By: Jason D. Hill September 2017
Dear Ta-Nehisi Coates:
I read your book Between the World and Me, an elegant and poetic elegy written to your son on “the question,” as you put it, “of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the [American] Dream.” In the book, you reflect on your revelatory experiences, from the fears you felt growing up in your neighborhood in Baltimore to attending Howard University to visiting the South Side of Chicago to your relentless study of African history to your reckoning with the meaning of the Civil War. Many of your readers will come to know the often lonely and exilic world in which you, as an individual black man, have lived for many years. But your book, while moving, reads primarily like an American horror story and, I’m sorry to say, a declaration of war against my adopted country.
My fear is that Between the World and Me aims to reach far beyond the scope of the reader’s moral imagination and into the actual lives of Americans, black or white, who share this thing you refer to as the Dream. My concern is that you and your book function as deputized stand-ins for the black male and the black experience in America, respectively. And I believe that as stand-ins, both fail.
Because I write as a black immigrant who chose to live in the United States, whose biggest hope as a child was to become an American citizen, and who chose to embrace the American Dream you condemn, please consider these words my Declaration of Independence—an independence that only my beloved America could have given to me.
On August 11, 1985, at the age of 20, I boarded an Air Jamaica aircraft bound for Atlanta. Clutching the hand of my 72-year-old grandmother a little nervously, I was headed for the United States of America. Armed with $120, big dreams for my life, and the love of my family, I blew a kiss to the throngs of onlookers in the airport’s run-down wavers’ gallery—and never once looked back.I recall that day as the first of my true and authentic life. My glamorous grandmother was decked out in pearls, high heels, and a silk dress. Greeting the flight attendant at the door, she threw her head back and said with a raspy laugh: “America, here we come.”
Four and a half hours later, a newly minted legal immigrant, I was using one hand to shield my face from the harsh Atlanta sun and the other to shield my grandmother’s slightly perspiring neck from the same. Really, though, there was nothing from which we needed protection. I was in the United States of America, the most magnificent land of opportunity, home of dreamers like me. I was a black man who had never met any philosophers or real writers, but I was determined to become a philosopher and write books on ethics, political philosophy, and American foreign policy. I was eager to publish poems and novels about the Caribbean—novels that Americans would come to love. I was a gay man escaping the blight of Jamaican homophobia. And I knew that in America I could find peace and true love and be left alone to pursue my dream.
I would make but one demand on my new country: that its inhabitants place no obstructions in my path. I expected no special treatment because, as an American, I was already part of an exceptional process. My ideas, I had decided on the flight over, would one day be taught in colleges and universities. I will tell you presently the extent to which that willed decision became reality, and why it was possible only in the United States of America.
Then came years of struggle. I worked up to 45 hours a week, sometimes juggling three jobs at once, while attending university full-time and then earning a scholarship to complete my Ph.D. in philosophy. All the while, I found other dreamers—immigrants and aspirants whose emergent identities were being forged in the crucible of their adopted country. They were immigrants who, like me, worked hard and graduated magna cum laude from their universities.
I should tell you about some of them—although they are already part of a national folklore and moral mandate that continue to lure countless more dreamers to America. There was Thai, a young Vietnamese man with whom I worked while stuffing envelopes in a bank to pay my way through college. He wasn’t qualified to do much else because he couldn’t speak English. But he would visit me at Georgia State University. I found other dreamers on campus. There was Vanessa, a tall, deeply black-skinned woman who had fled Trinidad because she was too dark-skinned to feel welcomed there; Rema, a young woman from Iran who had escaped when her family, finding out she was a lesbian, sent her to America for her own protection; Dinesh, a very dark-skinned 19-year-old from India who was regarded as a Dalit, or Untouchable, in his country and whom everyone in our circle of friends—Southern white, black, and foreigners from all over the world—embraced as an equal. We joked that our affection for him was due to his having the whitest teeth anyone had ever seen. But really it was because he had the sweetest, most forgiving, and most benevolent disposition any of us had experienced. He was aiming for a degree in finance and then architecture.
Then there was Isabella, from Guatemala, whose mother had worked as a maid. Her accent was hard, working-class. She was always watching a lot of American television, she said, to Americanize her speech. Her mother had hoped Isabella would become a teacher and return to the old country to give back to the community. But Isabella wanted to become an anesthesiologist. The more she put people to sleep, she once told me in the library, the more they’d shut the hell up and not judge the way she spoke.
