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Giving Us Something We Can Feel

By Benj DeMott

You couldn’t buy a copy of Between the World and Me on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a stretch last month since it was sold out of every book store. It was rousing to find out readers were hungry for Coates’s polemic against structural racism. Even if it meant the author had to look into the eyes of Charlie Rose (those empty spheres of influence). The oblivious Rose spent a couple flat minutes with Coates before ramping up for a more copacetic creative—Ant Man’s auteur. ("The mind of this country, taught to aim at low things, eats upon itself.” Pace Emerson.) Coates’s book may have gone pop but it deserves better than to be treated like product.

Between the World and Me responds to the maddening pattern of killings that began last August in Ferguson—and publication was sped up after the Charleston massacre—yet the book has breathing room in it. That’s what distinguishes art from entertainment, which is (per Aram Saroyan) “vacuum packed, without any room around the edges.” In the spirit of Coates's work this piece will go some unobvious places too.

Starting with the uncaptioned photo of a French door that faces p. 119 in Coates’s text. There are other snapshots in Between the World and Me—in one a college-age Coates holds a book by Basil Davidson; in another a slightly older Coates holds his son Samori—but that door needs more back story. It shows up in the middle of a passage where Coates bows to his spouse’s imagination (and rues how his own had been stunted as he came up hard in the West Baltimore ghetto). The picture is one of dozens of photos of doors—“giant doors—deep blue, ebony, turquoise and burning red”—his wife took when she visited Paris. These souvenirs of her solo trip conveyed something of the city’s essence—along with the frisson of travel itself—to Coates: “It occurred to me…that France wasn’t a thought experiment but an actual place, filled with actual people…whose lives really were different, whose sense of beauty was different.” Coates once shared a bud’s sense that traveling was a pointless luxury “like blowing the rent on a pink suit.” But, thanks to his wife, he got the bug though his idea of a vacation has fused with his vocation. (He’s put in serious time learning French and has written about what it means to think in another language.) In his own account, his trips to Paris have zip to do with escapism. Travel for him is about the miracle of the actual not fantasy life. Even when he’s beyond America’s race-based equations, he’s never that far in his head from home and his familiars. One afternoon in Le Jardin du Luxembourg this happy (if lonely) alien felt like a free man in Paris. Soon afterward, though, he found himself locked on his “generational chains”: “Even in Paris I could not shake my old way, the instinct to watch my back at every pass; and always be ready to go.”

Coates unpacks that "go" in Between the World and Me. He knows a Paris public garden isn’t just like Compton (or West Baltimore), but he tells why there’s always an ocean separating a homie like him from people who think they're white.


Coates has been accused of inventing a millennial radical chic shtick to guilt white liberals, yet it seems clear the readers over his shoulder are black folks. His critique of race-craft and mythy takes on American exceptionalism is shaped by awareness black people succumb to hegemania too:

For their innocence, they nullify your anger, your fear, until you are coming and going, and you find yourself inveighing against yourself—“Black people are the only people who…”—really inveighing against your own humanity and raging against the crime in your ghetto, because you are powerless before the great crime of history that brought the ghettos to be…

Last year, in his Atlantic piece making a fresh case for reparations, Coates enhanced the national conversation by popularizing revelatory work by historians who have documented the great crime of the redlining era, exposing “who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.” His essay was informed, in particular, by Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America. That harrowing book has rightly been praised for its “painstakingly thorough portrayal of the human costs of financial racism” in the urban North during the post-World War II period. Coates comes back to those human costs in Between the World and Me. Racism for him is “visceral” and the bottom line is bodily harm. He connects the “reduction” of black bodies by slavers or lynchers with his own upbringing in Baltimore’s ghetto, where “fear ruled everything around me,” where “the law did not protect us.” He limns the relation between chalk lines around black corpses in our time and red lines that hemmed in blacktowns back in the day. He cites evidence—not conspiracy theory—that confirms what “all black people” intuit—the Great Fear on the real side of town “is connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.”

