Thursday, January 14, 2016

open letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates after reading between the world and me

Dear Mr. Coates,

I read Between the World and Me in just a few sittings, over the course of a few days. Most of it I read last Saturday evening, alone in my apartment, my body stretched out on my couch, back supported by pillows and legs warmed by a heavy blanket my mother knit. My stomach was full, my pulse was resting, the only strain that of holding the book, turning its pages. I read fast, wanting more of your words and images. They made me want to text my sister, who is also reading your book, to say something to someone about what I was learning. But I knew her body would be lying in her soft bed under the peaceful blanket of night dreams.

Two days later, at work, I approached the subject of your book with my coworker. My black coworker, the one who has published books and spoken in front of audiences about her writing, the one is often the only black woman - the only black person - in the room, the one who was told that she is too pretty to be a writer, the one whose body has survived the violence of cancer and the chemical weapons used to fight it, which continue to tear apart her insides, the one who grew up in the L.A. Jungle and now drives a Benz, the one who tells us stories about her one daughter and paints herself as a fierce mama bear, the one who has worked here longer than me and bled on my papers to teach me much of what I know and who remained when I was promoted to supervise her, the one with whom I have talked about the complexities of this new arrangement but not the part about being black and white. When I brought up your book, she confirmed that yes, she's reading it too. "Slowly," she said. "It hurts." And I wondered how it hurt, what the pain feels like for her, where it touches her, how she carries it in her body. And I felt the slightest bit of shame in telling her I was nearly finished. I was reading fast. I have far less pain to deal with.

On some level, though, I do understand why she would need to read it slowly. Your language about the body is physical. One page I earmarked talks of "fruits secured through bashing children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn." When I read this, I feel some of the discomfort and violence conjured by these images. But my mind quickly takes over and observes with what skill you write, deconstructs the specificity of image, the choice of words. As a writer, I am changed, but what about as a human? I can't say.

But there is this: during college and for a number of years after, I spent time with kids living in cities. To some people I called them "at risk urban youth." To others, I called them my neighbors, because they were. They all had skin that was some shade of brown or black. The contexts in which I knew them were connected to my belief in Jesus and his exhortation that to truly love God, we must love those whom the world calls "poor." With these kids I led bible studies, formed mentoring groups, met in clubs in which we had fun and talked about God. I remember becoming acquainted with street culture through the stories they told me. I also remember my very noble-feeling ideas about how to change their ways of responding to the people around them. I thought about scriptures in which Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, wait for God to contend with those who contend with us. I still believe that these are not just sentiments or good life principles, but that they hold great power. And yet I knew I was missing something. There was something I didn't get.

You unapolagetically assert that "spirit and soul are body and brain." You don't believe in God, and you acknowledge this shapes how you understand the body to be destructable, the violence done against it to be destroying what is most holy about us. I appreciate that you admire others who do even while admitting your inability to make this faith your own. While my faith and the stories we tell gives me a different way of looking at these things, I needed to understand how brown and black bodies endure violence, have for generations, and the kind of fear this instills. Though I still believe scripture speaks into these wordless places, knowing what I understand just a measure more deeply now, after reading your book, I might respond to the kids I hung out with differently. Or maybe I wouldn't. I don't know. I wonder if anything I ever said to them stuck. I hope that something did. The gift of seeing something now that I was blinded to years ago - this is grace, and I wanted you to know that your book helped to bring this, to me and, I hope, to those kids who are adults now, some of them parents raising their own black or brown kids. I hope they knew, or know now, that I was still figuring things out alongside them. Even when my best intentions failed, I hope they felt loved, body and soul.

There is so much more I wanted to say, about bodies and Dreams and your writing. Part of me also wants to say "thank you," but those words feel trite. I don't think you are wanting thanks or praise, but a willingness to be uncomfortable, to struggle alongside you, to try to understand. I'd like to say I am trying.

-B.

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