Ta-Nehisi Coates: the Dreamers who created and maintain “race” and racism
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015), a letter to his teenage son Samori, begins with a discussion of “race” in America, the book’s primary subject… “Race is the child of racism, not the father. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white. These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white – Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish – and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I can’t call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was achieved through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies. The new people are not original in this. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.
I write you in your fifteenth year, because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. You know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It doesn’t matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction or originates in a misunderstanding or a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they’ll receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this has long been common to black people. No one is held responsible. There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or this moment. They’re merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. Racism is a visceral experience that dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, and breaks teeth.”
Talking about a TV interview in which he’d participated, Coates says he tried to explain all 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 I’d failed. Outside the studio, it was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets with infants, raised to be white, bundled in strollers. I was sad for these people, as I was sad for the host and for all the people watching and reveling in a specious hope. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream, one I’ve seen all my life. It’s perfect houses with nice lawns, Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways, treehouses, and Cub Scouts. It smells like peppermint and tastes like strawberry shortcake. I’ve wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket, but this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.
How do I live free in this black body? I’ve asked the question through my reading and writings, through the music of my youth, through arguments with friends and family members. I’ve searched for answers in nationalist myth, in classrooms, on the streets, and on other continents. The question is unanswerable, but this confrontation with the brutality of my country has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.
I’m afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I’d seen this fear all my young life, though I hadn’t always recognized it as such. It was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their jewelry and full-length, fur-collared leather coats, their armor against their world. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear; all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched and cut away.
I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew, the music that pumped from boom boxes full of boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their lives, their streets, and their bodies. I saw it in the girls, in their loud laughter, in their gilded bamboo earrings that announced their names thrice over. And I saw it in their brutal language and hard gaze, how they would cut you with their eyes and destroy you with their words. ‘Keep my name out your mouth,’ they would say. I’d watch them after school, how they squared off like boxers, vaselined up, earrings off, and Reeboks on.
I saw it in my own father. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that’s what was happening all around us. Everyone had lost a child to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns. It was said that these lost girls were sweet as honey and wouldn’t hurt a fly. It was said that these lost boys had just received a GED and begun to turn their lives around. I’d hear it in Dad’s voice – ‘Either I can beat him, or the police.’ Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t. All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I can’t say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit. What I know is that fathers who slammed their teenage boys for sass would then release them to streets where their boys employed, and were subject to, the same justice. Mothers belted their girls too, but the belt couldn’t save them from drug dealers twice their age.
Our parents resorted to the lash the way flagellants in the plague years resorted to the scourge. To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness isn’t an error or pathology – it’s the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law didn’t protect us. And now, in your time, it’s become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body.
It doesn’t matter if the agent of those forces is white or black. What matters is the system that makes your body breakable. The revelation of these forces, a series of great changes, has unfolded over the course of my life. The changes are still unfolding and will likely continue until I die. I was eleven years old, standing out in the parking lot in front of the 7-Eleven, watching a crew of older boys standing near the street. They yelled and gestured at…who?…another boy, young, like me, who stood there, almost smiling, gamely throwing up his hands. He had already learned the lesson he would teach me that day: that his body was in constant jeopardy. Who knows what brought him to that knowledge? The projects, a drunken stepfather, an older brother concussed by police, a cousin pinned in the city jail. That he was outnumbered didn’t matter because the world had outnumbered him long ago, and what do numbers matter? This was and would be a war for the possession of his body. I stood there for some seconds, focusing on a light-skinned boy with a long head and small eyes. He was scowling at another boy, who was standing close to me. It was just before three in the afternoon. I was in sixth grade. School had just let out. What was the exact problem here? Who could know? The boy with the small eyes reached into his ski jacket and pulled out a gun. I recall it in the slowest motion, as though in a dream. He stood with the gun brandished, and in his small eyes I saw a surging rage that could in an instant erase my body. That was 1986. That year I felt myself to be drowning in news reports of murder. I was aware that these murders very often didn’t land upon the intended targets, but fell upon great-aunts, PTA mothers, overtime uncles, and joyful children – fell upon them random and relentless, like great sheets of rain. I knew this in theory but couldn’t understand it as fact until the boy with the small eyes stood across from me holding my entire body in his hands. The boy didn’t shoot. His friends pulled him back. He didn’t need to shoot. He had affirmed my place in the order of things. He had let it be known how easily I could be selected.
