Between My Son and Me: A Father Reads Ta-Nehisi Coates

Image via /Shutterstock

Even in its bitter moments, Between the World and Me remains a parental love letter. As such, we are drawn to words that at once familiar and intimate, revealing the hopes and vulnerability of a father who, like me, feels such pressing need to save his child from and through his own history.

"The truth is that I owe you everything I have," Coates tells his son tenderly.

"I was grounded and domesticated by the plain fact that should I go down, I would not go down alone."

To read Coates is to consider just how dramatically different my own parenting imperative is from fathers who teach their sons resistance but who must contend with the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that such instruction will lead to bodily loss.

For those of us who grew up believing we are white, and perhaps especially for those of us raising sons all too likely to believe the same, there is at least one urgent message we should share alongside Coates: Our children need to know that they live in a nation, branded by violence, that values some bodies more than others. 

One Year Later: The Evolution of a Movement

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and Dr. Cornel West climb over barriers at the ‪St. Louis Department of Justice as part of the ‪#‎UnitedWeFight‬ ‪#‎FergusonUprising‬. Photo © Heather Wilson / dustandlightphoto.com

The latest killing happened two days before the 1-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death when Christian Taylor, 19, crashed his SUV through the window of a car dealership in Arlington, Texas. Officers shot him in the course of a struggle. In fact, as I write this, there have been 601 lethal police shootings in 2015, 24 of them unarmed black men, according to an ongoing independent analysis by Washington Post: That’s an average of two unarmed black men shot dead by cops per month since January. This number does not include police shootings of black women, police killings that did not involve gunfire, or deaths while in police custody. Freddie Gray’s and Sandra Bland’s deaths are not included in the Washington Post tally.

Over the course of the year since Michael Brown died, we have learned critical lessons that have fueled the movement, bringing together young activists, clergy, and evangelicals in unlikely, yet cohesive alliance.

An Inheritance of Scars

“WHAT YOU do to children matters. And they may never forget.”

This thread runs aggressively through Toni Morrison’s most recent novel, God Help the Child. The speaker is Sweetness, a woman who shares her family’s wounds from trying to pass for white, or “high-yellow,” for generations. Of trying to blend in well enough to drink at fountains, to try on hats in stores, to use the same Bible as whites during ceremonies. When her child and the novel’s focus, Bride, is born black, “midnight black, Sudanese black ... blue-black,” all the advancement Sweetness and her ancestors strove for dies. She loses her husband (who assumes she has been unfaithful), her social standing as a light-skinned woman, and any love for her child. “Her color is a cross she will always carry,” Sweetness says. “But it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not.”

Bride grows up without the love of a mother’s touch and scorned for being so oddly dark, until she learns to use her color to make herself exotic and marketable. What may seem to be a character living into her identity as a black woman is really a façade in order to regain what was lost because of her skin. Of course, what Bride sees as progress is actually proof that she too has fallen into Sweetness’ obsession with what Morrison described in a recent NPR interview as “skin privilege—the ranking of color in terms of its closeness to white people or white-skinned people and its devaluation according to how dark one is and the impact that has on people who are dedicated to the privileges of certain levels of skin color.” But while race and color as social constructs are themes in the book, they are not explored as deeply or given as much emphasis as childhood trauma.

As in some of Morrison’s other novels, magical realism conveys the battle between the past and the present, the spiritual and the physical, playing a poignant, visceral part in Bride’s journey. Bride goes through a literal metamorphosis, assuming it is penance for gruesome choices she made as a child to feel alive and as an adult to feel powerful. She is numbed to what true progress and success are, constantly trying to put a fragmented identity together until she can no longer get up and must face her trauma and changing body.

The only people in the novel who allow themselves to truly heal are a child named Rain and an ex-convict named Sofia. They speak to the power of self-forgiveness. Too often we carry the shame and hate handed to us by other people’s evil, whether from childhood trauma and abuse or complacency and apathy as adults. While we can and must be held accountable for our own mistakes, we must also be willing to take off the shroud of self-loathing and guilt, and move forward past trauma into self-acceptance and healing. Both Rain and Sofia, young and old, can see the power of blame and regret and refuse to walk that path, while Bride, her lover Booker, and her mother Sweetness will arguably always drag the sins of their forebears behind them.

“What you do to children matters. And they may never forget.”

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WATCH: 1 Year Later, We Asked Protesters What #BlackLivesMatter Means to Them

Sunday marked the 1-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Both in Ferguson, and across the country, the memorials and marches were held to remember those lost to police violence. Here in Washington, D.C., we attended one such demonstration and asked protesters what the #BlackLivesMatter movement has meant to them over the past year.

