Sunday, August 23, 2015

Between the World and Me: A letter to Samori Coates

Dear Samori,
Please forgive such a familiar greeting from a total stranger, but I just had the pleasure of "meeting" you, so to speak, by way of the beautiful and demanding book that your father wrote for you.

I can imagine that you're probably both proud and embarrassed to be the object of such a lavishly public paternal heart-to-heart. Maybe at this point you're more embarrassed than you are proud. Believe me when I say that in the future you'll be way prouder and not at all embarrassed. I hope so anyway.

Your father gives a few glimpses of who you are, mostly I think to point up for the reader the different circumstances of your childhood and his; and how, no matter the differences between his Baltimore and your New York, there must always come the point of reckoning for you as a black person in America. That point of reckoning, according to your father, came when nothing was done about the policemen who killed Michael Brown. A flash of understanding; then the dam bursts and swept away is all hope that America can ever possibly offer a black person any reliable expectation of justice, much less belonging.

A lot of your book is how your father has lived with that reality, how he has come to understand and articulate it, and how--denied any sense of belonging by his country--he found where he did in fact belong. This he does for you, I think, at least in part to give you the wherewithal to transform your own point of reckoning from alienation into pride. It's a gift from him, which I hope you're able to accept.

Hope. Funny I should say that, because hope seems to me what your book is all about, even though to the first-time reader it really doesn't seem like it, and even I who have spent some time with it have to kick myself to say that, much less believe it.

It's not so much that I'm a pessimist as that, well, you know the Dream that your father keeps talking about in your book? I live inside of the Dream. I hate to say this: it's worse than he says. About the Dreamers, I mean.
(If anybody's reading this who hasn't read your book, I'm going to go ahead and tell them that it is the "American Dream" that your father floats as a happy-face balloon--"It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake"--only to  puncture: "the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies … the Dream persists by warring with the known world.")

Living inside the Dream comes standard to a white, middle-class male like me, particularly in the South, which is where I have always lived. Fortunately I had a father whose only words of advice that I can remember were "Do not belong." We couldn't belong, anyway, because my family was secular in the Bible Belt.

In any event I have observed Dreamers all my life. And when your father says, relative to the country coming to the aid of the murdered Prince Jones's mother, "Dr. Jones's country did what it does best--it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream," all I can say is that he is being charitable.
And when your father asks you not to struggle for the Dreamers, but to "hope for them. Pray for them if you are so moved," all I can feel is an immense sense of wonder at his forbearance and his willingness to try to move you to hope.

Because, as I say, it's way worse than he says. About the Dreamers, I mean.

Forgetfulness? No, ignorance. At best, ignorance. At worst? It's not hard to see. Especially in the South. Vicious, in-your-face, racist triumphalism borne aloft in a Confederate flag.

But didn't the South lose? No, the South held on bitterly to its slavery-born notions of white supremacy, and it won. It fucking won. The rest of the country not only backed away from bringing African-Americans into the civic composition, but the South would not have it and embarked on a campaign of terror to prevent it. And the would-be liberators? We could say that they just forgot about the African-American. But no. They listened to the South. They agreed with the South. They let popular expressions of the national mind like The Birth of the Nation and Gone With the Wind wash over them and suck them into something that goes beyond forgetfulness.
These days, at best, as I say, it is ignorance. Total, complete, and willful ignorance that begins and ends with a vague and uninformed sense that they know what the Civil War was all about. Well, not only do they willfully not know, but they also have this bizarre notion that somehow the Civil War put paid to this country's obligations to assure citizenship rights across the board. They are intentionally, fiercely uninterested in slavery, the Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the great migration, and the civil rights movement. They don't fucking care.

If I had any hope in this area, it would be that somebody, somewhere would be trying to bust up this ignorance, would crank out hugely popular media of all kinds showing the unpitying truth of black history in the New World--mostly America, but take the Haitian Revolution, for example: it should be a paragon of the just struggle. Oh, for someone to make it so with something as wildly popular as was The Birth of the Nation! Oh, for someone to shake it in the face of a country supposedly dedicated to freedom and ask "What about this? What about this?"
And that's just for starters.

The history of black America ought be taught to all Americans from kindergarten on as an essential ingredient of American history. Why? Not so much "lest we forget" as an object lesson of what happens when a country's ideals falter, right out of the gate, but as a questioning counterpoise to the Pledge of Allegiance, one that asks, "Are we delivering on this?"
Dreamers want only rote recitation of the pledge and blind faith in the flag, when what we need are more moments like the one in 1968 when, on the Olympic medal stand, during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, black American medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and held up black-gloved fists. If you don't know about this event, you should read about it. White people were generally horrified, saying that they should be stripped of their medals for disrespect to the flag. I always believed they showed great dignity and respect for doing what they did. They, like your father, were trying to get the Dreamers to pay attention to the ideals they pay lip service to, trying to get them to be human and mix some shame in with the pride when they look at the flag. God knows they need to.

(By the way I have to say at some point that your father is doing the country an incredible service right now. The way he wrote about reparations and, after the Charleston massacre, about the Confederate flag. I just wish … yeah, I just wish.)

How to get the Dreamers to understand this about lip service? Dreamers are a notoriously defensive bunch whose defensiveness is like a raincoat that sheds the rain of truth. Besides, lip service seems to be an essential component of the Dream. Many Dreamers claim to be washed in the Blood of the Lamb, but let's just say they towel off quick. Don't ask them to live by the ideals they profess, because they can't, not when those ideals have to do with love, or caring, or respect, or empathy, or fairness. Why can't they? For two reasons: their religious beliefs let them off the hook, and their liberty always, always, always seems to come at someone else's cost. Their coin of liberty is selfishness, and its obverse is oppression.

So I don't have much hope for the Dreamers. I just don't. It was depressing to read recently about leaders of Black Lives Matter meeting with Hilary Clinton and telling her they wanted to change white minds, only to have her say they couldn't do that. They couldn't change white minds. Dammit, Clinton, can't you see that's one of the things you of all people need to take a stab at, at least?

I'm more a wisher than a hoper, I guess. I'm glad to have your book to help me think through all of this, even though I don't know where it leaves me. The whole time that your father talked about the Dream, the thing that welled up inside of me was a different dream that I'm sure you know about: the dream spoken of by Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a dream of liberty and justice for all. I wish that was the American Dream. By rights it should be. I wish you and I would be able to meet one another and be able to accept that we share in common both citizenship and humanity, but given the past that leads up to now, why should you accept the humanity of a white American like me? If that's not cause for shame for America, I don't know what is.

Best wishes for the future,
Jud Barry

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