Coates’s testimony is marked by his fidelity to lessons learned during his college days from elder black poets who faulted his own verse for its lack of specificity. Coates is now into details such as those he recalls when he tells how a fearful, rageful “small-eyed boy” pulled out a gun after school one day—“before the fighting weather of early spring”—shocking the 11 year old Coates into realizing his End might be just around the corner. Coates’s method moves him to try to quantify the impact of mortal thoughts and more mundane fears on his teenage head:

[E]ach day fully one third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not—all of which is to say I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.


Coates knows he has to break down this equipment for living to anyone who isn’t “street.” His plain facts of feeling surely hit me with the force of reality. Though I had less excuse for not-knowing than some other readers. An aside of Coates’s gives me a ghetto pass to roam here. He notes he identified Puerto Ricans and Dominicans as “cousins” after he got to NYC in 2001: “their rituals were so similar, the way they walked and gave dap, it was all familiar to me.” By that time I’d already witnessed my half-Dominican nephew Jaime do the Ice-G-thing during his Jr. High and High School years in NYC. Jaime lived in a vibrant, multi-racial neighborhood a block below 125th St. in West Harlem (where his father and mother—who’d grown up on the block—had amped up a sense of neighborhood by organizing tenants to resist landlords and urban gentry). He went to a Catholic school in the Bronx and his school uniform made him a target for bullies but even in his own hood, where his family was widely known (and loved) his dailiness was shaped by the need to watch his back. Ritual battles between around-the-way crews or more random violence was pervasive but I’m ashamed to admit it all went right by me on my way back and forth from my joint to his family’s apartment—my home away from home one hundred yards up Claremont Ave. As the Nineties went passing by, I realized when the sweetness of life for Jaime had begun to center on girls not the neighborhood candy store where we used to stop after I picked him up from elementary school, but I had no clue how much of his free time had come to be constrained by fear. I still remember the estranging evening I woke up (for a time). I’d been called in to help Jaime revise the template for his college application essay. His testament made it clear most of his mental energy had gone into protecting his body in the streets (or stealing kisses there). What happened in school classrooms or in the pages of books had seemed irreal to him. (If only Between the World and Me had come out as he was coming up.)


Hip hop was Jamie's culture. It was the soundtrack for young Coates’s life as well. He grasps why urban teenagers loved the music’s grand boasts and bluster: “it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were the masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies.” Jamie loved Nas’s early raps and that M.C. spoke to Coates too. (Though the lines of Nas’s he quotes in Between the World and Me are not for the ages.) Coates recalls how he was fired up in the late eighties when “conscious” hip hop by Public Enemy, KRS One et al. was in vogue. He also invokes the influence of black culture critics—“barely older than me”—who took hip hop as their subject then and were “creating a new language, one that I intuitively understood, to analyze our art, our world.”

He names names here and I was struck by the absence of Armond White who was, arguably, the most acute critic of classic hip hop. White, who writes for National Review (and Out), is now known chiefly as a defiantly contrarian film critic, Obama-basher, and scourge of Hollywood liberals-and-hacks. But the following passage from his piece last week on Straight Out of Compton hints at how his history as a black art-lover will always distance him from mighty white rightists:[1]

Hip-hop culture has produced some of the greatest, most adventurous pop art of the past quarter-century, from Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and Apocalypse 91 to Prince’s The Black Album, from De La Soul Is Dead to Son of Bazerk, from Geto Boys’ The Resurrection to the compelling and poisonous threnodies of The Chronic, “California Love,” and even the new-millennial brilliance of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy…But Straight Outta Compton disrespects the facts behind the art form. Public Enemy’s stature in hip-hop’s ideological history is, here, passed to N.W.A., a group that should rightly be understood as PE’s miscreant opposite: They’re punks in the bratty American sense, not in the sense of Britain’s politicized revolutionaries.

