Fight for your rights! Reader table of Contents



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Chapter III.

And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white.


JAMES BALDWIN

In the years after Prince Jones died, I thought often of those who were left to make their lives in the shadow of his death. I thought of his fiancée and wondered what it meant to see the future upended with no explanation. I wondered what she would tell his daughter, and I wondered how his daughter would imagine her father, when she would miss him, how she would detail the loss. But mostly I wondered about Prince’s mother, and the question I mostly asked myself was always the same: How did she live? I searched for her phone number online. I emailed her. She responded. Then I called and made an appointment to visit. And living she was, just outside of Philadelphia in a small gated community of affluent homes. It was a rainy Tuesday when I arrived. I had taken the train in from New York and then picked up a rental car. I was thinking of Prince a lot in those months before. You, your mother, and I had gone to Homecoming at The Mecca, and so many of my friends were there, and Prince was not.


Dr. Jones greeted me at the door. She was lovely, polite, brown. She appeared to be somewhere in that range between forty and seventy years, when it becomes difficult to precisely ascertain a black person’s precise age. She was well composed, given the subject of our conversation, and for most of the visit I struggled to separate how she actually felt from what I felt she must be feeling. What I felt, right then, was that she was smiling through pained eyes, that the reason for my visit had spread sadness like a dark quilt over the whole house. I seem to recall music—jazz or gospel—playing in the back, but conflicting with that I also remember a deep quiet overcoming everything. I thought that perhaps she had been crying. I could not tell for sure. She led me into her large living room. There was no one else in the house. It was early January. Her Christmas tree was still standing at the end of the room, and there were stockings bearing the name of her daughter and her lost son, and there was a framed picture of him—Prince Jones—on a display table. She brought me water in a heavy glass. She drank tea. She told me that she was born and raised outside of Opelousas, Louisiana, that her ancestors had been enslaved in that same region, and that as a consequence of that enslavement, a fear echoed down through the ages. “It first became clear when I was four,” she told me.
My mother and I were going into the city. We got on the Greyhound bus. I was behind my mother. She wasn’t holding my hand at the time and I plopped down in the first seat I found. A few minutes later my mother was looking for me and she took me to the back of the bus and explained why I couldn’t sit there. We were very poor, and most of the black people around us, who I knew were poor also, and the images I had of white America were from going into the city and seeing who was behind the counter in the stores and seeing who my mother worked for. It became clear there was a distance.
This chasm makes itself known to us in all kinds of ways. A little girl wanders home, at age seven, after being teased in school and asks her parents, “Are we niggers and what does this mean?” Sometimes it is subtle—the simple observation of who lives where and works what jobs and who does not. Sometimes it’s all of it at once. I have never asked how you became personally aware of the distance. Was it Mike Brown? I don’t think I want to know. But I know that it has happened to you already, that you have deduced that you are privileged and yet still different from other privileged children, because you are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country. What I want you to know is that this is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility. It is your responsibility because you are surrounded by the Dreamers. It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair. The breach is as intentional as policy, as intentional as the forgetting that follows. The breach allows for the efficient sorting of the plundered from the plunderers, the enslaved from the enslavers, sharecroppers from landholders, cannibals from food.
Dr. Jones was reserved. She was what people once referred to as “a lady,” and in that sense reminded me of my grandmother, who was a single mother in the projects but always spoke as though she had nice things. And when Dr. Jones described her motive for escaping the dearth that marked the sharecropper life of her father and all the others around her, when she remembered herself saying, “I’m not going to live like this,” I saw the iron in her eyes, and I remembered the iron in my grandmother’s eyes. You must barely remember her by now—you were six when she died. I remember her, of course, but by the time I knew her, her exploits—how, for instance, she scrubbed white people’s floors during the day and went to school at night—were legend. But I still could feel the power and rectitude that propelled her out of the projects and into homeownership.
It was the same power I felt in the presence of Dr. Jones. When she was in second grade, she and another girl made a pact that they would both become doctors, and she held up her end of the bargain. But first she integrated the high school in her town. At the beginning she fought the white children who insulted her. At the end they voted her class president. She ran track. It was “a great entrée,” she told me, but it only brought her so far into their world. At football games the other students would cheer the star black running back, and then when a black player on the other team got the ball, they’d yell, “Kill that nigger! Kill that nigger!” They would yell this sitting right next to her, as though she really were not there. She gave Bible recitations as a child and told me the story of her recruitment into this business. Her mother took her to audition for the junior choir. Afterward the choir director said, “Honey, I think you should talk.” She was laughing lightly now, not uproariously, still in control of her body. I felt that she was warming up. As she talked of the church, I thought of your grandfather, the one you know, and how his first intellectual adventures were found in the recitation of Bible passages. I thought of your mother, who did the same. And I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life.
She went to college on full scholarship. She went to med school at Louisiana State University. She served in the Navy. She took up radiology. She did not then know any other black radiologists. I assumed that this would have been hard on her, but she was insulted by the assumption. She could not acknowledge any discomfort, and she did not speak of herself as remarkable, because it conceded too much, because it sanctified tribal expectations when the only expectation that mattered should be rooted in an assessment of Mable Jones. And by those lights, there was nothing surprising in her success, because Mable Jones was always pedal to the floor, not over or around, but through, and if she was going to do it, it must be done to death. Her disposition toward life was that of an elite athlete who knows the opponent is dirty and the refs are on the take, but also knows the championship is one game away.
She called her son—Prince Jones—“Rocky” in honor of her grandfather, who went by “Rock.” I asked about his childhood, because the fact is that I had not known Prince all that well. He was among the people I would be happy to see at a party, whom I would describe to a friend as “a good brother,” though I could not really account for his comings and goings. So she sketched him for me so that I might better understand. She said that he once hammered a nail into an electrical socket and shorted out the entire house. She said that he once dressed himself in a suit and tie, got down on one knee, and sang “Three Times a Lady” to her. She said that he’d gone to private schools his entire life—schools filled with Dreamers—but he made friends wherever he went, in Louisiana and later in Texas. I asked her how his friends’ parents treated her. “By then I was the chief of radiology at the local hospital,” she said. “And so they treated me with respect.” She said this with no love in her eye, coldly, as though she were explaining a mathematical function.