I knew that West Baltimore, where I lived; that the north side of Philadelphia, where my cousins lived; that the South Side of Chicago, where friends of my father lived, comprised a world apart. Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children didn’t regularly fear for their bodies. I knew this because there was a large television in my living room, and in the evenings I would sit before it witnessing 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. That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens. Comparing these dispatches with the facts of my native world, I came to understand that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not. I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach. I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between that other world and me. And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.
You still believe the injustice was Michael Brown. You haven’t yet grappled with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder all around us. Before I could discover, before I could escape, I had to survive, and this could only mean a clash with the streets…The streets transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beat-down, a shooting, or a pregnancy. No one survives unscathed. The heat that springs from the constant danger, from a lifestyle of near-death experience, is thrilling. This is what the rappers mean when they pronounce themselves addicted to ‘the streets’ or in love with ‘the game.’ I imagine they feel something akin to parachutists, rock climbers, BASE jumpers, and others who choose to live on the edge. Of course we chose nothing. And I have never believed the brothers who claim to ‘run,’ much less ‘own,’ the city. We didn’t design the streets, and we don’t fund or preserve them.
In other cities, indeed in other Baltimores, the neighborhoods had other handles and the boys went by other names, but their mission didn’t change: prove the inviolability of their block, of their bodies, through their power to crack knees, ribs, and arms. You can approach any black person raised in the cities of that era and they can tell you which crew ran which hood in their city, along with the names of the captains and an anthology of their exploits. To survive the neighborhoods and shield my body, I learned a language of head nods and handshakes. I memorized a list of prohibited blocks. I learned the smell and feel of fighting weather. And I learned that ‘Shorty, can I see your bike?’ was never a sincere question, and ‘Yo, you was messing with my cousin’ was neither an earnest accusation nor a misunderstanding of the facts. These were the summonses that you answered with your left foot forward, your right foot back, and your hands guarding your face, or by breaking out, ducking through alleys, cutting through backyards, and bounding through the door into your bedroom, pulling the tool from under your mattress or out of your Adidas shoebox, then calling up your own cousins (who really aren’t) and returning to that same block, on that same day, and hollering out, ‘Yeah, nigger, what’s up now?’
You have some acquaintance with the old rules, but they aren’t as essential to you as they were to me. I’m sure you’ve had to deal with the occasional roughneck on the subway or in the park, but when I was your age, each day fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not – all of which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body. I don’t long for those days, nor do I have any desire to make you ‘tough’ or ‘street.’ Any ‘toughness’ I garnered came reluctantly. I think I was always, somehow, aware of the price, somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things. I think I felt that something out there, some force, nameless and vast, had robbed me of…what? Time? Experience? I think you know something of what that third could have done, and I think that’s why you may feel the need for escape even more than I did. You’ve seen all the wonderful life up above the tree-line, yet you understand that there is no real distance between you and Trayvon Martin, and thus Trayvon Martin must terrify you in a way that he could never terrify me. You’ve seen so much more of all that’s lost when they destroy your body.
The streets weren’t my only problem. If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later. The laws of the streets were amoral and practical. You rolled with a posse to the party as sure as you raised an umbrella in the rain. But the laws of the schools were aimed at something distant and vague. What did it mean to, as our elders told us, ‘grow up and be somebody’? And what did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline? To be educated in my Baltimore meant packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly. Educated children walked in single file on the right side of the hallway, and never offered excuses – certainly not childhood itself. The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls. How could the schools? Algebra, Biology, and English weren’t subjects so much as opportunities to better discipline the body, to practice writing between the lines. All of it felt so distant to me. Why was I sitting in this classroom? The question was never answered. I was a curious boy, but the schools weren’t concerned with curiosity – they were concerned with compliance. I sensed the schools were hiding something, drugging us with false morality so we wouldn’t see, so we didn’t ask.
Every February my classmates and I were herded into assemblies for a ritual review of the Civil Rights Movement. Our teachers urged us toward the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month couldn’t pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent? Back then all I could do was measure these freedom-lovers by what I knew. Which is to say, I measured them against children pulling out in the 7-Eleven parking lot, against parents wielding extension cords, and ‘Yeah, nigger, what’s up now?’ I judged them against the country I knew, which had acquired the land through murder and tamed it under slavery, against the country whose armies fanned out across the world to extend their dominion. How could the schools valorize men and women whose values society actively scorned? How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all that they were, and then speak of nonviolence?
