It’s that time again, where I’m compelled to write a love letter, and the man’s wife may not like me saying this, but the letter is dedicated to her as well, and their son. Not 48 pages into Between the World and Me, I had to put down this book. It had to stop, the pain. I wanted it to be wrong, the words.
The circle of emotional grief continued through the night.
How can the gradient of one’s skin, made by the great artesian of all, be subject to so much more pain than me, all because I have an undertone of blue, showing face value of white.
Reading Coates letters to his son, I wanted it all to be a lie, so I could be true, and remain in my innocence. The rhetoric of my youth fought for expression. I’m irish. I’m native indian. My ancestors were not such as these. I have no part in harming you, nor did my father or his father, for that matter.
I had to allow the question to stir in my mind: What if I’m not so innocent? What if my ancestors were the masters of slaves, or were given favor because they appeared white, or sidelined a black person, or thought their tribes shouldn’t mix, shouldn’t intermarry, shouldn’t be neighbors?
And I mourned. I didn’t want a part in someone else’s history, another’s choices; I didn’t want to take personal responsibility for the sins of my fathers. But Coates wrote that he had to take responsibility, not only for his own body, but the potential actions of other bodies, and what they may do to him.
Then I recognized it. Though I’d not been part of hurting the body of a black man, there was a time I played the role of the white princess, waving my dollar bills for diapers, thinking my horse was the better way to get a sister from point A to point B. Had I thought I knew better than a black sister, without asking her what better meant to her? Yes.
I’m not so innocent.
Later in the book, the question of faith came up, a question of eye for an eye vs. turn the other cheek, and this was one I understood well.
While in business law class, my partner in a project leaned over and said she dreamed her boyfriend, who was in prison, had relations with me, actually she said he raped me, and that I put him in prison. It was all very strange. I didn’t know her boyfriend, or her, so I tried to ignore it, her words. This was during a faith transition in my life and I didn’t want any trouble.
Several weeks later, the girl, not black or white, but a gradient in between, started in on me again, but for the whole class to hear. I got closer and yelled back. I was close enough that she kicked me. I punched her in the face. She ripped my hair out. When the teacher returned, we were separated, and suspended.
I thought it was over.
But the consequences were much like yours the day you went to the convenience store and had a gun pulled on you. It turns out the girl I fought was part of a gang, and she called my house one night, saying if I didn’t meet her at some location, her gang would bring guns to my house, and hurt me and my family.
I didn’t go. I lived in fear.
Following a faith conversion to Christianity from a sort of agnosticism, I had few of my former friends, and following that fight, I had none. I returned to school with a mess of scratches from the girl’s fake nails and clumps of hair removed from my head. Rumors abounded that the girl was expelled or transferred to another school, but her calls didn’t stop for weeks. I walked the path of shame, alone. And somehow even then I knew I’d never be in that situation again, that it was a departing from my old ways. That’s when I got serious about school.
It was the eleventh grade.
I write all this as a response to the world between you and I, to say we’re not so far apart, and that by dismissing the creator of all, we may be dismissing hope of being brought together.
Some blame the “mysterious Gods” for the past atrocities of people groups, and think Christianity has been used to keep African Americans from true freedom.
And I get it.
I’ve been in the Bible studies where an elderly person thinks God justified slavery “for a time”. Many people prefer God’s sovereignty to His free will, yet there are equal parts of both in the Bible. But it makes sense, if God is in control, and could have stopped slavery, and didn’t, then humans are void of personal responsibility for their actions. We can do what we want regardless of the harm it causes others.
But it’s a lie that’s gone on too long and is settles in the book of James. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves (1:22). There is and never was a call on any man’s life to enslave another human being, but the only call of every man and woman is to love, period.
For the Critics
The foremost command of the New Testament is found in Matt 5:28 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength; and likewise, love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus the Christ said these words. It’s a playback to the Old Testament scripture found in Deuteronomy 6:5, with the addition of “love your neighbor as yourself.”
And fast forward to AD 2000’s and we’re still twisting the character and nature of God for our own well being and not our neighbors. We like this scripture when our neighbor is our friend, or like us, or of the same political persuasion, or socio-economic status, or gradient of skin, but not so much when our neighbor has shells of cars spewed about his or her lawn.
And somehow in this political, social, religious construct that we call our home, we justify intolerance, hate, and avoidance, with the desire to uphold or conserve the former ideal of a “biblical” world that never was, and never will be…here at least.
The former construct some idealize only serves one people group, and really the males of that people group, and held us, the Christians, as the elites, or at least accepted in the mainstream, something denied to the Christ, for which the religion was named.
So Simple, Yet Made So Complex
Most things that are the best are also the worst. Take, for instance, sugar, this sweet additive is why we have chocolate croissants, rhubarb pies, and cookies. And now sugar is being blamed for obesity, heart disease, cancer, ADHD, depression, and bi-polar. How? Is it God’s fault? After all, he put it in the garden.
And many will say it all goes back to the garden of good and evil. The freedom is in the plenty and the abstinence of one. But we want that one. A lot of that one. And sometimes the need for the thing becomes justification for getting it, no matter the cost to ourselves or others.
Our nature’s desire is to plunder. Consider children after Halloween, how if left to their selves, they’d eat the entire bucket of candy. It’s not within them to deny themselves. It’s not within us, either.
Done with the Womansplaining, I think
So as I rise up in anger at the falsehoods presented to me by church folk, on occasion, I’m reminded of the enemy lurking around, setting himself up to destroy our BODIES. Often by turning human against human.
And God says the answer to this all-pursuing destruction is to LOVE, that we heap burning coals on our enemy’s head when we give him a cup of water (Pr 25: 22). Yet I want to throw the coals on their heads, especially if they throw them on me first, or a friend, and to yell, and to call people out for saying false things. But it’s a waste of time, the acting out in anger part, plus in my world it’s a sin.
With 35 years of general hardship under my wings, and six of those as a parent, I’m learning that people rarely listen, but especially when the volume is raised. In this age of digital devices, I have to put my son’s face in my hands and say “look me in the eyes,” and then say whatever it is that he needs to hear. Often three times before I’m sure he’s heard me.
Now Back to You
This is why your story is so important to me and to the world. Because what we often can’t achieve in conversation without heightened emotion and defensiveness, you’ve proved we can achieve through books. What my friends can’t tell me for fear of hurting me has now been said, and I know black parents fear for their children, especially their sons, with an intensity unknown to me.
More than an award winner, your greatest achievement is in creating discussions through your words, helping to break down the barriers that exist between the races. Any white person who wants to learn what it’s like for a black man can read your story and become educated. Any Christian wanting to know how their faith has been used to further injustice can learn from your book and be part of a redemption tale of love. Any person willing to listen, can learn to hear.
Hope for change, for reconciliation and restoration, somehow seems more possible, not less, having read your book, even despite your lack of hope, as sometimes professed in Between the World and Me.
Even knowing you prefer Malcolm X to Martin Luther King, an eye for an eye, over turning the other cheek, the truth is in your life story. You didn’t return with a gun that day at 7-11, you didn’t hunt down the cop who killed Prince Jones, you stayed clear of certain streets, kept your head down in books, and now you write for the Atlantic. Using everything you learned, you waited for the opportunity, and used your voice, not your fists, to make a point.
I’d say you have a dream, and I do to, but like you said,
‘The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it [is] his own.” Coates
Sincerely and with great affection for you and your family,