Guest Post: Making the Questions of Ta-Nehisi Coates Our Own


Our mysterious foreign correspondent, ‘John Brisker’, joins us once again to discuss the merits of “Between the World and Me.” (And no, this isn’t Julian Assange under a pseudonym. I don’t think.) – JM

In a letter in the form of a book or a book intended as letter, with the recipient being the author’s 15 year-old son (and presumably anyone else willing to open their ears and heart to the message) Ta-Nehisi Coates tries to explain to his seed who he is and how to relate to and understand the confusing world into which he’s been delivered.

Like a young Malcolm, without the fury, Coates unleashes the harsh reality of race relations upon the reader. His tongue is sharp as a razor–to use a Liquid Swords metaphor–when explaining the conditions and realities that formed his understanding about his place in the world as an ethnic minority. He’s speaking to his son in a loud voice, but at the same time to anyone within earshot, about the physical and mental consequences of being dominated based on a made up premise.

“But race is the child of racism, not the father.”

Sounding like a 21st century Franz Fanon talking about the phenomenon of the colonizers and the colonized, Coates will make you take a look in the mirror and then at the world around you and try to make you figure out how to explain to the next generation the mess that they will inherit from us.

Does racism exist because races exist or is it the other way around? Coates claims it’s the latter, which I would have to agree with whole-heartedly. Most racism only exists as a means for people to justify their pathologies, to present the concept of “us” as differentiated based on attributes that none of us chose. This way they can attempt to justify their corruption. Coates’ conclusion, that race is the child of racism (an illegitimate one), can clearly be seen in children. Children never seem to think about the skin tones of their playmates and, most of the time, not even their native tongues. Reflect on this and it will become clear that racism is an acquired behavior that has no foundation outside of the twisted mind.

“However you call it, the result was our infirmity before the criminal forces of the world. It does not matter if the agent of those forces is white or black – what matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes our bodies breakable.”

Coates takes an honest look at the historical foundations of his country of birth. Like many things being done in earnest while searching for the truth, the picture that appears is not the prettiest. Yet this is the underlying reality that forms the current state of affairs in this same country, a cruel truth which has to be explained to our innocent young citizens whose primordial crime, which apparently brings about the punishment of injustice, is the color of their skin, their religious identity or the ink on their birth certificates.

“Now the questions began burning me. The materials for research were all around me, in the form of books assembled by your grandfather.”

The author comes to his realizations after researching the questions that are keeping him up at night with the zeal of a scholar. Searching for truth in any field is a hard endeavor which requires, in many cases, a mental as well as physical struggle. And as layers of ignorance are uncovered, knowledge is discovered, along with deep wounds of which one was previously unaware. Those same wounds can then explain the pain many of us have felt in our souls when looking at the world while not knowing the source of the discomfort. Once discovered, an understanding of our condition is facilitated and treatment can commence. And once this has happened, the understanding can be passed on to the next in line in hopes that they won’t have to live with a blindfold on for as long as our generation has.

“My mother and father were always pushing me away from second hand answers – even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious” – as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

The idea that questions asked open up doors to answers previously not conceived is something that Coates inherits from his parents and wants to pass on to his own son. Give him credit for being honest enough to admit that, in some cases, he has wound up in an agnostic cul de sac, and also for realizing that in certain instances, asking the question(s) is sometimes in itself a purpose.

Creating an environment for inquisitive minds within one’s own family is no small task. Ideas, creeds, values, morals etc. are not like family photo albums, books or big brother’s worn out Jordans—they aren’t easy to hand down. Ideas can be reduced to dogmatic semantics; hollow, not foundational for creating meaning in our lives. And like other hand-me-downs they end up collecting dust on shelves, or in this case in our souls, which in many cases are due for a thorough cleansing from the dust of ignorance which has formed a thick layer over our God-given primordial knowledge and intuition.

We know ourselves what it means to have knowledge that is authentic and not just theoretical information that is taken for granted and never tested by the flame of inquisition. Most times this knowledge springs from experience and deep pondering. Pondering itself usually leads to questions but can also be a means in itself. So trying to generate an environment where questioning is encouraged is a great way to give the next generation an opportunity to seek and understand the meaning behind what we as parents hand down to them, hopefully leading to their own experiences which will give depth and nuance to what we try to convey to them. And it will also assure that we have to be ready ourselves to understand these things on a higher level, just like a teacher has to be ready to answer the inquires of his students. And just like any sincere teacher who teaches for the love of spreading knowledge, we should be filled with joy the day that our students of the next generation pass us in degrees of understanding.

