits, is that it’s part autobiography and part historical examination of the Civil War and of black power struggles in the time after the Movement. And it has those elements. The language includes history, grapples with it, shows much of it to be an illusion conjured by the white establishment, the Dreamers. But it’s not for your edification. The jacket says Coates’s language builds towards “a transcendent vision for a way forward,” when nothing could be more diametrically opposed to the author’s framework. Coates is a thorough materialist, the body is the spirit, and this makes the violence wrought on black bodies in Amerikkka, the power lorded over these bodies, all the more tragic and criminal.
The Dreamers think they are white. They want to stay white. It’s in the name of this illusion that the genocide goes on. An incredible corpus of intellectual history and literature and political analysis is being condensed here in these 153 pages in such accessible, personal, and well-wrought language — Coates’s work in this sense is an incredible service for pretty much anyone who doesn’t grasp much about how race works in this country beyond what they see on the news.
That Sunday, with that host, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about “hope.” And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail.
Because how are you supposed to explain to liberal whites that these kinds of happy-feels cop propaganda is all part of the same violence? So exhausted i am from going to a whole college campus filled with such folks i cant help but rehearse the most predictable responses to Coates’s arguments. No, there is no place for hope, certainly not in whatever terms the Dreamers can imagine.
Coates writes that the Dream is the ultimate force behind all violence done to black people, even if the material violence is committed by a black body in some instances. White readers might complain that they are being made to feel guilty no matter what they do, that because they wake up thinking they are white they are already guilty, and that there is no room for “personal responsibility.” But Coates’s is not saying that all whites are guilty, he’s saying that whites have no true capacity for innocence. And it’s because of the system the Dreamers have erected, the idea of “race” which, paraphrasing Coates, organizes people into inside and outside the “umbrella” of human rights, that there is no responsibility on either side.
friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
where does personal responsibility even begin? Not with the pigs who murder black children and come out with a paid vacation before returning to the streets, learning nothing except what they can get away with. Whites are always exonerated, whether they are cops or merely un-badged terrorists, and every story of the next black human turned to a corpse is accompanied with their initial mistake and the arrest record they just happen to have.
In the evenings I would sit before this television bearing witness to the dispatches from this other world. There were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak. […] I came to understand that my country was a galaxy, and this galaxy stretched from the pandemonium of West Baltimore to the happy hunting grounds of Mr. Belvedere.
The most interesting bits for me came from the second quarter of the letter, on Coates’s college days and his encounters with Black Nationalism, i guess because in these moments he’s my age. Here are nuanced and exciting reflections on militancy and art, so well handled and well said.
I read through all of Dad’s books about the Panthers and this stash of old Party newspapers. I was attracted to their guns, because their guns seemed honest. The guns seemed to address this country, which invented the street sand secured them with despotic police, in its primary language — violence.
And a bit later, once he’s at Howard (the Mecca) and has found his vocation as a writer, trying to help bind together whatever it is that makes him and bodies like him a people:
I would walk out into the city and find other lectures, book signings, and poetry readings. I was still writing bad poetry. I read this bad poetry at open mics in local cafes populated mostly by other poets who also felt the insecurity of their bodies. All of these poets were older and wiser than me, and many of them were well read, and they brought this wisdom to bear on me and my work. What did I mean, specifically, by the loss of my body? And if every black body was precious, a one of one, if Malcolm was correct and you must preserve your life, how could I see these precious lives as simply a collective mass, as the amorphous residue of plunder? How could i privilege the spectrum of dark energy over each particular ray of light? These were notes on how to write, and thus notes on how to think. The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing. And it became clear that this was not just for the dreams concocted by Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that I had conjured to replace them. I had thought that I must mirror the outside world, create a carbon copy of white claims to civilization. It was beginning to occur to me to question the logic of the claim itself. I had forgotten my own self-interrogations pushed upon me by my mother, or rather I had not yet apprehended their deeper, lifelong meaning. I was only beginning to learn to be wary of my own humanity, of my own hurt and anger — I didn’t yet realize that the boot on your neck is just as likely to make you delusional as it is to ennoble.
