Letter to My Son
July 5, 2015 5:17 AM   Subscribe

Letter to My Son, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, July 4, 2015: "I came to understand that my country was a galaxy, and this galaxy stretched from the pandemonium of West Baltimore to the happy hunting grounds of Mr. Belvedere. I obsessed over the distance between that other sector of space and my own. I knew that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not... And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape."
posted by roomthreeseventeen (31 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
Having grown up in the suburbs of Baltimore, not the rougher West Baltimore that Coates nows, it's disheartening and viscerally enlightening to hear him talk off places and streets that I've visited, but never known, at least not as well as he has. Coates paints sharps images that cause such heartache, yet he also describes a mostly alien world to me, the suburban child who roamed in the woods, went to summer camp, rode his bike too and from private school and sledded in the winter.

By pretty much any measure, I can't say that I fear as Coates does. This isn't an evaluation or condemnation of his upbringing. I merely note the difference of the luck of the draw.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:58 AM on July 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

"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 as 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 dress-making 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 the 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."
posted by sallybrown at 6:15 AM on July 5, 2015 [34 favorites]

Amazing piece. Thank you for posting.
posted by jammy at 6:46 AM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Coates just really is a goddamn national treasure. Nor did I grow up in the world he describes, but he has certainly helped me not only understand but feel the responsibility I have to grapple with our history, my identity, and the enormity of the work that remains to be done.
posted by Makwa at 7:00 AM on July 5, 2015 [20 favorites]

I love Coates, his writing is beautiful and exactly what America needs more of.
posted by sotonohito at 7:14 AM on July 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

The force with which he describes the magnitude of the injustice that has been and continues to be done has a physical impact. It leaves me reeling time after time.
posted by bardophile at 7:21 AM on July 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

This part, I think, is especially good at explaining the American problem: It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:23 AM on July 5, 2015 [8 favorites]

I was reading this earlier today and hoping it would show up here. Mr. Coates has really opened this (liberal) white southerner's eyes to the realities of life as a black person in the USA. Although he is generous about giving credit to the writers who have influenced him, the only other writer who is in his league when it comes to the subject of race is Frederick Douglass; not a comparison I make lightly.
posted by TedW at 7:27 AM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

FYI: "Over the next week, I will be in dialogue, offering my own thoughts and reactions to these experiences. Please send your stories to hello@theatlantic.com. And check back as the week goes on and the conversation evolves."
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:05 AM on July 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

I sat in the parking lot of my gym for 30 minutes reading that amazing, amazing piece. I'm rendered inarticulate by its power, by its purpose, by how fucking important it is and how I wish every person in this country would read it and really hear what he's saying. And, just, goddamn. It's so good. It references MLK in the same breath as Wu-Tang, and it's all woven together so fucking effortlessly, but the references aren't winky nods to pop culture, they're buttressing an argument that is already so strong and undeniable and.

God. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but fucking hell, I hope this letter is taught in civics classes and literature classes for decades to come.
posted by shiu mai baby at 8:22 AM on July 5, 2015 [18 favorites]

I will also add on a selfish and personal note that as the white parent of a black child, I find Coates to be a necessary resource in learning how to teach my son how to navigate the racism he will have to live with. I've only experienced racism in the positive form of the benefits my skin gives me, I must rely on others, my wife and in laws and and Coates chief among them, to help me see racism clearly.

Thanks to them I understand better than I did back when I was just another liberal white guy who thought racism was bad but didn't really give it much thought. I was, god help me, "colorblind" and proud of it before I met and started dating my wife.

And Coates presents not only the visceral reality of racism as it exists but also the history of its existence and how that relates to both the very existence of whiteness and blackness but also the economic and social underpinnings of our society.

I hope that may be enough to enable me to hold up my end of the parenting.
posted by sotonohito at 8:52 AM on July 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

Just drop everything and go read this right now especially if you are a US citizen.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 8:56 AM on July 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm blown away by how well Coates is able to articulate how individual choices make sense because of their context, without sapping agency or individualism. This is what makes his writing on his experience of being black so powerful: it dodges so many shitty simplifications that are used to deflect and deny. It's the analytic tool that makes a naked reality visible.