“’Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?’ Bellow quipped. Tolstoy was ”white,” and so Tolstoy  ‘mattered’, like everything else that was white ‘mattered.’”

How do we find our own heroes? And where are they hidden? They must have existed and they still exist, right? Should we accept the ones that are thrown at us, to whom we know we have no connection? Wanting to be like them and seeing them as the ideal we should strive for would be to conform to the standards imposed by the oppressor, thus falling in line and playing our role so that the status quo of injustice may continue for at least another generation.

The truth is, though, that no matter who we are or where we come from, we have our own heroes. They existed and continue to do so. Here again, questioning becomes extremely important. Let’s not pretend that ideas such as the one claiming Christopher Columbus (even changing his name from Cristobal Colón is problematic) discovered America and Jesus was blond and blue eyed are innocent historical hiccups that happen to be in many cases presented as facts. These ideas, which are very problematic from a scholastic point of view, have deep implications on our psyches and how we look at hierarchy in the world. And the truth is that they did come before Columbus, but ‘they’ don’t want us to know that since it would destabilize the current paradigm of the power structure. And if we want to change that paradigm it will require effort on our part and encouragement aimed at our sons and daughters.

“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”

This quote is Malcolm-esqe, echoing the sentiment that true freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want with your limbs, but rather the liberation of the mind. The mind being non-material makes the place that this liberation takes place irrelevant. Malcolm X experienced the freedom of the mind to travel beyond his presumed limitations in the most physically restrictive of all places: prison. Coming to the realization that our beings are more than just our three dimensional bodies, he could transcend the four walls of his cell into new dimensions previously not thought of. The library became his path to liberation, leading to the quote when asked what his alma mater was: “Books.”



Coates points out the paradox of the classroom being a kind of jail, designed to convey, at least in part, a biased world view. So the same institution that claims to prepare us to be citizens in a free world, superimpose upon us values and information that are many times far from objective. Rather, they in some instances have an underlying agenda. Being aware of this makes it tough on a parents’ conscience to send their kids to these same institutions while being aware of the pitfalls and at the same time recognizing the need for education. Cognitive dissonance ensues for many of us, especially those familiar with John Taylor Gatto’s works. The comforting thing can be to at least have knowledge of some of the shortcomings of the system and to try to implement corrective measures at home, the home that is indeed the first true school of any child.

“There were scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were the high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses. It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of ”Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key.”

The part of the book where Coates talks about his intellectual growth as a university student is brilliantly articulated. As many of us who left our hometowns or native lands to achieve our goals in higher education know, the information relayed in the classrooms is only a very small part of the personal development that takes place at universities. For many of us it was more about life experience, broadening one’s scope, experiencing the unexpected, meeting the unknown than about anything our teachers and textbooks wanted us to memorize by rote. We came back as new people with new outlooks and only a little of it owed to the institution itself.

For Coates it was at Howard and his spot was called the Mecca. The meeting place, where the breeze was shot, brother- and sisterhoods were created and the place you just had to stop by everyday on campus or else your daily ritual would be soiled by transgressing against the development of the soul of the community.

For me it was SMC and the spot was called the Embassy—a name that came natural since each member represented his/her corner of the globe. Morocco, Senegal, Sweden, Sierra Leone, Albania, Eritrea, Holland, Somalia, Belgium, Crenshaw, West L.A., Inglewood, The Jungles. Anything goes…..religion, politics, Jordan versus Kobe, Buck Fush, last weekend, Europe versus U.S…ten minute chess games, bumming Newports, push up contests, Ls being lit, campus police being dodged, Seagram’s in the Ruby Red bottle before Econ 101. Friendships for life and arguments in perpetuity. Our names carved into the stone tables from ’03 ’til infinity……or at least until they removed the tables in order to renovate the area around the book store. But those memories outlived the stone tables and they are part of who we are. THAT was our education, we just didn’t know it at the time.

“What I remember was my ignorance. I remember watching her eat with her hands and feeling wholly uncivilized with my fork. I remember wondering why she wore so many scarves.”

