Thursday, July 23, 2015


My world. Kentucky

Mr. Coates:

Now that I have finished Between the World and Me, I am not the same person I was when I began reading it just three days ago. It's not a long book, and I could have read it in one sitting. I didn't take notes, and I didn't underline or highlight. I felt from the beginning that I was entering into some sacred, hallowed space, this letter that you had written to your son. I know you said in an interview that it was a literary device, and, being a writer, I get that.

But I also believe that your words came from the deepest, most honest and unabashed place in your soul.

You tell us what no black man has really told in quite this lyrical and personal way, at least in this time: what it means and what it feels like to be a boy and a man in the body of one who is born in America an African American.

But you do so much more than that. You will not allow us to look away from what we (those who are white, or as you say, believe we are white) have constructed for ourselves, a world that feels somehow safe, free, secure, assured, and predictable, in ways that your life, your sons life, and no person of color's life... even if he becomes President of the United States... will ever really feel.

I went, last night, to a discussion at an Episcopal Church in Lexington, KY. We were meant to discuss Thomas Merton's book, Faith and Violence, and his very late in life writings on Vietnam and on racism in America. Writing in 1967 and 1968, the year he died, Merton, like you, was brutally frank about why the "Negro" had every right to be angry, as he understood Malcom X, H. Rap Brown, and Stokely Carmichael to have been. He understood the agenda of the Black Panthers, and anti-white agenda. He didn't offer, as you do not, a solution, other than to suggest that "we must continue to treat our Negro friends as persons and as friends,... and it is to be hoped they will do us the same honor..... and we must continue to do all that we can ... to see that his human rights are guaranteed to him even when he may seem to be acting in such a way as to forfeit them in the eyes of a truculent and critical white society." It is remarkable that Merton wrote these words after the summer of 1968, a summer of uprisings and violence in the cities of America. (179)

But he did. And then he wrote: If Christianity is being discredited in the eyes of the Negro, that does not dispense us of our duty to be authentic Christians toward the Negro whether he likes us or not. (179)

I found, in these fifty year old radical proclamations, a partial answer. And in this discussion, with a mostly white group of educated, progressive if not liberal folks, we talked about Merton, and we agreed that his words rang true today.

Then one man said to the Rector who led the discussion, Please tell us where we go from here. I don't know where to go.

I think this is the absolute place your book leaves thinking Americans. Not only "white" America, but people of color who have become advantaged and have not given thought to the systemic issues that plague and perpetuate white privilege. It leaves us stripped of all of the masks shields, shelters and places to hide. It robs us of what you call "the mettle it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces turned into armies, from the long war against the black body...." (Coates, 98) It strips from anyone who reads it with an open and honest heart, who reads it with God as their witness (even though you say you do not believe in God, you tell the truth, which plenty of people who say they believe don't, so.. you have integrity) "the forgetting.." the worst thing we participated in, the most horrible piece of this Dream, "because to remember would tumble them out of the Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world....I am convinced the Dreamers... would rather live white than live free." (143)

And then you tell your son that he won't have to be the one to to fix it because Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the sea. (151)

It is here, in these closing pages, where I see and feel, not only the interconnected nature of all the oppressions, but the addictive nature of them as well. I see, too, that for those who listen, and feel this horrible emptiness, this guilt of ages of plunder and pillage that weighs upon us, and this choked cry: But tell me what can I do to fix it?

...the answer is, the same answer given to an addict who arrives at the place called "Surrender." The place where you are on your knees, because there is nothing you can do now. You have done enough. It's time to pray.

I don't feel sad. I feel sadly joyful. I feel elated to live in the world with you, and I pray that this new Gospel of truth will be heard. For like the Prophets of old, you are simply telling us what is to come.

Your friend, whether you want me to be or not,