Coates and White share an esteem for rapper Kendrick Lamar whose good kid, mA.A.d city (2012) concept CD about “the ones in front of the gun” anticipated (and probably sparked) Coates’s own shots at evoking ghetto stress in Between the World and Me. There are other synergies between Coates’s and White’s ways in the world, which are most apparent in their earlier trajectories. Though Coates may have failed to pick up on White’s politics of culture in the late Eighties and Nineties because White appeared mostly in the New York City newspaper, The City Sun, rather than hip hop magazines with national circulation.

White wrote for and edited the Sun’s art pages which took in hip hop and other black arts traditions, without giving into ghetto-centricity or bowing to dry as dust vanity projects often favored by bourgie bohemians of color. But White’s eye traveled widely too. He was, chiefly, a film critic whose sensibility had been shaped by the nouvelle vague. What was most striking about his work was his broadscale responsiveness to any form of pop life that got real about human struggle. (White’s collection of essays from his Sun years was called The Resistance.) I flashed on White’s stance at the Sun—a (capital B) Black newspaper—when I read Coates’s reboot of “black power,” which he defines as an intellectual resource found in African American roots: “Black power is the dungeon-side view of Monticello—which is to say, the view taken in struggle."

A sequence in Between the World and Me jumped out at me as I was considering the link between Coates's power moves and White’s angles in the Sun. Coates recalls being pricked by Saul Bellow's smug rhetorical question: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”—and how he was juiced by writer Ralph Wiley’s response: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus…unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” There were other, worse responses to Bellow’s ungenerous dis. One African American critic, for example, bowed to tribalism, praising playwright August Wilson as “our Shakespeare.” But White (like Wiley) wasn't going out like that: “Shakespeare is our Shakespeare!” (Though White was all in for Wilson too. I was his plus one as we both marveled at actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s soul-deep solo on how to cook greens in Wilson’s Seven Guitars.)

White’s instinct for struggle and his aesthetic impulse distanced him from Black Enterprise approaches to culture. It was always a hoot to watch him try to conceal his boredom when the subject of marketing came up in chatter at parties or panels. Coates has a best-seller now but he’s not one of those branded black public intellectuals who buy Henry Louis Gates’s mantra: “Remember Oprah, it’s all about the Benjamins.” Coates’s tales of his years as a less-than-stellar student and broke-ass writer prove he’s never been in it for grades or bucks. What gets him feening is “the rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to.”

When he was a kid, though, Coates allows he was stuck on the standard American ambition: “The Dream seemed to me to be the pinnacle then—to grow rich and live in one of those disconnected houses out in the country…” His wife “knew better” in part because she’d grown up in the suburbs. His story of how she led him to satori(s) in Paris though his “eyes were made in Baltimore” reminds me of what happened to White on his first trip there. White’s eyes were made in a Detroit black working class neighborhood. But even so he knew better than to yearn for the ‘burbs. When he saw the Eiffel Tower it lifted him out of time, back to an hour when he was running away from home as a child. Where did he think he was headed? When his family asked, the little boy answered: “I’m going to Paris.” His reply hints White was a born “Earthizen.” Someone who senses, per White’s favorite rapper, Chuck D: “Earth without art is…eh.”

Coates is glad his own child is a less armored world traveler than he is. He loves the way his “son’s eyes lit up like candles when we stood out on Saint-Germain-des pres.” But Coates’s own aesthetic—like Chuck D.’s by the way—is marked by an organic intellectual's will to hang tough with the black nation. (White, OTOH, has been tempted to say good-by to all that. He’s not only put off by African Americans’ identification with Obama but also by the new crop of black activists.) Coates advises his son to cultivate “black consciousness" in Between the World and Me’s Paris diary:

Understand that to be distanced, if only for a moment, from fear is not a passport out of the struggle. We will always be black, even if it means different things in difference places…Remember that you and I are brothers, are the children of trans-Atlantic rape. Remember the broader consciousness that comes with that. Remember that this consciousness can never be racial; it must always be cosmic.


