In his courageous book Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Ta-Nehisi Coates explains to him the “justifiable” verdict in the killing of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was shot eight times by a white police officer and then left in the streets. This fatal shooting came on the heels of other black deaths ruled as justified.
When the killings are of blacks in the United States of America, Coates informs his son, justifiable is usually the verdict. No black body is safe from those people Coates calls the Dreamers. These are “people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white,” he writes — even though the designations of “black” and white” are a modern invention having more to do with hierarchy than with genealogy and physiognomy.
The Dreamers are simply people who have designed a cloak of racial superiority as an exclusive haven above all other bodies. “Race is the child of racism, not the father,” Coates writes. The dreaming Americans, he says, believe only white bodies have value. They have devalued the lives of black bodies, as though they have no worth in this country.
Lives at risk of ending violently. The murderer of a white child walking down the street holding a cup of tea and some candy — as was Trayvon Martin, a black child — would not have been acquitted. As much of the world knows, Martin’s killer, who was not a police officer, stated that he feared for his life when he was following a child he had been specifically instructed by police not to pursue. The Dreamers, as Coates refers to them, would have turned this country upside down along racial lines if that verdict had been handed down in the death of a white child.
This is especially true if the black assassin had the gall to sell the weapon he used for a reported $250,000 dollars, as though it were a trophy — as Martin’s killer did!
The author tells his son, Samori, that this is his country. However, Coates warns him, because his body is black, Samori must protect it as best as he can. He could be killed even while walking down the street minding his own business, and the crime would easily go unpunished. Samori must learn that black deaths will usually be deemed justified, no matter how outlandish the excuse.
Coates indicts black people who help perpetuate black murders (people I call “clones”), like the cop who stalked and killed Prince Jones, a college friend of Coates’ from a well-to-do family. The cop mistakenly identified Jones as someone else, as frequently happens. This kind of fatality occurs at the hands of people who are themselves black, but believe as long as the murdered bodies are black, it’s justifiable.
Coates speaks of the reparations, or retribution, that blacks in this country are owed. I am shocked that the crimes against millions of black women’s bodies does not produce an outcry for retribution. Their bodies were used as breeding machines, giving birth sometimes twice a year for two races of men, so that free labor could continue for centuries in this country. The Dreamers who believe themselves white allowed these crimes to go unpunished for too long, believing black women’s bodies did not matter. All women’s bodies matter.
Turning to religion to endure. Coates makes the reader and his son aware of his atheism. It is the right of every person to choose his or her own beliefs.
I think, however, Coates should want his son to know that when the people he has coined Dreamers brought slaves to these shores, those slaves endured that holocaust by internalizing the one thing the Dreamers could not take from them. They turned to God, a power outside of their world of suffering. They planted the spirit of God in their hearts, a spirit watered by their tears that gave them hope of a new day approaching. Although they could not see that day, their faith in God enabled them to believe that it would one day come.
Coates speaks about how it galled him to see black people allowing themselves to be spit on and bit by dogs during the Civil Rights Movement. He doesn’t seem to realize the consequences had they fought back, exchanging shot for shot. The people who were moved to help them after watching this horror would have believed the violence used in the whites’ attack was necessary to bring about law and order, allowing Jim Crow laws to continue. Thanks to pioneers whose determination was fortified by the spirit of God in their hearts, we lived to see this day.
In the end, I believe what the author is telling his son is that all life matters. But the question he raises is, whose life matters the most, and why? Thanks, Mr. Coates, for it seems your letter to your son was really written to us all.
Helen Collier’s writings of science fiction and magical realism include Ms. Anna and the Tears from the Healing Tree, The Two Worlds of Ms. Anna, and My Oprah in Recreating the Legacy.
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