Like his mother, Prince was smart. In high school he was admitted to a Texas magnet school for math and science, where students acquire college credit. Despite the school drawing from a state with roughly the population of Angola, Australia, or Afghanistan, Prince was the only black child. I asked Dr. Jones if she had wanted him to go to Howard. She smiled and said, “No.” Then she added, “It’s so nice to be able to talk about this.” This relaxed me a little, because I could think of myself as something more than an intrusion. I asked where she had wanted him to go for college. She said, “Harvard. And if not Harvard, Princeton. And if not Princeton, Yale. And if not Yale, Columbia. And if not Columbia, Stanford. He was that caliber of student.” But like at least one third of all the students who came to Howard, Prince was tired of having to represent to other people. These Howard students were not like me. They were the children of the Jackie Robinson elite, whose parents rose up out of the ghettos, and the sharecropping fields, went out into the suburbs, only to find that they carried the mark with them and could not escape. Even when they succeeded, as so many of them did, they were singled out, made examples of, transfigured into parables of diversity. They were symbols and markers, never children or young adults. And so they come to Howard to be normal—and even more, to see how broad the black normal really is.


Prince did not apply to Harvard, nor Princeton, nor Yale, nor Columbia, nor Stanford. He only wanted The Mecca. I asked Dr. Jones if she regretted Prince choosing Howard. She gasped. It was as though I had pushed too hard on a bruise. “No,” she said. “I regret that he is dead.”
She said this with great composure and greater pain. She said this with all of the odd poise and direction that the great American injury demands of you. Have you ever taken a hard look at those pictures from the sit-ins in the ’60s, a hard, serious look? Have you ever looked at the faces? The faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. They betray almost no emotion. They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe. But, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real. Or perhaps it is not armor at all. Perhaps it is life extension, a kind of loan allowing you to take the assaults heaped upon you now and pay down the debt later. Whatever it is, that same look I see in those pictures, noble and vacuous, was the look I saw in Mable Jones. It was in her sharp brown eyes, which welled but did not break. She held so much under her control, and I was sure the days since her Rocky was plundered, since her lineage was robbed, had demanded nothing less.
And she could not lean on her country for help. When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best—it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.
Dr. Jones was asleep when the phone rang. It was 5 A.M. and on the phone was a detective telling her she should drive to Washington. Rocky was in the hospital. Rocky had been shot. She drove with her daughter. She was sure he was still alive. She paused several times as she explained this. She went directly to the ICU. Rocky was not there. A group of men with authority—doctors, lawyers, detectives, perhaps—took her into a room and told her he was gone. She paused again. She did not cry. Composure was too important now.
“It was unlike anything I had felt before,” she told me. “It was extremely physically painful. So much so that whenever a thought of him would come to mind, all I could do was pray and ask for mercy. I thought I was going to lose my mind and go crazy. I felt sick. I felt like I was dying.”
I asked if she expected that the police officer who had shot Prince would be charged. She said, “Yes.” Her voice was a cocktail of emotions. She spoke like an American, with the same expectations of fairness, even fairness belated and begrudged, that she took into medical school all those years ago. And she spoke like a black woman, with all the pain that undercuts those exact feelings.
I now wondered about her daughter, who’d been recently married. There was a picture on display of this daughter and her new husband. Dr. Jones was not optimistic. She was intensely worried about her daughter bringing a son into America, because she could not save him, she could not secure his body from the ritual violence that had claimed her son. She compared America to Rome. She said she thought the glory days of this country had long ago passed, and even those glory days were sullied: They had been built on the bodies of others. “And we can’t get the message,” she said. “We don’t understand that we are embracing our deaths.”
I asked Dr. Jones if her mother was still alive. She told me her mother passed away in 2002, at the age of eighty-nine. I asked Dr. Jones how her mother had taken Prince’s death, and her voice retreated into an almost-whisper, and Dr. Jones said, “I don’t know that she did.”
She alluded to 12 Years a Slave. “There he was,” she said, speaking of Solomon Northup. “He had means. He had a family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act. It’s all it takes.” And then she talked again of all that she had, through great industry, through unceasing labor, acquired in the long journey from grinding poverty. She spoke of how her children had been raised in the lap of luxury—annual ski trips, jaunts off to Europe. She said that when her daughter was studying Shakespeare in high school, she took her to England. And when her daughter got her license at sixteen, a Mazda 626 was waiting in front. I sensed some connection to this desire to give and the raw poverty of her youth. I sensed that it was all as much for her as it was for her children. She said that Prince had never taken to material things. He loved to read. He loved to travel. But when he turned twenty-three, she bought him a jeep. She had a huge purple bow put on it. She told me that she could still see him there, looking at the jeep and simply saying, Thank you, Mom. Without interruption she added, “And that was the jeep he was killed in.”