I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both. Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you’d be suspended and sent back to those streets. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream. An unceasing interrogation of the stories told to us by the schools now felt essential. It felt wrong not to ask why, and then to ask it again. I took these questions to my father, who very often refused to offer an answer, and instead referred me to more books. My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers – even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined.
Some things were clear to me: The violence that undergirded the country, so flagrantly on display during Black History Month, and the intimate violence of ‘Yeah, nigger, what’s up now?’ weren’t unrelated. It was of a piece and by design. But what design? And why? I must know. I must get out…but into what? I devoured the books because they were the rays of light peeking out from the doorframe, and perhaps past that door there was another world, one beyond the gripping fear that undergirded the Dream.
This was the early ’90s. I was approaching the end of my time in my parents’ home and wondering about my life out there. If I could have chosen a flag back then, it would have been embroidered with a portrait of Malcolm X, dressed in a business suit, his tie dangling, one hand parting a window shade, the other holding a rifle. The portrait communicated everything I wanted to be – controlled, intelligent, and beyond the fear.” Coates says he listened to tapes of Malcolm’s speeches. “‘Don’t give up your life, preserve your life,’ he would say. ‘And if you got to give it up, make it even-steven.’ This was a declaration of equality rooted in the sanctity of the black body. You preserved your life because your life, your body, was as good as anyone’s, because your blood was as precious as jewels, and it should never be sold for magic, for spirituals inspired by the unknowable hereafter. You don’t give your precious body to the billy clubs of Birmingham sheriffs or to the insidious gravity of the streets.
Malcolm was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief. If he was angry, he said so. If he hated, it was because it was human for the enslaved to hate the enslaver. He wouldn’t turn the other cheek for you. He wouldn’t be a better man for you. He wouldn’t be your morality. Malcolm spoke like a man who was free, like a black man above the laws that proscribed our imagination. I identified with him. I knew that he’d chafed against the schools and almost been doomed by the streets. But even more I knew he’d found himself by studying in prison, and that when he emerged, he was able to wield some old power that made him speak as though his body were his own.
Perhaps I too might live free. Perhaps I too might wield the old power that animated the ancestors, that lived in Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X, and speak – no, act – as though my body were my own. My reclamation would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration. Perhaps I might write something of consequence someday. I’d been reading and writing beyond the purview of the schools all my life.
My work is to give you what I know of my own particular path while you walk your own. You can no more be black like I am black than I could be black like your grandfather was. And still, I maintain that even for a cosmopolitan boy like you, there is something to be found there – a base, even in these modern times, a port in the American storm.
When I was at Howard [University], ‘the black race’ was real and mattered. My working theory then held all black people as kings in exile, a nation of original men severed from our original names and our majestic Nubian culture.” Coates says he wanted to find our how “Europe underdeveloped Africa. I went into this investigation imagining history to be a unified narrative, free of debate, which, once uncovered, would simply verify everything I had always suspected. The smokescreen would lift. And the villains who manipulated the schools and the streets would be unmasked. But there was so much to know – so much geography to cover – Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas, the United States. And all of these areas had histories, sprawling literary canons, fieldwork, ethnographies. Where should I begin? The trouble came almost immediately. I did not find a coherent tradition marching lockstep but factions, and factions within factions. Had we retained any of our African inheritance? I felt bound by my ignorance and by Howard itself. It was still a school, after all. I wanted to pursue things, to know things, but I couldn’t match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of professors. The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books.
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 true for the dreams concocted by Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that I had conjured to replace them. I began to see discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear, as a kind of power. The discomfort, the chaos wasn’t an alarm, but a beacon. It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that wouldn’t award me my own special Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. Perhaps there had been other bodies mocked, terrorized, and insecure. Perhaps the Irish too had once lost their bodies. Perhaps being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah. I had accepted the invention of racecraft, yet I knew that we were a tribe – on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real. I am black, and have been plundered and have lost my body. But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder; maybe I would take another’s body to confirm myself in a community. Perhaps I already had. Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man.
I felt that it was time to go, to declare myself a graduate of The Mecca, if not the university. I was publishing music reviews, articles, and essays in the local alternative newspaper, and this meant contact with more human beings. I had editors – more teachers, the first white people I’d ever really known personally. They saw in my unruly curiosity and softness something that was to be treasured and harnessed. And they gave me the art of journalism, a powerful technology for seekers. I reported on local D.C., and found that people would tell me things, that the softness that once made me a target now allowed people to trust me with their stories.