Coates’s counsel reminds me of an African-American travel-lover—an ex-girlfriend of mine—who once looked to find a passport out of struggle though in the end her journey confirmed Coates's advice. I lost this ex to Rome (where she’d marry an Italian and have a bunch of Afropean kids) but, before that, she had an affair with Paris. After reading Between the World and Me, I went to find my copy of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, which my ex read and marked up as she was prepping for her first trip to Paris. Rhys’s early stories of needful mistresses at the mercy of cosmopolitan men (and the promesse de bonne heure) are pretty far gone from, say, Travel and Leisure. (“Now, money, for the night is coming. Money for my hair, money for my teeth, money for shoes that won't deform my feet—it's not so easy now to walk around in cheap shoes with very high heels—money for good clothes, money, money. The night is coming.”) My straitened travel-lover (who wasn’t getting much help from the hard-up hard-on in her life back then) probably found herself feeling too close to Good Morning, Midnight’s anti-heroine. By the time my travel-lover was 100 pages deep and through the door to the fictional Parisian room evoked below, I suspect it seemed stifling to her:

I stayed there, looking down at the dark red, dirty carpet and seeing a dark wall in the hot sun—the wall so hot it burned your hand when you touched it—and the red and yellow flowers and the time of day when everything stands still.

She wasn't trying to hear Rhys’s static; next to this sentence she’d written in bold script: “S. is going to Paris. July 1, 1991.” A page later, my travel-lover found another margin for hope, floating off again from the story’s moored “I” into her own stream of consciousness: “But she won’t get there until July second!”

Her use of the third person hints at how it was second nature for her to objectify herself. She often seemed alienated from her own gorgeous body. (I mocked her out of her mad belief she required extra-strong anti-perspirant.) A beauty from a broken family of (lapsing) Jehovah’s Witnesses, my ex was used to being out of sorts. Her race-based double-consciousness mushroomed when she tested her way into a Ladies/Gentleman’s C prep school. After two years as a scholarship Sister, a parental abdication put her back on a Florida chain-gang of check-out girls. Then, escape to New York and a snowy time with coke-is-life Euro-trash. She wed her first Italian before she was twenty but their marriage ended after 10 months. Her own divorced mother, brother and sisters were a presence in New York, but her fam was never a haven. God had blessed her with an Afro-Italianate face (as well as a world-class ass) and she was dammed to get her own.

She figured out how every other month. She saw herself cat-walking from the Fashion Institute to Parsons School of Design, from Harlem computer classes to the French embassy, from entrepreneurial dog paths to Kidder Peabody trading floors. But she was no poseur. She dream-worked toward each of her futures. Especially the one that defined her Nineties. She’d learned how to speak Italian from her first husband during her months as a child bride and she retained that skill because she’d interrupt her other projects for binges of language practice.

Her mastery of Italian would enable her to make a life in Rome where she lived with her second husband and their children for years on a city block where she could see sheep grazing, though Italy didn’t turn out to be her country of destiny. I remember her calling me once after she learned I’d married a Senegalese woman. My ex let me know she’d been to Senegal. Her African sojourn had brought her Ancestors alive; she felt them in the ways Black Atlantic Brothers and Sisters walked and talked. Yet she knew she’d always be an outsider in the Motherland and her trip had also reinforced her sense of estrangement from African-Americans: “There’s so much pain in the culture. Who needs that?” I was stumped. Then the phone rang on another line. I put my ex on hold and picked up to hear a buddy laughing out loud. He was dying over the Ghetto Girlz' reset of the Geto Boys’ rap hit, “My Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me” which the Girlz had spun into a takedown of a down-low boyfriend: “Homie, my man’s been sucking dicks on me.” His black laughter seemed to answer my ex’s question. The Ghetto Girlz would’ve have cracked her up too. It was chastening to think I was able to get happy in the USA while my ex’s passport out of struggle had cut her off from black fun.