When the knowledge one has is restricted to what is in one’s own cultural cocoon, that knowledge is closer to compounded ignorance. Only by contrasting one’s own values and ideas with that of the other will we be able truly appreciate them in the grander scheme of truths and maybe even come to realize that our own way of looking at things is not the only way but might even be wrong. At least considering this possibility is an intellectually honest position, since we would like the “others” to do the same when trying to understand us and extend to us the benefit of the doubt when studying our culture.

Coming in contact with other is truly one of the greatest ways to grow as an individual and to challenge one’s preconceived notions. Travelling the world will often do this. Malcolm X’s example is a good one in this regard. Only when he was able to escape from the background that was the foundation of his early racist ideology was he able to liberate his mind from the narrow mindedness that was created by the social circumstances he grew up with, which to him was all that existed before crossing the Atlantic and seeing glimpses of what a different world could look like.

“What I know is that fathers who slammed their teenage boys for sass would then release them to the streets where their boys employed, and were subject to, the same justice. And I knew mothers who belted their girls, but the belt could not save these girls from drug dealers twice their age. We, the children, employed our darkest humor to cope.”

Violence in today’s societies has not appeared in a vacuum. Rather it has been a human problem as long as we have inhabited this earth. For nations that are built on slavery, contemporary violence can many times be seen as the bitter fruit growing from a plant with polluted roots. Many times the oppressed are not enfranchised to the point where they can truly fight back against their oppressors. But the effects of the violence one is exposed to and victimized by don’t evaporate and disappear without a trace. Many times it is internalized, leading to pathological disorders. And sometimes the victims need an outlet since the internalization is too hard to handle.

Many times this outlet ends up being the people closest to oneself, who become the victims at the hands of someone that actually loves them and not someone that had contempt for them, which was the case one stage earlier in the cycle, thus establishing a negative cycle of violence that mostly affect the closest of kin.

Perhaps the best study on this phenomenon in book form is All God’s Children by Fox Butterfield which chronicles the family history of Willie Bosket and how and why violence seemed to be attached to him like a shadow on a cloudless day. That book is a deep case study, worth reading for those interested, but most likely too detailed for people with superficial interest in the subject. Fortunately Coates scratches the surface of the problem when trying to explain the conditions that bred the violent world that we live in when explaining it to his son.

“Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” wrote Wiley. “Unless you find profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”

Why can’t I claim Tolstoy or any other great author for that matter? Maybe Tolstoy himself would reject the people that currently claim him as theirs. And isn’t that the genius of many of our great literary men and women? That their writings touch on universal ideas that hit close to home with each and every one of us that truly try to understand them?  We can read Crime and Punishment as Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Baha’is etc. and find ourselves in the character of Raskolnikov. So Dostojevski CAN be the hero of the Zulus or the Incas or the Arabs!

All we have to do is relate to the meaning that the author is putting forth and analyze it in the context of our own experience and understanding. Then the author can become our champion, no matter who claimed him before, since no one has a monopoly on understanding the greats.

Why can’t I claim Tolstoy? He is not private property and maybe he would reject the people that currently claim him as “theirs.”

“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of their black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you.”

I think that for anyone that has seen a child come into this world it would be hard to accept the concept of original sin. Pure, innocent and fresh. With no idea of what type of world it has entered, a world created by us and those before our time. A corrupted world, waiting to attack the newborn and distort its pure primordial state.

The truth is that many coming into this world are coming with a weight on their shoulders, long before they are morally responsible for anything. So while the newborn might be pure and free of blemish, in the eyes of society the child is indeed carrying an enormous sin, that of its skin tone or belief system of its family. And the poor soul will be guilty by association, its innocence negated from the start.

So do you have to check off the same demographic boxes as Ta-Nehisi Coates in order to benefit from this book? My answer would be NO.

His story and his experience is particular and aimed primarily at his son. But many of his experiences are universal and many of us will be able to relate to them and the lessons he tries to teach can also be applied to situations alien to his own. If your mind is open, this book has the potential of an unexplored goldmine and it can be the means for waking us from the slumber that has made us blind to many of the injustices in our societies that are easier to ignore than to face. And if facing reality is too hard for you…don’t bother opening this book.


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