We all adopted Thai. We drilled him with English. Killed him with it, really. We told him to watch a lot of television. I plied him with books and spoke to him every day in my very formal English. We all talked to him as if he were fluent in the language. We took no pity on him when he looked confused. This was around 1989, and we asked him for his opinions on President Reagan, on the upcoming elections, on the Madonna video with burning crosses and depictions of her kissing a black Jesus. He had not seen the video. “Go watch it,” we all said in unison. Start auditing classes, I told him. He thought the idea crazy. Just sit in on classes, I said, sit in on my philosophy classes. This is America, I said. I’ll tell the professors you’re learning English and that you can’t get into college because you haven’t yet mastered the language. They’ll be happy to have you, I told him. They’ll feel good about themselves, I thought. This is America, home of human benevolence and simple kindness.
Mr. Coates, you write that the American Dream is the enemy of so much that is good: “The Dream thrives on generalizations, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” The pursuit of this Dream saddens you and all the people in America you describe as being lost “in a specious hope.” The Dream, you say, was built on “the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white,” and that progress was built on looting and violence. You write: “‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. However it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.”
I am saddened by your conviction that white people wield such a great deal of metaphysical power over the exercise of your own agency. In making an enemy of the Dream that is a constitutive feature of American identity, you have irrevocably alienated yourself from the redemptive hope, the inclusive unity, and the faith and charity that are necessary for America to move ever closer to achieving moral excellence. Sadder still, you have condemned the unyielding confidence in self that the Dream inspires.
Thai took my advice and hesitantly walked into the admissions office alone at Georgia State University. I’d told him that this was America, and that until and unless he asserted his indubitable, sui generis humanity and claimed his place in the pantheon of Dreamers, he’d never make it. Once he asserted himself, all five feet two inches of him, many of us knew (without resentment) that he’d pass us by. We were proud when a year later he determined that college would give him all the language skills he needed to open his own restaurant. Don’t ask me how he did it by stuffing envelopes, but Thai had saved a lot of money and, in his halting English, had convinced a bank to grant him a loan to open his own small Vietnamese eatery. Alone. He had no help from family; they were all back in Vietnam, illiterate and too poor to visit, let alone assist financially. We celebrated the American way, poor as we all were, by buying him gifts (including beer and a dictionary), because in America, envy of achievement is not de rigueur. We felt, instead, inspiration and tearful pride. I later learned that Thai did indeed, 20 years on, earn his baccalaureate, magna cum laude, not because he had to, but because he could and wanted to. That’s the American way.
In the 32 years I have lived in this great country, I have never once actively fought racism. I have simply used my own example as evidence of its utter stupidity and moved forward with absolute metaphysical confidence, knowing that the ability of other people to name or label me has no power over my self-esteem, my mind, my judgment, and—above all—my capacity to liberate myself through my own efforts.On this matter, you have done your son—to whom you address your book—an injustice. You write: “The fact of history is that black people have not—probably no people ever have—liberated themselves strictly by their own efforts. In every great change in the lives of African Americans we see the hands of events that were beyond our individual control, events that were not unalloyed goods.”
I do not believe you intended to mislead your son, but in imparting this credo, you have potentially paralyzed him, unless he reappraises your philosophy and rejects it. In your misreading of America, you’ve communicated precisely why many blacks in this country have been alienated from their own agency and emancipatory capabilities. The most beleaguered people on the planet, the Jews, who have faced persecution since their birth as a people, are a living refutation of your claim. When they labored in slavery in Egypt, clamored in Palestine, made magnificent contributions to human civilization in European capitals, sojourned in Africa and Asia, and founded the modern State of Israel, no one gave these heroic people an affirmative-action plan to work anywhere. In spite of vitriol and invidious comparisons to vermin and pigs, and despite being subjected to countless pogroms and mandated ghettos, they thrived and flourished because not for one moment did they ever believe that their struggle for liberation lay in any hands other than their own.
Your beliefs threaten to alienate your son from his country and afflict him with a sense of moral inefficacy and impotence. This could squash his chance of being an engine of change in the course of history. You tell him simply: “The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are.” But this is the United States of America—a country born with a terrible birth defect, slavery, but still a work in progress. It is a country that says to me; to Vanessa, a woman too black to feel at home in her own predominantly black country; to Thai; to Dinesh, whom no one would dare touch in his homeland: I am an open canvas. Write your script on me. Without you and your story and your narrative, the story of America is incomplete. This is America, where you can suffuse the country’s vast landscape with who you are and participate in its dialogue of national becoming. Yet you have told your son that by constitutional design his voice does not, cannot, and will not ever matter. If he accepts this, you will have banished him to a lifetime of emotional separation from his birthplace and, a fortiori, emblazoned upon his soul the moral hazards of passivity and resignation. Let us hope he refuses them.
