The epistolary form has its charms: heady confession without the need for numbing verification, up-close-and-personal testimony that can be loose and fancy free with facts and data, and a tone or retribution tinged with righteous indignation as a result of some perceived gross injustice. All of this adds up to a poetic approach to history without the prosaic necessity of building a case based on figures. 

          Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which begins as a letter to his son, deploys the second person subjective as a way to lasso an addressee and shift the writer’s gaze from a particular subject to a generic public. Powered by a feeling that America is a lethal place for black males to be in and protective of his son, the letter from the father schools the son into a politically savvy space for remaining safe in an America that appears to be hell bent on destroying blacks:

 

The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who will tell you otherwise. The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible just to you—the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make your 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.

 

          For Coates a land founded on white privilege and black exploitation cannot help but behave like a failed experiment in nationhood. Coates sees American polity as geared towards the use of repression as a tool for national compliance of one part of the population, blacks, in order to promote the unbridled prosperity of another part of it, whites. The result, he argues, persuasively, it must be said, is a half-baked notion of what it means to be a nation. 

          Coates’ clear and present black rage is founded in a history of black suffering at the hands of whites. Race scuppers a sense of time and space as a human reality. Instead blacks find that blackness must declare itself and always must be defended in this warped cartography long before a sense of personhood can be asserted or any claim made for a black body’s humanity first and racial group second. Coates is smart enough to eke out the historical fact that race is itself an invention, what he calls “the father of the child of racism.” This is important to that aspect of his letter that serves as an address to the nation  (whiteness, seen as a construct in the same way as blackness, forms the second subject, after his son, and is addressed in the second person). 

          Coates is hardly at fault for feeling anger at white Americans for continuing to practice a history of exploitation and subjugation of black Americans. His rage is fuelled by hurt at the alarming numbers of blacks murdered by the police without any legal consequence that spawned the recent Black Lives Matter campaign of resistance to it. His rage germinates his quantum thinking and linking of apparently disparate facts (segregated housing policy and black poverty) and incidents (murder and incarceration of black bodies based on contemporary views of blackness as a slave-based imaginary that is in dire need of liberation) marshaled into a scorching rhetoric that calls for a collective white response. Either whites embrace Coates’ damning testimony as a call to dismantle race-based policy that favors whites and erases blacks at the expense of a sense of this country ever becoming a fair and inclusive nation, or whites ignore it and sanction more of the same injustice at a risk of black anger boiling over into wide social unrest. In other words, the personal tone of Coates’ voice, for all its anger, remains the singular voice of reason in a generalized black condition of hurt and despair. Black Lives Matter as a resistance movement cannot be placated in quite the same way as Coates’ wish to win over white folks, one soul at a time. His letter is a personal narrative addressed so it seems to each of us so that we can view it in privacy. He wants us to lend ourselves, in our humanity held in common, to the felt process, being persuaded to his case precisely because of its angry basis since it is angry testimony sourced from hurt. The question remains (some might say that the jury is still out on this one): does Coates have a witness? The runaway sales of Between the World and Me seem to answer in the affirmative. 

 

—Fred D’Aguiar

 
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