After I left, I sat in the car, idle for a few minutes. I thought of all that Prince’s mother had invested in him, and all that was lost. I thought of the loneliness that sent him to The Mecca, and how The Mecca, how we, could not save him, how we ultimately cannot save ourselves. I thought back on the sit-ins, the protestors with their stoic faces, the ones I’d once scorned for hurling their bodies at the worst things in life. Perhaps they had known something terrible about the world. Perhaps they so willingly parted with the security and sanctity of the black body because neither security nor sanctity existed in the first place. And all those old photographs from the 1960s, all those films I beheld of black people prostrate before clubs and dogs, were not simply shameful, indeed were not shameful at all—they were just true. We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.
But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live—and there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else’s country, but in your own home. The warmth of dark energies that drew me to The Mecca, that drew out Prince Jones, the warmth of our particular world, is beautiful, no matter how brief and breakable.
I think back to our trip to Homecoming. I think back to the warm blasts rolling over us. We were at the football game. We were sitting in the bleachers with old friends and their children, caring for neither fumbles nor first downs. I remember looking toward the goalposts and watching a pack of alumni cheerleaders so enamored with Howard University that they donned their old colors and took out their old uniforms just a little so they’d fit. I remember them dancing. They’d shake, freeze, shake again, and when the crowd yelled “Do it! Do it! Do it! Dooo it!” a black woman two rows in front of me, in her tightest jeans, stood and shook as though she was not somebody’s momma and the past twenty years had barely been a week. I remember walking down to the tailgate party without you. I could not bring you, but I have no problem telling you what I saw—the entire diaspora around me—hustlers, lawyers, Kappas, busters, doctors, barbers, Deltas, drunkards, geeks, and nerds. The DJ hollered into the mic. The young folks pushed toward him. A young man pulled out a bottle of cognac and twisted the cap. A girl with him smiled, tilted her head back, imbibed, laughed. And I felt myself disappearing into all of their bodies. The birthmark of damnation faded, and I could feel the weight of my arms and hear the heave in my breath and I was not talking then, because there was no point.

That was a moment, a joyous moment, beyond the Dream—a moment imbued by a power more gorgeous than any voting rights bill. This power, this black power, originates in a view of the American galaxy taken from a dark and essential planet. Black power is the dungeon-side view of Monticello—which is to say, the view taken in struggle. And black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors. Even the Dreamers—lost in their great reverie—feel it, for it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying. We have made something down here. We have taken the one-drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. Here at The Mecca, under pain of selection, we have made a home. As do black people on summer blocks marked with needles, vials, and hopscotch squares. As do black people dancing it out at rent parties, as do black people at their family reunions where we are regarded like the survivors of catastrophe. As do black people toasting their cognac and German beers, passing their blunts and debating MCs. As do all of us who have voyaged through death, to life upon these shores.


That was the love power that drew Prince Jones. The power is not divinity but a deep knowledge of how fragile everything—even the Dream, especially the Dream—really is. Sitting in that car I thought of Dr. Jones’s predictions of national doom. I had heard such predictions all my life from Malcolm and all his posthumous followers who hollered that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. I saw the same prediction in the words of Marcus Garvey who promised to return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors, an army of Middle Passage undead. No. I left The Mecca knowing that this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.
Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.
I drove away from the house of Mable Jones thinking of all of this. I drove away, as always, thinking of you. I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos. I saw these ghettos driving back from Dr. Jones’s home. They were the same ghettos I had seen in Chicago all those years ago, the same ghettos where my mother was raised, where my father was raised. Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos—the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing—and I felt the old fear. Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


TA-NEHISI COATES is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. Coates has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations.” He lives in New York with his wife and son.


The Opinion Pages | OP-ED COLUMNIST

Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White

JULY 17, 2015




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