You have, of course, already tried to preempt any counterbalancing influence on your son. “The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise,” you write. If the birth of a better world is not up to him, then on whose shoulders does the responsibility fall? Does he not have an obligation to himself to shape the world with values and virtues of his own making; does he not have an ethical responsibility to create, in his own moral character, the world he desires to see before him? Whom do you expect to manufacture a better world for your son? You have communicated to him, that, in effect, his place in the world is that of an aborted inchoate being, with limbs unformed and incapable of effort, screaming in terror and hopelessness at a world that you describe as both terrible and beautiful but that he cannot change. He is, you tell him, the legatee of a personal destiny over which he has no control.
And who do you claim has control over America? “The problem with the police,” you write, “is not that they are fascists pigs, but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream.” There, you’ve said it. You’ve indicted the majority of the American people on serious charges—and many of them (not all) in their guilt and shame will grant you a moral pass. Some will feign outrage, but most, like aristocrats who reversed roles with the plebeians at the European Dionysian bacchanals, will assume a mask of contrition, look to some hoped-for redemptive moment in the higher registers of their innocent conscience, and move on. Your accusations have made for interesting dinner talk among the cognoscenti and literati in liberal bourgeois enclaves, where some believe moral masochism and symbolic self-flagellation are signs of virtue.
You touch on your flirtation with some special black racial essentialism in your book, and it is both affecting and sympathetic: “My working theory then held all black people as kings in exile, a nation of original men severed from our original names and our majestic Nubian culture. Surely this was the message I took from gazing out in the [Howard] Yard. Had any people, anywhere, ever been as sprawling and beautiful as us?” Unfortunately, there is nothing special about the black body. There is nothing special about any racially distinct physical body per se. Black skin does not convey nobility. Neither does white skin, or yellow skin. Your body is not special until it conjoins itself to a mind and adapts nature to its needs and desires and rational aspirations, its self-actualization and manifested agency. Any human body that fails to achieve a self-cultivated moral character and inscrutable human will is merely an ecological social ballast: ignoble, exploitable, a heap of unintelligible flesh on this earth.
This abnegation of personal responsibility assumes its logical end in your failure to grant black people responsibility for their own lives in the phenomenon of black-on-black crime. You tell your son: “Black-on-black crime is jargon, violence to language . . . . To yell black-on-black crime is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.” Why? You give no reasons. In truth, black-on-black crime is a pathology that has to be reckoned with. Your own experiences with the police and with violence tell a more complicated story than you’d like. You write about your friend Prince Jones. He was shot and killed by a police officer who claimed that your late friend had tried to run him over with his Jeep. This police officer was black. You write of a schoolyard boy who first apprised you of your place in the world by revealing a gun at his waist. In brandishing his weapon, you write, “he let it be known how easily I could be selected.” You write eerily of his haunting presence in your life—the boy in whose small eyes you saw “a surging rage that could, in an instant, erase my body.” He, too, was black. Throughout your letter to your son, black people are mostly treated as mindless automatons who can’t seem to help themselves—and you apply this idea of helplessness to violence. You quote your own father who justified beating you by announcing, “Either I can beat him, or the police.” That’s all there is to it?
In your world, black-on-black crime is causally reducible to the machinations of the orchestrators of a system apparently designed to rule the neurons and synapses of the black brain. Have you told your son that he is twice as likely to be murdered by another black man than by a white police officer? Perhaps not, because it would not make any difference. The gang members and black individuals who kill others, including blacks, are certified moral icons who deserve dispensation because, in your reasoning, they are powerless before the street crime of history that brought the ghettos into existence.
My own intellectual sensibilities were formed in an interregnum, in the period between an empire’s collapse and the emergence of an independent nation. When my father was born in 1943, his own father, a pioneer in the independence movement in Jamaica, was being held in a British concentration camp for being an insurgent and a hardline Communist. According to stories my paternal grandmother has told me, he was tortured and beaten by the British, no doubt humiliated also. My grandfather was a first-class intellectual, an aristocratic man of letters, slated to become Jamaica’s first prime minister. He quickly rejected this opportunity by forming the first trade union for colored people and editing the Caribbean’s largest newspaper, The Gleaner. He was an intellectual and an educator before he was a politician. His name was Frank Hill. His black body, too, was a target for actual colonial whips. I am, however, the legatee of the great tradition that he imparted; and although I am certainly not a Communist—just an old-fashioned liberal—I did learn a few moral values from the example of this toughest of giants. To wit: Resignation, aggrievement, and victimology were useless to those who intended to create their own destiny. If you had intentions of building a new nation and you fancied yourself one of its moral or political architects, you could not for one second believe that you had no power to liberate yourself by your own efforts. One might have been influenced by one’s environment, but one was most emphatically not the product of one’s environment. Without what you, Mr. Coates, call a “specious hope,” men like my grandfather would have thought themselves only pretending to live. Grit, will, resilience, tenacity, reason, hope, dignity, perseverance, and an unflinching self-esteem earned through moral character gave them confidence and a sense of trust in better possibilities. They never extricated themselves from the historical process because to do so was to become irrelevant.I myself have cultivated a love of humanity. It is a love for the human species that involves, above all, and paradoxically, a ruthless practice of individualism. This is America, where chromosomal predestination must be challenged by individual achievement. This is America, where a third Founding (taking Lincoln’s promise at Gettysburg as the second) was achieved in the civil-rights movement and the momentous passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The inclusive promise of We the People was finally delivered to all peoples in this country. America has always been a place of regeneration, renewal, and self-examination, a place where peoplehood is not a given or a smug achievement but, rather, a long and continuous aspiration.