Mike Brown Means ...

Rally after the decision not to indict Darren Wilson

Solidarity rally in Minneapolis for Michael Brown in response to the Ferguson grand jury decision, Nov. 25, 2014 by Fibonacci Blue / Flickr.com.

It's a call and response chant started on the streets of Ferguson that has spread across the nation.

"Mike Brown means ..."

"... we got to fight back!"

It rolls off my tongue in a sing-chant cadence, and my hips begin to sway, because I have yelled it as I've marched and rehearsed it in my dreams. It is bitter and sweet. We evoke Mike's name and sway and pledge to fight. I've listened to voices I know and those I don't call and answer in hours of live stream and together in front of court houses and I know, I know in my soul what Mike Brown means.

Mike Brown means ... something more. Something larger than one more young black man shot in his neighborhood.

One year later, Mike Brown means ... something more.

From the Archives: Sept/Oct, 1996

Burning Churches

Paul Brennan / Shutterstock 

AS I RECENTLY recalled that summer of 1964, I was reminded that slavery was our original sin. Race remains our unresolved dilemma, and today the bombers are back. From an urban church in Knoxville, Tenn., to countless rural churches in South Carolina, Virginia, ... and Alabama, the flames of arson and the hatreds of racism burn again.

On the narrow subject of burning churches, there has been rare bipartisan outrage. Conservative Rep. Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina said on the Senate floor, “If we in Congress cannot agree that church burning is a despicable crime, what can we agree on? It’s not a matter of liberals, conservatives, blacks, whites; it is about justice, faith, right, wrong.” He and Sen. Ted Kennedy introduced a bill to toughen the laws against church arson.

Well-meaning whites have also stepped forward to help rebuild churches. The National Council of Churches and the Anti-Defamation League have established national rebuilding funds.

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Black, Bisexual, Buddhist, and Not Afraid to Embrace Who She Is

Simbwala Schultz / Wisdom Publications / RNS

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. Photo via Simbwala Schultz / Wisdom Publications / RNS

When Zenju Earthlyn Manuel goes to teach somewhere for the first time, she often sees surprise in the faces of the students as she is introduced.

She doesn’t look like many of them expect. She isn’t Asian. She isn’t a man. And she isn’t white.

And getting them to acknowledge that her body — her “manifestation,” as she calls it — is different and a part of her experience is crucial to her teaching. If our bodies are sources of suffering, then we ignore them at our peril.

“When I have held and embraced who I am, how I am embodied, it has become a source of enlightenment, of freedom,” she said from a sunny corner window seat in her living room. Draped in a black monk’s jacket, she is a stark contrast to the white walls and white upholstery of the rest of the room.

#BlackLivesMatter and the Bomb

As we mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world waits to see if the Iran deal will come to fruition and thus avoid war. Once again, the debate about nuclear weapons appears at the forefront. At the same time, inside the U.S., the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to make clear it will no longer be politics as usual as activists organize, protest, and fight every day to destroy institutional racism. However, it is no coincidence that these events are all happening simultaneously as they have always been and continue to be inextricably linked.

What Jesus Can Teach Us About Confronting Racism In Ourselves

Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C.

Protesters march against police shootings and racism during a rally in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 13, 2014, Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

In the wake of Sandra Bland’s death, I’ve seen comments from other white Christians on social media defending the arresting officer, denying that Sandra Bland was mistreated, blaming her for what happened, and denying that race had anything to do with what happened to her. Their responses were so knee-jerk automatic that I probably could have written them ahead of time before learning anything specific about the events in question. We humans can be quite tribal, and we instinctively tend to identify with the people who are most like us.

Many whites balk at the suggestion that their views and assumptions might be racist because they know themselves to be moral people who live decent lives and maybe even have some black friends. They certainly don’t hate anybody, and they aren’t supporters of the Ku Klux Klan. Because they understand racism on an individual rather than systemic level, it seems impossible to hold together an image of oneself that contains both “good person” and “racist.”

Southern Baptists Cozy Up to GOP After Pulling Back

REUTERS / Hans Deryk / RNS

Photo via REUTERS / Hans Deryk / RNS

When it comes to political partisanship in the 2016 presidential race, it might be said that Southern Baptists have taken one step forward and two steps back.

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, announced in a press release that its president Russell Moore would be interviewing Republican candidates Jeb Bush (live) and Marco Rubio (via video) before 13,000 attendees at the denomination’s missions conference on August 4. Leading candidates from each major party were invited, the release states, but only Rubio and Bush accepted.