My heart just about broke when I read "Either I can beat him, or the police."
posted by fatbird at 9:02 AM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

When I read this, I saw it was from a new book he had coming out. That's going to be a must-read. His writing is so powerful that it blows me away, not just on the subject matter but the effectiveness with which he conveys circumstance and logic in a technical sense and combines it with rhetorical power. (This was also something I noticed about his series of posts on redlining and other forms of financial abuse of black citizens a while back.)
posted by immlass at 9:28 AM on July 5, 2015

Coates helps me deal with the horrible dissonance I feel about enjoying living in Chicago as an immigrant. Not by mitigating it but by articulating precisely the awkwardness that I often subconsciously feel as white well-to-do immigrant moving around in a city with a deep racist history that shaped it and still shapes it but which I was not a part of and which I am unversed in both in terms of facts and social mores. He maps some of the undercurrents for me. I'm not really certain what to do with the knowledge but I am glad to have a bit more understanding.
posted by srboisvert at 9:45 AM on July 5, 2015

More than anything else ever has, this piece made me angry at the fact of my own white privilege.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:52 AM on July 5, 2015 [8 favorites]

The idea that white people merely believe ourselves to be white makes the idea of race-as-false-construct work better for me. I wish I did know how to break that perception in myself and other white people.
posted by emjaybee at 9:55 AM on July 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

For anyone interested, his book comes out next week - originally slated for a September release, it was pushed up because of sheer demand. It's hard to remain hopeful about much these days, but the waves this guy has been making over the last few years is remarkable.
posted by windbox at 10:06 AM on July 5, 2015 [6 favorites]

I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.

And what a terrible, beautiful and hard task that is to be -- to be conscious, a true fine citizen, and to share humanity wide awake and unentranced, and not, as the song goes, 'Look away, look away...'
posted by y2karl at 10:31 AM on July 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't even know how to articulate how this piece makes me feel, and what it makes me think about. I will be reading it again and again, I know that much.
posted by rtha at 10:51 AM on July 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Coates tweeted this James Baldwin essay this morning (pdf), which I think also does a good job talking about "white" assimilation and the consequences of that.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:59 AM on July 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

"Always remember that Trayvon Martin was a boy, that Tamir Rice was a particular boy, that Jordan Davis was a boy, like you. When you hear these names think of all the wealth poured into them. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference checks on babysitters. Think of checks written for family photos. Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks, and model trains."

posted by allthinky at 11:50 AM on July 5, 2015 [6 favorites]

And this is one of the reasons why I use Black as a proper noun.
posted by Ashen at 12:18 PM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

This was visceral and humanizing in a profound way.
posted by Sreiny at 2:17 PM on July 5, 2015

I came to say something like to sotonohito said above, that this essay made me cry but also made me profoundly grateful, as the mother of two white children and one black child, to have something exist that I could imagine sharing with them. I have struggled to figure out how to talk to all three of them about the history and present reality of racism in the US, and to talk to my black son about the special risks he faces. This essay is painfully honest and evocative, but it also refuses to sanction despair.
posted by not that girl at 5:59 PM on July 5, 2015

I've been thinking about reparations in the USA ever since TNC's earlier essays on them. I don't pretend to have any special insight into this (being not-Black, not in the USA, not from the USA, etc.) but there's something easily affordable and still difficult and expensive enough to show a real level of commitment: rename every street and public building named after a Confederate general or governor.

I would hope that the various US states could come onside, but the Federal government itself has many bases and other US military installations named after Confederate generals. It wouldn't amount to reparations per se, but it would show a recognition of the fact that US subordination of African-Americans did not end with the Civil War, and it would reverse them mistaken desire to reconcile with the oppressors rather than the oppressed. In other words, it would be a start.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:06 PM on July 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

The forsaken: "America should be the protector of the weak, not the oppressor... No American should ever feel forsaken by the powers that be. No American should ever feel that the system is against him or her... It's about giving black Americans the certainty that America is a country that is always - ALWAYS - on their side, that will always fight for them, not against them."
posted by kliuless at 11:42 PM on July 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

This was intense - I've read it in pieces, and I think I will re-read it when I have a bit more space.
Thanks for sharing this.
posted by motdiem2 at 1:52 AM on July 6, 2015

Reviewed in New York Magazine by Benjamin Wallace-Wells
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:52 AM on July 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

“Ta-Nehisi Coates: Scribe of the Post-Soul Age,” Robert Greene II, Society for U.S. Intellectual History, 19 July 2015

“Fathers and Uncles: Baldwin and Coates,” Andy Seal, Id., 27 July 2015 [via In These Times]
posted by ob1quixote at 4:19 PM on July 27, 2015

« Older “street-level, real-world kinds of stories.”   |   Grand Theft Arthur Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments