Between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Me.

Mr. Coates,

I read your book because someone I respect said that it would challenge me to listen and not speak. He was right. It challenged me.

It challenged my assumptions, my perceptions. It made me angry. It confused me. It saddened me.

I’m not claiming enlightenment. I feel like you’d scoff if I did. I’m one of the dreaming ones, after all. One of the ones who “thinks he is white.” It took me a while to understand what you meant by that, if I understood it at all. Those who “think they are white” are those who think they are free of the weight of history, those who pretend that their legacy is unstained. I don’t think the sins of the fathers should be charged to the children’s children, but I can’t argue that I have not benefited from time and location and advantage. I guess that’s called “privilege.” I have struggled to acknowledge or accept the idea–mainly because it’s a concept that is used as a bludgeon against us dreamers, to shame and silence us. We can’t speak about what we see because we are too privileged. We don’t understand “the struggle.”

You’re right. I don’t understand your struggle. I should never presume to. As I read your letter to your son, your legacy of fear, your armor of defensiveness that steals your joy, I realize that I don’t really get what life is like for black men in this country. Again, an “epiphany” that would surely elicit a head-shake and snort. As obvious as water’s wetness.

What I’m wrestling with, Mr. Coates, is that I don’t know what else to do but state the obvious. I don’t know what else I can say, what else I have the right to say. There’s nothing I feel like I can do to make things better, because: 1) I’m white, so I “don’t understand the struggle”; 2) I’m white, so any “help” I offer is patronizing; 3) I’m white, so I’m “part of the problem.”

I’m not whining. Do not mishear me, please. I’m not complaining, and I’m in no possible way equating. What I’m saying is, I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t know what to do about the injustice of racial hatred in America. I don’t know what to do about inequity of opportunity, or the poisoned cloud of fear that so often chokes out African-American communities, day to day.

The one thing I can say, you would refuse to accept. I’m a Christian, Mr. Coates, and I believe that there is a God who sees and hears and remembers and promises to bring ultimate justice. As you wrote in your book, you cannot accept this. For you, there is no comfort in struggling and suffering; there is only anger and the necessity of fighting back to prevent the abuse and plundering of your natural body. It makes sense to me that you would feel that way. If there is no God in heaven, then there is only struggle, and the only sensible response to a history of abuse is anger and determination to fight back by living a full life, for however long you can do so.

But, Mr. Coates, I believe there is more. I believe that there is justice that will one day roll down like mighty waters. I believe there is hope beyond suffering. I don’t believe this because it’s a fantasy dreamed by “those who think they are white.” It is a truth that has been held by British Puritans seeking religious freedom, by African-American slaves praying for physical deliverance, by Chinese peasants who face government oppression for holding onto a faith and a Name that refuses to be put down and stamped out, despite the menace and malice of a thousand kingdoms and a thousand kings.

I pray you can one day know that hope, Mr. Coates. I hope you can one day believe on that Name. Not because it will instantly cure your struggles, or will ever make you part of the “dream.” But if you come to know Jesus as Savior and Lord, He can redeem what is broken in your life, and He can replace your fear and your anger with something greater, something stronger, something that won’t eat you up.

I appreciate your book. It forced me to look at my assumptions, the white noise around the edges of my daily life. It forced me to confront my own arguments about problems and solutions within the African-American community.

If nothing else, your book has challenged me to be silent more, to pontificate less, and to stop saying comments like, “if only they would ___.” Because I don’t know you, sir. I don’t know what your life is like. I don’t know what it is to inhabit your body, to wear your skin. And it’s wrong of me to presume to know. I’m sorry I’ve done that.

If this letter ever finds you (what a strange thought that is!), I hope it finds you well. I hope it doesn’t offend. And I hope I’ve understood your book at least a tiny bit. I feel like I have. But I’m willing to admit, I could be wrong.



One thought on “Between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Me.

  1. Thanks for this–it pretty much summed up exactly how I felt about the book, too. Such a hard and heartbreaking book, but such a necessary one.

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