But she wasn’t fated to lose the joy or pain of African-American culture. My ex would return, after her second divorce, to New York where she got a real estate license and launched a new career. Back in the USA, she became (in her own phrase) a “politics junkie” alive to partisan conflicts and the development of black consciousness in the Obama era. She picked up on Coates’s Atlantic piece on reparations and we exchanged emails about Satter’s Family Properties—that chronicle of cheats and liars which poured off the page like it written for her due to her practical knowledge of real estate. She schooled me after I cited this line from Dwight Garner’s Times review of the book: "Family Properties is so packed with the horrors visited upon black families in Chicago from the 1940s through the 1970s that you will want to walk outside every 15 pages or so and simply scream in outrage.” My ex demurred: “He's joking right? I wanted to inflict harm on someone.” A line that might serve to define the difference between liberal-minded whites and folk who will always be black.


My ex's truth attack is in line with Coates’s skepticism toward black anger managers and retailers of pieties about the Civil Rights Movement. He writes about how “the glories of being beaten on camera” escaped him as he was growing up on streets where an ethic of nonviolence wasn’t a strategic option but a summons to personal destruction. After the Charleston massacre, Coates helped start the campaign to remove Confederate flags from State grounds, but he couldn't roll with black Georgians who “rushed” to forgive Dylann Roof. His attitude on this score is Malcomesque. He explains in Between the World and Me how he was stirred in his youth by Malcolm X’s plain clarities:

If he was angry he said so. If he hated, he hated because it was natural for the enslaved to hate the enslaver, as natural as Prometheus hating the birds. He would not turn the other cheek for you.

I’m guessing Coates’s might allow his unqualified endorsement of Malcolm as “the first political pragmatist I knew” risks slighting Martin Luther King’s canny politicking, But his attempt to work through Malcolm’s influence on him as he was cultivating his own gift for study is moving. His account of how hip hop voices revived Malcolm’s legacy in the late Eighties reminds me of an academic conference at a CUNY campus that aimed to cultivate that pop moment. It was about the liveliest University gathering I’ve ever attended. And I have a blurry memory of being struck by a young speaker from Baltimore. Could it have been Coates? What’s certain is that his arrival fulfills the promise of that X-y time—a promise deferred by Spike Lee’s Hollywood version of Malcolm’s life and trashed by the rise of gangsta rap. (See Armond White above on N.W.A.’s accession.)

The X revival had a heavy personal resonance for this white liberal. When I was in 6th grade in the Sixties a teacher I’d been bugging shut me up by giving me The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which became the story of my life. It steered me to the house I live in today with my West African wife and African-American son. Not that I would ever conflate my trip with Coates’s. I started from a college town that was closer to the Dream than to West Baltimore and I can imagine him rolling his eyes at any attempt to mix up my reading of the Autobiography with his need for his hero’s defense of black bodies (and black beauty). Looking back on my adolescence in Amherst MA, though, it occurs to me I went through one extreme reality check that might give him something he can feel.

It went down the summer after I got out of high school. I’d been playing b-ball—a 2 on 2 pick-up game in the gym at the college where my dad taught. The game ended when a guy on the other team stepped off abruptly. He had an issue, we learned later, with a foul that I’d (either) committed or called against him. While his departure seemed a little odd, it wouldn’t have stuck in my mind for long since I’d played in numberless pick-up games with touchy players (though of course most of them hung around for the finish). But a half an hour later, the day became unforgettable. The guy whose skin I’d got under—an Asian-American Amherst College student named Robert Ong—came back to the gym with a half-dozen black kids. High schoolers from the city of Springfield, they were enrolled in a program of tutoring and “cultural enrichment” during the summer on the campus where Ong had a gig teaching them Kung Fu. After I’d chased a ball to an open court, I looked up to see Ong and those young homies closing in. He said something I didn’t catch and they all came at me. As beat-downs go, it was pretty light stuff. I ended up with deep bruises on my back and shoulder from a belt buckle or a stick (or a karate chop). Bruises that kept me off the court for a couple weeks but my attackers didn’t break any of my bones. The kids were wearing sneakers so their kicks after I’d gone down to the floor weren’t dangerous. In the moment, though, I have to admit I was mad scared. The kids and their blows had come out of nowhere and, as I covered up, any horrible seemed possible.

