Freddie Grey, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Walter Scott, the bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina–it’s a grim role call that doesn’t even begin to scratch the historically bloody surface of what it means (and costs) to be black in America.
Black men and women routinely dying or being assaulted at the hands of white police officers or citizens has ignited heated conversations about race lately, but perhaps one of the hardest conversations to have, for black parents in particular, is with your child. How do you tell someone so young and innocent of the world’s evils that their skin color has branded them for life with prejudices and the seemingly unshakeable grip of slavery?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent at The Atlantic, is having that conversation with his own son in a very public way. Coates’ forthcoming book Between The World And Me is an open letter to his young son, Samori, who was 15 when Coates wrote the book. In a post explaining the background of his book, Coates says:
I made this decision with some hesitation. “The Talk”–a conversation between black parents and their children about, but not limited to, the dangers of police brutality–has begun to ooze with sentiment and melodrama. I find myself, now, shuddering at the phrase. And yet there is something real there, something of value. My hope was to take the concept of “The Talk” and strip it of sentiment, make it visceral, ground it in the physical lives of black people.
On July 4th, The Atlantic published an excerpt from Between The World And Me–below are some of the most powerful passages:
When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have 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.
You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.
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 law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body.
“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.
It is terrible to truly see our particular beauty, Samori, because then you see the scope of the loss. But you must push even further. You must see that this loss is mandated by the history of your country, by the Dream of living white.
Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body–it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor–it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible–that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.
The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you.
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 whom 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…
Between The World And Me is out July 14.