You see what i mean by those paragraph endings, those clinching final images that work like the “flashes of lighting” of an intellectual landscape that Isaac Babel talked about.
And you’ll see what i mean by the letter’s refusal to coddle white feelings — unafraid to dip into some challenging shit. I almost started pumping the air with my fist when i read this bit. Coates delivers his obligatory “where were you when 9/11 happened” and it’s not like any other:
But looking out upon the ruins of America, my heart was cold. I had disasters all my own. The officer who killed Prince Jones, like all the officers who regard us so wearily, was the sword of the American citizenry. I would never consider any American citizen pure. […] But I did know that Bin Laden was not the first man to bring terror to that section of the city. I never forgot that. Neither should you. In the days after, I watched the ridiculous pageantry of flags, the machismo of firemen, the overwrought slogans. Damn it all. Prince Jones was dead. And hell upon those who tell us to be twice as good and shoot us no matter.
Fuck it. There are many ways you could go at this passage. It could be a father venting to his son, it is a letter after all. Or it could be monstrously callous as im sure some will say. What matters to me is that the author is willing to take a stand here. Even though it means outing himself in this one sense as a great civil heretic — how un-American!
i’ve already heard someone who believes herself to be white describe this work as “nihilistic.” This letter isn’t really. It strips away all white illusions. Slavery still exists. To be black in the US, regardless of class or achievements, is to be enslaved. There is no way to protect yourself or your children. There are no easy prescriptions for how to “reform” the police or America. The whole thing has to be up-rooted for black lives to start mattering. But there are ideas about how to live with yourself and struggle for justice, and it strikes me as deeply considered and politically mature.
These bits are developed in the final third, when writes on his travels in Paris. In compelling language he ties these memories with those of college, holding them like separate “worlds” that he can access in qualified and limited ways. Here we are beyond the pat unity of 70s, or the hopelessly diluted liberal identity politics of today. This is the kind of way to push forward while still honoring the differences that Audre Lorde was talking about; a way to be reconciled with yourself and see your world and its relation to others, and then finally becoming ready to maybe do something about the white supremacist capitalist police state which is now threatening civilization on an ecological scale: the noose that the Dreamers have put round us all, as Coates says.
I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you — but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable.
The meaning of life. That it doesnt care about you any more than a hurricane does. That the chaos is rebounding and can touch you at any moment regardless of your goodness. That the world is anti-black, that this is an artificial condition, but the Dream will condition us to see the violence of racist thugs like Darren Wilson or Zimmermann is no more preventable than an earthquake. Coates’s atheism is worked into an analysis that builds upon Baldwin’s understanding of whiteness as a construct that links white men and women, white rich and white poor together. It culminates in a unique and different understanding of King’s civil rights struggle; the faces in those nonviolent sit-ins.
i dont want to paint Coates as more revolutionary than a contributor to the ATLANTICcan be (lest we forgot those noxious click-bait articles about PC campuses *rolls eyes*), but his analysis is so potent compared to the circus of US commentary and the sputtering excuse of “the Left.” There are tons of ideas compressed into one letter, like the ultra-dense carbon core of a dead star. It should be widely read because it will have enough to resonate with anyone. i dont know Coates’s world or that of his son. But it’s like he says, you can encounter it through his language in a way that is worthy.
The excerpt focuses on something a little bigger than a micro aggression. Of course white people will say that race has nothing to do with a white lady feeling comfortable physically pushing a four year old black boy in public. “Hey, it’s New York, everybody’s rude!” But even if you grant this sort of nonsense, and you really shouldn’t, the broader point is that race is always an open question. It’s an anxiety white people never have to live with (so they just make their own up).