I recall now how I lived scared for a couple months after the beating. The lure of an empty gym at night—perfect for solo shooting/fantasizing—was lost on me for a bit because I couldn’t help worrying the meanness in this world might roar through the doors at any second. What’s more telling, though, is how quickly I got over my bad day. Between the World and Me got me thinking about how those Springfield kids Ong bamboozled into doing his dirty work probably ended up ghetto vets unable to forget all the violence they’d seen, sown, or reaped. Their Master of Kung Fu, though, seems to have had the wind at his back. He moved on from his B.S. Third-Worldist summer at Amherst to Wall Street. Now he’s in Tampa where (according to the website of his SEO consulting biz) “Robert ‘Bob’ Ong plays competitive tennis and navigates sailboats in the Clearwater/ St. Petersburg waters.”

Back in the day, Amherst College barely disciplined Ong. (A tory prof, though, did refuse to let Ong take his political science class since this student had proved not to be a gentleman. Not my cup of tea exactly, but I’ll take it even today.) What happened in the gym is the kind of thing that’s supposed to turn leftists into conservatives. But my brother Tom kept me from going wrong/right. While my fear dogged me for a couple months, it always seemed petty given the example of courage Tom gifted me with on the afternoon I got assaulted. He was shooting baskets at the other end of the court when I was surrounded, but once he realized I was being beaten he raced toward the circle and took on all my attackers. I still don’t grasp how he fought them off but I know it wasn’t a cakewalk. (He took a punch to the head that put him in the hospital that night.)

My gym drama was a one-off—a singular event that wouldn’t shape my life (in part because I’d lived the Dream, far from a victim’s hood). But there was more of a portent in Tom’s acts that day. My brother’s future would disclose a tight connection between fate and character since he was destined to become a…Brother. Tom ended up working 25 years in the Post Office on 125th St. where almost all of his fellow employees were African-Americans. In his off hours, he did another (unpaid) job as tenant/community organizer in West Harlem where he lived with his family (see above) and became, in the fullness of time, the mayor of his block. There’s a passage in Between the World and Me that hints why Tom’s ease in Harlem only seemed exceptional to fools. Out to clarify emotional constructs black people have built to last in America, Coates invokes an exchange between himself and another Brother:

Not long ago I was standing in an airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young man and said, “My bad.” Without even looking up he said, “You straight.”…It was the briefest intimacy, but it captured much of the beauty of my black world…To call that feeling racial is to hand over all those diamonds fashioned by our ancestors to the plunderers

Tom helped push that feeling on during thousands of night shifts and numberless neighborhood meet-ups. I’ve been known to put my own bent shoulder to the wheel, but I’ve never been a straight-up member of Coates’s tribe as I was reminded earlier this month when I took my son to see an evening screening of last year’s James Brown documentary (Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown) at Marcus Garvey Park in Central Harlem. The amphitheater was full of aging blues and funk people. It was a classic Harlem crowd, somewhere between Jazzmobile's ancients and Dionysians at the Apollo. As I stood for a sec at the top of stone stairs, someone jostled me, “Move or I’ll punch your…” Bash from the past? Nope. A tease from a cat I played ball with for years in the Columbia gym (though neither of us had legit IDs). As I gave him my unclenched hand—too blind to risk a pound in the dark—and rapped a bit about his game and mine, I realized how out of practice I was. And I’m not talking about basketball. As my own neighborhood has been gentrified and age/parenting has cut into my black musicking, I don’t get much nationtime. That baller, though, didn’t make me feel like the White Shadow. He introduced me to his wife who took a photo of him with me and my son. Then he showed us pics of his four sons and 10 grandchildren. Before he split to hang with his fam, my son tried to give the player a pound but I’d done the white thing before so my friend shook him off. My son teased me about my unhip grip but—don’t call it a comeback!—I may have seemed less lame to him later thanks to some unforced shout-outs to the screen and respondents in the crowd as J.B. got us all into the groove.

