When I saw you were being likened to our modern day James Baldwin, and your recent offering was being lauded as our Fire Next Time, I just had to order your book, “Between the World and Me”. As I began my journey through your book there was this silent hope I had not been had by marketing hyperbole. I was not disappointed. In the course of a few hours I devoured your book.
You were created to write. I would have consumed your work even faster if it wasn’t for lines like these, forcing me to stop, and turn them over in my mind: “To yell ‘black on black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.” What a gift.
Both the timing and the prophetic bite to your book makes the comparison to James Baldwins, Fire Next Time inescapable. You both write when race has become the most volatile subject of our life times (of course race has always been an issue here in America). I’m not sure when you were born, Brother Coates, but it seems as if we are around the same age. As I ventured through your pages I felt my head nothing constantly, as if I were some bobble-head doll, remembering the style of dress, musicians and sociological settings of what seems to be a life time ago.
I, like you, have a teenage son (along with two younger sons), and share your harrowing concern for his “body”. We’ve talked extensively about how to respond to police in the likely event of confrontation. I labor over how to instruct my children in showing respect to the often white power structures who can harm their “bodies” without falling over the precipice into a Jim Crow like loss of dignity. And I find myself guilt ridden at times over the strength of my discipline, knowing their margin for error as children of color in our society is slight. You put pen to my guilt:
Now at night, I held you and a great fear, wide as all our American generations, took me. Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra—“Either I can beat him or the police.” I understood it all—the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.
Yours, Brother Coates, is a powerful work, insightful, prolific and prophetic. Yet, it is a very dark book, leaving me asking where is the hope? You don’t seem to have the acidic despair of pre-mecca Malcolm, but neither the subtlety of Ellison. Between the World and Me seems to fit somewhere betwixt Malcolm and Ellison’s, The Invisible Man.
I caught glimpses of your hopelessness when you made mention of not going to church, and yet even in this you are refreshingly vulnerable, wondering if your distance from “that institution” has caused you to “miss something”? Most beautiful and telling of all is your passage on the eyes of our parents generation who were a part of the civil rights movement. Those eyes, you notice, had something in them, something that seemed to be “fastened to their god”.
I grew up in the black church, Brother Coates, where I learned of Jesus on long hot Sunday afternoons while dressed in a suit with no air conditioning, as my feet dangled off the pew, sweat dripped down my neck, and my only sense of relief was a wooden stick the ushers handed to me where a piece of cardboard was fastened to it with a picture of Dr. King on what side, and a funeral home advertisement on the other.
My father lead me to faith in Jesus, and made sure we were in church every Sunday. My black parents are not perfect, but have lived out the hope of the gospel for forty-four years together as husband and wife. My dads parents were likewise Christians who attended an AME church, where Jesus had been the center of their marriage for over fifty-three years. I’ll spare you all the details, but we can actually trace our lineage back to pre-emancipation days, where my great-great grandfather, Peter, was a slave, who was lead to faith by his master (a sad irony, isn’t it?), would go onto marry, and have a family built on the hope of the gospel. In my direct line there’s no such thing as a man who divorced or didn’t believe in Jesus.
Our stories are different, Brother Coates, I know. But I’ve often asked what kept my great-great grandfather, a slave, praying? Hope. What sustained my grandparents when they left North Carolina somewhere in the 1940′s, as part of that mass exodus known as The Great Migration? Hope. And why did my father not be overcome with bitterness when an elderly white man, who was clearly in the wrong, rammed his car into my father’s, then called him a nigger? Hope.
And what is that look in our parents eyes as they marched in places like Selma and Birmingham and sat down at segregated counters in Winston-Salem? Hope.
Brother Coates, to be black in 2015 means you and I have been burdened with the legacy of declaring a prophetic truth to our sons and the power structures of our day, but it also means we do so ensconced in a bright hope, the kind of hope our songwriter Thomas Dorsey had, or Mahalia Jackson sang about or Dr. King preached.
You develop your book around the theme of the black body, what an image. Our grandparents took pains when it came to the black body, did they not, Brother Coates? I can still see my grandmother in her pearls, and all white outfit, headed out the door Sunday morning for church where she was a part of the mother’s board. I never saw my grandfather in jeans, even when he was just going to play checkers at the barber shop. He’d put on slacks, dress shirt, suspenders and a nice hat. The black body mattered to them. The way they dressed was a shaking of the fist in the face of those who sought to take away their dignity. Their black bodies spoke of hope.
The danger of a prophetic truth devoid of hope is it gives license to the oppressed to remain victims, and when a person becomes comfortable as a victim they do irreparable damage to themselves and to others. Prophetic truth without hope leads to riots. Prophetic truth and hope leads to marches and protests and change and Sunday best.
We need you, Brother Coates. You have an other-worldly gift. My prayer for you is you will stare at the eyes of our grandparents yet again, and find what they had, that “something way beyond,” and share it with the world.