I wanted you to claim the whole world, as it is. And yet even in this cosmopolitan wish I felt the old power of ancestry, because I had come to knowledge at The Mecca [Howard] that my ancestors made, and I was compelled toward The Mecca by the struggle that my ancestors made. The Struggle is in your name, Samori – you were named for Samori Touré, who struggled against French colonizers for the right to his own black body. He died in captivity, but the profits of that struggle and others like it are ours, even when the object of our struggle, as is so often true, escapes our grasp.
There was also wisdom in the streets. I think now of the old rule that held that should a boy be set upon in someone else’s chancy hood, his friends must stand with him, and they must all take their beating together. I now know that within this edict lies the key to all living. Whether you fought or ran, you did it together, because that was the part that was in our control. What we must never do is willingly hand over our own bodies or the bodies of our friends. And that is the deeper meaning of your name – that the struggle, in and of itself, has meaning. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. You must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This isn’t despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
The birth of a better world isn’t ultimately up to you either. I love the world more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and must be responsible for your body in a way other boys can’t know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful – the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but don’t forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”
Coates goes on to tell how Prince Jones, a fellow Howard student, was shot to death by a Prince Georges County, Maryland sheriff at a traffic stop. “At the
service for Prince at Rankin Chapel on Howard’s campus, I heard several people ask for forgiveness for the officer who’d shot Prince down. The need to forgive the officer didn’t move me, because even then, I knew that Prince wasn’t killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and the fears that have marked it from birth. At this moment the phrase ‘police reform’ has come into vogue, and the actions of our publicly appointed guardians have attracted attention presidential and pedestrian. You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all its will and fear. The abuses that have followed from this country’s criminal justice policies – the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, and the torture of suspects – are the product of democratic will. So to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities into the Dream.
The officer who killed Prince was charged with nothing, punished by no one. He was black, as were the politicians who empowered him to kill. I called and questioned them, and was told that citizens, black and white, were more likely to ask for police support than to complain about brutality. According to this theory ‘safety’ was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value. I understood. What I would not have given, back in Baltimore, for a line of officers, agents of my country and my community, patrolling my route to school!
Our family arrived in New York City two months before September 11, 2001, and I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts, or lost in conversation with each other while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.
When I got off the train and came back to my hood, Flatbush Avenue or my Harlem, it was the same boys, with the same bop, the same ice grill, and the same code I’d known all my life. I found myself, on any given day, traveling through several New Yorks at once – dynamic, brutal, moneyed, sometimes all of those at once.
Perhaps you remember the 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 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!’ I turned and spoke to her, my words hot with the moment and 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 didn’t care. I told him this, and the desire to do more was hot in my throat. It 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 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’s supposed to come with righteous self-defense and justified violence. 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 memories 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 as dangerous on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as on the Westside of Baltimore. I’m ashamed of how I acted that day, endangering your body. I’m not ashamed because I’m a bad father, a bad individual, or ill mannered. I’m ashamed that I made an error, knowing that our errors always cost us more.
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.’ To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it’s always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It’s still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that’s your work – it must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.
At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies – cotton – was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. They were traded from the White House by James K. Polk. Our bodies built the Capitol and the National Mall. The first shot of the Civil War was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state.
In America, it’s traditional to destroy the black body – it’s heritage. Enslavement wasn’t merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor – it isn’t so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. So enslavement must be include the gashing of heads, brains blown out as the body seeks to escape, rape so regular as to be industrial, and the thrashing of kitchen hands for the crime of churning butter at a leisurely clip. Black bodies, pulverized into stock and marked with insurance, were an aspiration, lucrative as Indian land, a veranda, a beautiful wife, or a summer home in the mountains. For the men who needed to believe themselves white, these bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization. Without the right to break you they must fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they’d have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism.
I’m sorry that I can’t make it okay, that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your 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 aren’t inviolable either. And when their own vulnerability becomes real – when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, and their armed society shoots down their children, and nature sends hurricanes against their cities – they’re shocked in a way those of us born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. I wouldn’t have you live like them. You’ve been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you don’t have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.
Ghettos are an act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are plundered of our dignity, of our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. Both the killing of Prince Jones and the murders attending these killing fields are rooted in the assumed inhumanity of black people – a legacy of plunder, a network of laws and traditions, a heritage, a Dream.”