(“Do you know a lot about James Brown, dad?”
“Ah…lotsa white guys know more, like that Brit who spoke up in the movie, Mick Jagger.”)

After the show, we met up with my buddy and he walked us out of the park, acting like our host. His welcome and send-off reminded me of a nice Coates’s riff: “They made us a race. We made us a people.” I hope my son runs into more sociable folk like that avuncular baller. He’ll have a chance then to become mo' better than an outlier in Harlem.


Between the World and Me is framed as a letter to Coates’ son—a concept that echoes James Baldwin’s public letter to his nephew, which famously served as the introduction to The Fire Next Time. But it also reminded me of a more recent epistle on race—the late John Updike’s “A Letter to My Grandsons” (1989). Updike’s eldest daughter had married a West African and his letter was addressed to that couple’s two sons, Kwame and Anoff. The letter was meant to introduce them to their mother’s family history and American history. It wasn’t beamish about race matters. Updike acknowledged “black ghettos are…perhaps more dire places than they ever were.” But Updike put his faith in a willful evolutionism: “America is slowly becoming yours, I want to believe, as much as it is anyone’s…”

At least our laws now formally insist upon equal rights and our best corporations and educational institutions recruit blacks in an effort to right old imbalances, and professional sports and television commercials constantly offer images of multiracial camaraderie. An ideal colorblind society flickers at the forward edge of the sluggishly evolving one.

Such flickers can't concentrate the attention of Coates. They are snuffed out by Michael Brown’s body lying in the street for hours or that blunt, front page piece in the Sunday Times earlier this month: “An Indelible Black and White Line: A Year After Ferguson, Housing Segregation Defies Tools to Erase It.” Perhaps it’s not entirely fair to compare the late Updike’s upbeat progressivism with reporting on race today twenty-five years later. OTOH, let’s be just and look back too. It's hard to hook up Updike’s wishful projecting with the urgent prophecy of The Fire Next Time, though Updike probably imagined he was in Baldwin’s tradition. It’s true he comprehended Baldwin’s desire for a deep form of integration, encompassing the most intimate forms of communion between blacks and whites. Updike told his grandsons “there’s a floating sexual curiosity and potential love [between the races] that in your parents has come to earth and borne fruit and the blended shade of your dear brown skins will ever advertise.” Updike stood at a distance at the top of his letter. That phrase “dear brown skins,” though, hints at how he’d lose his detached posture on his way to the letter’s summit of mutual ease and trust: “the moment the other evening when fretful little Kwame let himself be walked to sleep on my shoulder.”

Updike’s delicacy here was and is undeniable. But, as one critic noted, his letter’s logic led from this emotional touchstone toward “minimization” of white supremacy’s legacy.

[Updike] acknowledges, that “you will each be in subtle (at best) ways the focus of distaste and hatred and fear that have nothing to do with anything but your skins.” But, he insists, shutting the door briefly opened upon black-white difference, “we must all take our chances, and the world is not anywhere basically a friendly place, though our mothers and fathers and school teachers would make it seem so.”[2]

Updike’s final qualification helps define the distance between his world-view and those of Baldwin and Coates. Neither of whom were raised by parents who could bring themselves to pretend the world is “basically a friendly place.” (At the risk of invoking too many African-American exemplars, Updike could’ve learned something from Ralph Ellison’s tribute to Richard Wright’s Black Boy which zeroed in on familial consequences of ruthless physical violence against African Americans in the Jim Crow era:

One of the Southern Negro family’s methods of protecting the child is a severe beating—a homeopathic dose of the violence generated by black and white relationships. Such beatings as Wright’s were administered for the child’s own good; a good which the child resisted, thus giving to family relationships an undercurrent of fear and hostility.)

Coates didn’t come up in the segregated South. His family wasn’t afraid of nightriders or white supremacist taboos. But scary crews and cops weren’t the only vectors of fear when Coates was growing up. He also had to be careful around his stressed dad (whose belt he felt). He’s honest about undercurrents of hostility in his family: “It was a loving house, even as it was besieged by its country, but it was hard.” That tough ‘hood and house birthed a wounded parent as Coates confesses to his teenaged son: “I wish I had been softer to you…”

Your mother had to teach me how to love you—how to kiss you and tell you I love you every day. Even now it does not feel a wholly natural act so much as it feels like ritual.

