Monday, July 20, 2015


 Mr. Coates,

I love the way your book begins.

Do not speak to me of martyrdom
of men who die to be remembered 
on some parish day.
I don't believe in dying
though, I too shall die.
And violets like castanets
will echo me.

Sonia Sanchez

In your interview last week on "Q," you said that understanding these truths, the ones you present in Between the World and Me,  is like understanding that we will die.

I am eager to see and hear how your book will be read by believers amongst the Black literati, for even there we have preachers, Christians, and those who ultimately believe, or profess to, that this world is not the only world.

But you, Mr. Coates, start from a radically different place. A precipice, if you will, more consistent with my own faith, Unitarian Universalism, because you state, early on, that your parents did not offer you the hope of religion: "My parents rejected all dogmas.We spurned the holidays marketed by the people who wanted to be white. We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God." (28) So, your starting point, theologically, will be familiar to those I know best.

You dish out reality, as you have come to understand it (and you have earned this understanding, through reading, study, observation, and experience. Yours is not a capricious authority) in bitter doses stripped of any sweetening agent, stripped of salve, stripped of answers, or really of hope. These are powerful lessons that all of America needs to hear, but few will. I am wondering now, even, if Black America will hear them? Time will tell. I will be waiting and listening.

Meanwhile I hear you, and I believe you. I also hear something like hate and scorn, even bitterness and rage, for everyone in America who is white, or as you say, "believes" he or she is "white." That is so nuanced that even I with, as my kids say, way too many degrees to count, have to sit with, and read and re-read, and so hence am wondering how my "white" brothers and sisters will grasp. But I do not reject it. I have taught my own children to understand that it is probably true that many people of color are angry and may even hate "white" people (from now on I think I must say "white" people). I remember well the day, this past year, when my younger sister, who is mostly apolitical, hearing me explain some of the ways in which racism had played out in the past decades, simply said: no wonder black people hate white people. Yes, I think that would be a reasonable conclusion. In fact, I often think it's a wonder Black people often don't hate "white" people, and also that they don't kill white people. That's another subject for another day. It's just something that crosses my mind.

I wonder if there is a place in your rhetoric for anyone else beyond everyone who is not black? I know so many others, who, like myself, have been on a lifelong journey to reject the definitions of whiteness you hurl at us in the book. Who have not only not taken them for granted but have actively worked to undermine and undo the structural forces that create them. Who have raised children to move and relate in completely different ways in this world than their parents and grandparents did. Even still, as this new Civil Rights era takes off, who are re-examining assumptions about the world and preparing ourselves to re-engage, to be of service, who are willing to relinquish privilege, who believe you, who are wholeheartedly, and good-heartedly waiting and hoping to be of service in a struggle for a more righteous way.

The words you write are true. Their truth is startling, glaring, and brazenly courageous. This book will make change and stimulate discussion.

A Civil War Battlefield
Almost 7,000 died here. I pass by often and wonder long and hard about these things.

Your analysis of America is accurate. It's as heart-breakingly true as the day I learned of the sexual abuse that had occurred in my family when I was a child, and had to realize my childhood was not what I had thought. And you are correct, it is much like the realization that we, ourselves, will die. And it indicts us. It causes shame and humiliation, grief and deep sadness. Even despair. So, naturally people don't want to know this.

And I ask you this, as well: Can you allow that other people, even if they are not Black, may have had some experience from which they can identify with the fear, the visceral, gut-level, feeling of terror and imprisonment you experienced as you came awake to the danger of moving about in the world beyond Howard University, the fear of just being a human in your own skin? What I speak about is being a woman in many relationships of power/domination/control/abuse; being a child; attending most public schools; being a person with disability or disfigurement; being gay or lesbian or transgender? These are curiosities I have, wonderings, not challenges, and of course with no expectation that the actual author is ever going to read this!

So I am reading slowly, turning everything around and around, and contemplating each aspect of my present and past through your eyes as best I can. It's a treasure and a privilege.

I will have more to say. Thank you for this book.