I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniform pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone's grandmother, on the side of the road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed wit the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be help accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in the moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing–race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy–serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
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I write you in the sixth year of producing this work. I am writing to you because this is the work I have found for myself. It is my hope that the work here helps open up the possibilities inside you, allows you the permission to change, become the person you may yet be, the one you imagine freed from the sorrows and losses and fears that have attended and attached themselves to your days. The basic premise of what I do is this: fear = fucked. If you are fucked there is fear lurking inside it, perhaps a hundred fears, maybe just one, but fear is the marker of a fucked life. If you take even a cursory glance at the world around you you will know that fear stains, colors, skews, distorts and limits the lives we are living. Fear feels like it is the mortar of our society: present, solid, secure, binding each to a particular way of thinking and being in the world. Demographics change, but the fears remain locked in place: militarized, anxious, coiled, certain of itself.
Baton Rouge. Falcon Heights. Dallas.
Place names that stand in for the names of the dead, for the names of those killed most assuredly by fear: anxious and coiled, angry, sisyphean in its hubris and futility. Place names that will be used as a shorthand for every fear about the other, the one who does not think, act, do as I do, the one who does not have my experience, the one who blathers platitudes, the one who thinks himself conscious and free, the one blind with hate. Shorthand for a refusal to take more than a cursory look at what has been wrought over 240 years and self-righteously assure ourselves we aren't like that anymore.
"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery," declared Mississippi as it left the Union, "the greatest material interest of the world."
But we are. We are like that and we are in ways that have nothing to do with the oafs and open sewers with their Confederate flags and neo-Nazi hate. We are trapped in institutions and systems that can't even name their sins, but instead seek to blame the victim for her plight. We don't have a language mature enough to say what is plain: our nation was birthed on the black and brown bodies of native peoples and slaves brought against their will to be the economic engine of the nation's wealth. To do this, to conceive of such genocide and generational brutality requires the elimination of the humanity of those enslaved (and their subsequent heirs).
"The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black. And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals."
- John C. Calhoun, motherfucker.
This dis-logic, this contortion of piety, this vomitous rationale is not a remnant of the past, a thing dislodged at Gettysburg, but has been subsumed into our nation's DNA, part of the background, always there, always exerting an influence, never leaving us alone. The deeper problem than all of that is how easily we don't see it, how we imagine ourselves past all that, for we, ourselves, don't believe we are racist. That is for crackers and dumb-fucks. We pride ourselves on our post-racial bona fides. And because of this we do not examine, do not question, do not challenge the status quo and instead place the blame on rogue cops, or on the people who cannot bear the destruction of their bodies another minute and rise up in their anger and their desolation.
But this must not be allowed to stand, this unquestioning of self and country. This willful ignorance of the sources and wellsprings of our habituated disregard for the other, smoothed over by a myopic insistence on judging the immediate, the personal and refusing to account for the inherent, coded, embedded privilege of being "white" only sustains and extends the suffering.
Case in point:
In 2002 my then wife and I adopted a child who was 5 days old, abandoned at the hospital where my wife worked. My daughter is African-American. We needed her birth mother to relinquish her parental rights to complete the adoption and she agreed to come to court to do so. She stood before an Irish-American judge disheveled, scared, completely outmatched by the room and the moment. He was brutal to her. He shamed her for doing, what I believed, was a remarkable thing. She signed some papers and stepped aside in tears. My wife and I stepped up. He winked at us. He didn't ask a single question. He said, "God bless you for doing this. The child is yours. I already signed the papers." We drove the mother of our daughter back to the West Side of Chicago, leaving her at her methadone clinic and we went to the hospital to take our daughter home.
Was the judge an evil man for the way he treated this broken woman, for the favor he showered on us? Wasn't a child saved from desolation? He wasn't evil. He was in the system and couldn't see out of it. All he saw was a white suburban couple and that spoke volumes, besides, he had other cases to get to. We were the easiest thing he did all day.
This is the unexamined bias, birthed in the cancerous mouth of Calhoun, that prompts some to insist that "All Lives Matter" as a way of dismissing the generational destruction of black lives that ever enter the maw of the system, or even just stand along the edges of it selling mixtapes and cigarettes. It is the bias that informs the "twice as good" mantra of black families (which means they settle for half as much). It is in the air we breath and the water we drink (think Flint, Michigan). It stalks the streets of the Southside of Chicago and drives up sales AR-15's.
Black lives matter more than white feelings.
If can you unfuck just one thing in your life, let it be this. I don't say this as one who has it figured out. I say it only as the father of my daughter. She is heir to what we do next.
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I wish you well.