A Little Farther Down the Path: Between the World and Me

I first learned of Ta-Nehisi Coates through his writing in The Atlantic magazine. His article titled “The Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 issue is one of the finest examples of long-form journalism I have ever read. The article’s subhead effectively summarizes his point: Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York City, 2012

By the time I read that article, a similar thesis had been percolating in my brain forseveral years. My thinking did not address the question of reparations, and I don’t think Coates really believes that will ever really materialize. His larger point, I believe, was that, while some kind of monetary reparation would be fair and helpful, if a strong majority of white Americans would simply come to believe in the justice of the idea, that would go a long way toward healing the gaping wounds left by the historical realities summarized in his article’s subhead.

My own thesis was (and is) a bit broader. It was spurred by the proliferation of news stories about the killing (mainly, but not exclusively, by law enforcement officers) of young blacks (mainly, but not exclusively, men)—Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, etc. Invariably, I would read, in conjunction with these reports, descriptions of the victims’ behavior and even their home life and school records, that came perilously close to a “blame the victim” defense of those responsible for the killings.

My point here is not to comment on the behavior of police officers, the vast majority of whom are responsible public servants trying to do a dangerous and often thankless job and, in most cases, doing it admirably and professionally. Rather, what these reports stirred up in my thinking was the inability or the unwillingness of many whites (white evangelicals in particular) to recognize the linkage between slavery (and all the injustice that persisted even after the Civil War ended) and the contemporary African American community.

Briefly put, although I couldn’t see it for most of my adult life, I now believe that the unspeakable cruelty of an economic system based on slave labor inflicted deep psychological and emotional wounds, the effects of which are still being borne (as a result of something known as “transgenerational trauma”) by the descendants of those slaves. Especially when you consider the injustice and inhuman treated to which African Americans were (and still are) subjected even after chattel slavery was outlawed at the end of the Civil War, not nearly enough time has passed for those wounds to be healed.

This, then, is the point Ta-Nehisi (pronounced tah-nuh-HAH-see) Coates is making in his profound little book, Between the World and Me (Spiegel and Grau, 2015). The book is written as a long letter (but a short book) to his then-fourteen-year-old son, Samori. It’s clear, though, that Coates envisions a far broader audience for the thoughts he has collected here.

I have heard him say that he is surprised when white people read and express appreciation for what he writes. (Coates is an African American in his early forties, married and living in New York, and Samori is the couple’s only child.) But no contemporary writer understands and communicates the African American “story” with more passion and conviction and clarity than Ta-Nehisi Coates. I agree with Toni Morrison. He is this generation’s James Baldwin. Both the language and the style in which this book is written (a letter) reminded me of Baldwin’s classic, The Fire Next Time.

Here are some of the lines that fairly jumped off the page as I read them.

When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen the fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such.” (page 14)

I could not retreat, as did so many, into the church and its mysteries. My parents rejected all dogmas… And so I had no sense that any God was on my side. ‘The meek shall inherit the earth’ meant nothing to me. The meek were battered in West Baltimore, stomped out at Walbrook Junction, bashed up on Park Heights, and raped in the showers of the city jail. My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.” (page 28)

In one extended passage, he waxes lyrical when he describes slavery in stark, personal, human terms that will not allow his son (or any other reader) to think of that horror as merely an “institution” or an economic system.

Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is a vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is she is enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world—which is really the only world she can ever know—ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. (pages 69, 70)

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… You have to make peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold. (page 71)

The book is more than mere historical reflection. From that perspective he also speaks to the reality of contemporary black experience in a society that, at least for now, is still dominated by whites.

“Black-on-black crime” is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel. And this should not surprise us. The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.

To yell “black-on-black crime” is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding. (pages 110-111)

And finally,

They (American whites) have 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 have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers of today would rather live white than live free. (page 143)

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a gifted, insightful writer who sees things we whites cannot appreciate until it is pointed out to us. He is not cynical, not bitter. He is honest and realistic. He has achieved a good deal more than most young men his age, white or black, and he acknowledges his good fortune. But he reminds us, powerfully and poignantly, that even for blacks who have achieved success as he has done, and even more painfully for those who have not, the scars of the past, while less searing than they once were, are a mighty long way from being healed. The longer the white community refuses or fails to acknowledge that, the longer the healing process will be. Transgenerational trauma is a hideous burden to bear. Ask descendants of victims of the Holocaust. And, as Coates makes clear near the end of the book,

We are captured, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. (page 146)

We are all in this together. We all harbor more racist thoughts and ideas than we are willing to admit. We whites are vicariously responsible for the sordid racial history of this nation, and we are responsible to do all we can to bring about complete healing and restoration of wholeness—to our black brothers and sisters and to our nation as a whole.

Forty years an evangelical, and I never heard this story from this perspective. We need to remember the words of Martin Luther: “If you preach the Gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time, you have not preached the Gospel at all.”

A year or so ago, I watched an interview on PBS by Charlie Rose with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Charlie asked him if he agreed with the quote by Dr. Martin Luther King which says, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Coates said he did not.

I understand why he said that. He wanted to make sure that no one interpreted Dr. King’s words to mean that progress toward equality and social justice is automatic and will eventually come to pass no matter what. He wanted people to know that progress of that sort is always intentional and requires the investment of blood, sweat, tears, and even life itself. I love that quote by Dr. King, but I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that, to bring about full healing in the future, we must never forget how deep have been the wounds of the past.


Note: This is the sixth in a series of fourteen special posts for Lent 2017. Each post references a different book, mostly recent works that I have found helpful and encouraging for my life pilgrimage, especially in light of major changes in my thinking and beliefs in the past decade or so. To read the introduction to the series that I posted on Ash Wednesday, click here. The posts follow the introduction in sequence and will generally be published on Tuesdays and Fridays through Good Friday, April 14.


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