Thinking about time spent in France, Coates tells Samori, “we will always be black, you and I, even if it means different things in different places. We weren’t enslaved in France. We aren’t their niggers. Remember the Roma you saw begging with their children in the street and the venom with which they were addressed. Remember the Algerian cab driver, speaking openly of his hatred of Paris, then looking at your mother and me and insisting that we were all united under Africa. We were all aware that the forces that held our bodies back at home weren’t unrelated to those that had given France its wealth. We were aware that much of what they had done was built on the plunder of Haitian and Wolof bodies, on the destruction of the Toucouleur [a Malian kingdom], and on the taking of Bissandugu [Samori Touré’s capital].
The Dreamers are torturing Muslims, and their drones are bombing wedding parties (by accident!), and they’re are quoting Martin Luther King and exulting in nonviolence for the weak and big guns for the strong. When each time a police officer engages us, making death, injury, and maiming possible, the Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept our bodies as currency, because it is their tradition. As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came redemption for the unrepentant South and reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guestroom, their finished basement. And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.”
Coates writes that when he went to speak with Prince Jones’s mother, “she told me that she was born and raised outside of Opelousas, Louisiana, that her ancestors had been enslaved in that region, and that as a consequence of that enslavement, a fear echoed down through the ages.” Hearing her story, Coates thought about the black church and his “distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something – some notion of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my physical perception of the world that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that moment, because something beyond anything I’ve ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life. She went to college on full scholarship. She went to med school at Louisiana State University. She served in the Navy. She took up radiology.
She said that Prince had gone to private schools all his life – schools filled with Dreamers, making friends wherever he went, in Louisiana and in Texas. I asked her how his friends’ parents treated her. ‘By then I was the chief of radiology at the local hospital,’ she said. ‘And so they treated me with respect.’ She said this with no love in her eye, coldly, as though she were explaining a mathematical function.
Dr. Jones’ sharp brown eyes welled but did not break. She held so much under her control, and I was sure the days since her Rocky was plundered, since her lineage was robbed, had demanded nothing less. And she could not lean on her country for help. When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best – it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, another component of the Dream. They’ve forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They’ve forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the Dream and force them to live down here with us, in the world. I’m convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than free. In the Dream they’re Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they’re an empire of humans, built, like all empires of humans, on the destruction of the body. It’s to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.
Dr. Jones alluded to ‘12 Years a Slave,’ saying of Solomon Northrup, ‘he had means. He had a family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act. It’s all it takes.’
After I left, I sat in the car. I thought of all that Prince’s mother had invested in him, and all that was lost. I thought of the loneliness that sent him to The Mecca, and how The Mecca, how we, couldn’t save him, how ultimately we can’t save ourselves. I thought back on the sit-ins, the protestors with their stoic faces, the ones I’d once scorned for hurling their bodies at the worst things in life. Perhaps they so willingly parted with the security and sanctity of the black body because neither security nor sanctity existed in the first place. And all those old photographs from the 1960s, all those films I beheld of black people prostrate before clubs and dogs, weren’t shameful – just true. We’re captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they’re white, to think that they’re white, beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world. But you can’t arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief, our bodies too precious. And you’re here now, and you must live – and there’s so much out there to live for, not just in someone else’s country, but in your own home. The warmth of dark energies that drew me to The Mecca, that drew out Prince Jones, the warmth of our particular world, is beautiful, no matter how brief and breakable.
Even the Dreamers, lost in their great reverie, feel it, for it’s Billie they reach for in sadness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha the last sound they hear before dying. We’ve made something down here. We’ve taken the one-drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. Here at The Mecca, we’ve made a home – as do black people on summer blocks marked with needles, vials, and hopscotch squares; black people dancing at rent parties; enjoying family reunions; toasting with cognac and German beers, passing blunts, and debating MCs. As do all of us who have voyaged through death, to life upon these shores. That was the love power that drew Prince Jones. The power isn’t divinity but a deep knowledge of how fragile everything – even the Dream, especially the Dream – really is.
I’ve heard predictions all my life from Malcolm and his posthumous followers, hollering that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. But I left The Mecca knowing that this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they’d sown, we’d reap it with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction, and the people who authored the death of our ghettos and the mass rape of private prisons, then engineered their own forgetting, must keep going. Cheap gasoline enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. It’s freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans, but the body of the Earth itself. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas.
It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It’s the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, the automobile, is the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.
I don’t believe we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. But still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. Don’t struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them, pray for them, if you’re so moved, but don’t pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they’ve painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”