Coates’ letter to his son, like Updike’s missive to his grandsons, is a richly loving document. But the difference between their testaments is more striking (and more telling when it comes to America’s indelible racial divide). Take the contrast between Updike’s affecting image of a white elder comforting a black child (with its attendant implication an ideal color-blind society’s origins lie “not in the resolution of complex group conflict but in mysterious, irreversible movements of the passionate heart”[3]) and this scene where Coates recalls the night when his son learned Mike Brown’s killer wouldn’t be indicted:

[Y]ou 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 didn’t tell you it would be ok, because I have never believed it would be ok. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me; that this is your country, that this is your world, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life…

It seems apt the most resonant passage in Updike’s dispatch from Dreamland is about putting a black kid to sleep. Coates’ letter, by contrast, is all about wake-up calls. (“Conscious” is probably the text’s key-word.)


Updike’s “Letter” presaged America’s Big Sleep on race during the Clinton era. Coates’s letter is very much a document of Obamatime. Though Coates has often distanced himself from the President. He’s had a problem with Obama’s tendency to talk up “personal responsibility” when addressing black people. Coates argues the President implicitly upholds institutional racism when his rhetoric veers too close to Bill Cosby’s “poundcake speech." Coates also protested against Obama’s inaction during the Sherrod episode: “Play your position!”

Cornel West's Facebook claim that Coates is Obama’s toady was a doofus move. But West's panic attack wasn’t entirely unfounded. Coates belongs to a younger cohort of black intellects who have grown up in public during the Obama era and set off West's generational sense of jealousy. I’m reminded just now of how one them was tested back in the day since that little drama helps place Coates’s rise within the context of Obama.

A black Democratic party consultant named Jamal Simmons distinguished himself as a canny (though not tendentious) defender of Obama during the 2007-8 campaign. Aware he was on the spot in a hot medium, Simmons played it cool, calm and respectable. Yet, on the night of the Texas primary, the Clintons’ lawyer Lanny Davis accused Simmons of being “angry.” Stunned, Simmons burned for a half-second, before getting back in the game. When Davis tried the same trick a couple days later—this time, accusing Obama of sounding “angry”—Simmons breezed past him without hinting at his own frustration at the Clinton man’s repeated efforts to conger up the threat of “Black Rage.”

Obama and his black surrogates must still be cool. Yet the President’s presence has untied sharper tongues like Coates’s. He's confessed visits to the White House helped get him going on Between the World and Me.

“Symbols matter” he mused to a reporter as they settled down to watch Obama’s Amazing Grace speech in Charleston. Obama’s undeniable incarnation of Man Thinking has eroded racial biases in the collective consciousness of our caste-like society. But his legacy rests not just on symbolic action, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. The struggle to uphold and expand that law will be crucial to Coates’s people and their bodies. Coates himself has confronted Obama here, pointing out in a public White House session blacks and Hispanics may be disproportionately left out of ACA’s protections since many governors of states with significant minority populations have opted out of the federal government’s expansion of Medicaid. Going forward, I suspect black people will be more alive to the need to build on Obama’s heaviest domestic policy achievement than white leftist ideologues. (Progressive fantasts, after all, have tended to have little use for the ACA.) Those of us who try to keep up with the black nation might find ourselves supporting a presidential candidate with no soul and less vision if she’s got the best chance to beat a Republican who’d gut the ACA. Black lives matter more than Bernie’s green Dream of Socialism. Can I get a witness?


I If you find it hard to get your mind around the idea this passage appeared in The National Review, consider that it’s not a one-off per White's recent piece “Paying Attention to Black Lives.”

2 Benjamin DeMott in The Trouble With Friendship.

3 DeMott Op. cit.

From August, 2015

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