When people give up the seductive idea that the world owes them something, except the right to be left alone, they are given the power of forgiveness—even of those who have historically oppressed them. This, Mr. Coates, brings me to your June 2014 essay in the Atlantic arguing for reparations for black people. You were and are wrong. No self-respecting black person ought to take a single penny from the state for the infliction of any ancestral damage. The very premise supposes that blacks are wards of the state. If individual rights are currently being violated by states that illegally discriminate against blacks, that is a matter to be redressed in the courts. People who are possessed of self-esteem, who are dignified individuals capable of supporting themselves, do not seek any form of reparations. It is beneath them. Reason indicated that you cannot codify either collective guilt or collective entitlement. And reparations are predicated on the attribution of collective guilt, which in turn is based on the worst form of racism: biological collectivism.I’ll explain: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, blacks accounted for 52.5 percent of all homicide offenders from 1980 to 2008, with whites accounting for 45.3 percent and “other” accounting for 2.2 percent. The offending rate for blacks (the number of blacks who commit homicide as a percentage of the black population) was almost eight times higher than that for whites, and the victim rate six times higher. Most homicides were intra-racial, with 84 percent of white victims killed by whites, and 93 percent of black victims killed by blacks. Should white society seek to foist collective guilt and shame on blacks because of the higher rate of homicides committed by black men? By the logic of your reasoning, should black families seek reparations from the “racist state” that has systemically created the physical ghettos and economic deprivations that somehow forced these black men to disproportionately murder a number of their fellow citizens? The consistent application of your philosophy would lead you to an inverted position. It would mean that any white person could legitimately look at your son and coerce him into racial shame for the disproportionate homicide that blacks have committed against whites.
By what impertinence would you hold any white person guilty for the crime of simply being born white? You would, perhaps, imply that an accident of birth confers on them a white privilege for which they are to spend the rest of their lives atoning. Here’s another idea: How about blacks just ask that white people not regard them as anything special and not obstruct their efforts to enhance their lives?
In your book, you describe an incident during which a white woman shoved your then five-year-old son as you were leaving a crowded theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She affected an assault against his integrity, and you felt that she was pulling rank because she would not have dared to be so bold outside her turf. Perhaps your interpretation of the incident is correct. Or maybe she was just a rude New Yorker impatient to get on her way. Do not elevate the importance of that white woman in the eyes of your son. She’s probably just some ordinary woman. You were right to put her in her place. This is not Mississippi circa 1950. Today, you can indeed tell off a white woman in New York who pushes your son. You asserted your manhood in his defense, and that was the greatest lesson you could have taught him. His body is inviolable, and he is an indivisible whole, and no one has the right to touch him—black, white, yellow, red, or in-between.
But I suspect my request for our being ignored and left alone to create our own destiny will not satisfy you. This is because you are trading on black suffering to create a perpetual caste of racial innocents. And the currency of your economic system is white guilt. But your son should never trade in anyone’s guilt with the halo of his own imagined innocence hanging over his head. Not one of us is innocent of everything or of anything for too long. Fallibility is built into human nature.
Today, the dream has more than come true for me. After I authored three books on the topic of world citizenship, a consortium of four universities in England held a series of conferences devoted to my theory of post-human cosmopolitanism. My books on ethics and political theory are taught in college courses in the United States, and I achieved full professorship in my mid-40s, long before I expected to do so. Many more personal dreams of mine continue to be nurtured in and by America. In 32 years of living in this country, the United States has never once failed me. Becoming an American citizen was the greatest privilege of my life.Your book reads like an American horror story because you have damned to hell the noblest and most endearing trait of those who come to this country and who love it: the Dream. You declare: “This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.” Well, it is. And we, the Dreamers and achievers who continue to make this country the exceptional wonder that it is, will never capitulate to your renunciation. The world we desired has been won. It exists. It is real. It is possible. It is ours. And it should be yours, and your son’s.