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Perhaps you remember that time we went to see Howl’s Moving Castle on the Upper West Side. You were almost five years old. The theater was crowded, and when we came out we rode a set of escalators down to the ground floor. As we came off, you were moving at the dawdling speed of a small child. A white woman pushed you and said, “Come on!” Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body. And more: There was my sense that this woman was pulling rank. I knew, for instance, that she would not a have pushed a black child out on my part of Flatbush, because she would be afraid there would be a penalty for such an action. But I was not out on my part of Flatbush. And I was not in West Baltimore. And i was far from The Mecca. I forgot all of that. I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defense. I experienced this as his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast. He had made no such attempt on behalf of my son. And he was now supported by other white people in the assembling crowd. The man came closer. He grew louder. I pushed him away. He said, “I could have you arrested!” I did not care. I told him this, and the desire to do much more was hot in my throat. This desire was only controllable because I remembered someone standing off to the side there, bearing witness to more fury than he had ever seen from me — you.
I came home shook. It was a mix of shame for having gone back to the law of the streets mixed with rage — “I could have you arrested!” Which is to say: “I could take your body.”
I have told this story many times, not out of bravado, but out of a need for absolution. I have never been a violent person. Even when I was young and adopted the rules of the street, anyone who knew me knew it was a bad fit. I’ve never felt the pride that is supposed to come with righteous self-defense and justified violence. Whenever it was me on top of someone, whatever my rage in the moment, afterward I always felt sick at having been lowered to the crudest form of communication. Malcolm made sense to me not out of a love of violence but because nothing in my life prepared me to understand tear gas as deliverance, as those Black History Month martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement did. But more than any shame I feel about my own actual violence, my greatest regret was that in seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.
“I could have you arrested,” he said. Which is to say, “One of your son’s earliest moments will be watching the men who sodomized Abner Louima and choked Anthony Baez cuff, club, tase, and break you.” I had forgotten the rules, an error dangerous on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as on the Westside of Baltimore. One must be without error out here. Walk in single file. Work quietly. Pack an extra number 2 pencil. Make no mistakes.
But you are human and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell. You will drink too much. You will hang out with people you shouldn’t. Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson — not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined — with Eric Garner’s anger, with Trayvon Martin’s mythical words (“You are gonna die tonight”), with Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd, with me standing too close to the small-eyed boy pulling out.
A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself, and in America, these precipitating chapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals. “It only takes one person to make a change,” you are often told. This is also a myth. Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen.
The fact of history is that black people have not — probably no people have ever — liberated themselves strictly through their own efforts. In every great change in the lives of African Americans we see the hand of events that were beyond our individual control, events that were not unalloyed goods. You cannot disconnect our emancipation in the Northern colonies from the blood spilled in teh Revolutionary War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from slavery in the South from the charnel houses of the Civil War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from Jim Crow from the genocides of the Second World War. History is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life. I am ashamed of how I acted that day, ashamed of endangering your body. But am not ashamed because I am a bad father, a bad individual, or ill mannered. I am ashamed that I made an error, knowing that our errors always cost us more.
This is the import of the history all around us, though very few people like to think about it. Had I informed this woman that when she pushed my son, she was acting according to a tradition that held black bodies as lesser, her response would likely have been, “I am not a racist.” Or maybe not. But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic — an orc, troll, or gorgon. “I’m not a racist,” an entertainer once insisted after being filmed repeatedly yelling at a heckler: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Considering segregationist Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon concluded, “Strom is no racist.” There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally. In the era of mass lynching, it was so difficult to find who, specifically, served as executioner that such deaths were often reported by the press as having happened “at the hands of persons unknown.” In 1957, the white residents of Levittown, Pennsylvania, argued for their right to keep their town segregated. “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens,” the group wrote, “we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” This was the attempt to commit a shameful act while escaping all sanction, and I raise it to show you that there was no golden era when evildoers did their business and loudly proclaimed it as such.
“We would prefer to say that suhc people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,” writes Solzhenitsyn. “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.” This is the foundation of the Dream — its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgment of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.