Many people more eloquent and more relevant than I am have written about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son, Between the World and Me.
From the first moment I picked it up and saw from whence the title came, I was brought back to Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, and his most famous book, Native Son.
And I have to come to think that there is much that is similar between Richard Wright and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I discern a similar urgency and impatience and anger in their written words. Mr. Wright had to leave the United States in order to be who he really was and to write what he really wanted to write. Fortunately for us, Mr. Coates is able to live and work and have a voice in the US. He has become possibly the most important voice saying what a lot of white people do not want to hear. That is a good thing; we need him.
After reading the first part of the poem, where the narrator is speaking, I also thought of Father Richard Rohr, an important voice in the mystic side of Christianity. From him I learned the word “numinous,” describing an experience that for a period of time takes you out of the world in shock or awe. Learning of the death of a loved one, for example, or equally, seeing the face of God.
I translate Mr. Wright’s words to describe such a numinous experience. The narrator comes upon the aftermath of a lynching and begins to realize what has gone on here, the “sooty details . . . thrusting themselves between the world and me. . .” How can seeing such an abomination not take one into a place of transcendent shock that erases the background of life? In the narrator’s case, it takes him to a place where the lynched martyr forces himself into the narrator, who then is able to describe the lynching in the first person.
Theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) coined the term “numinous.” For him, it was the basis underlying all religions, and he gave it three parts: a mysterious experience that is wholly unlike anything else in ordinary life; a tremendous experience because it can be terrifying whether it is from God or Satan, and finally a fascinating experience because of its potency.
The narrator’s experience certainly falls into all three of these categories. While we might at first think the experience is from Satan because of the evil of the deed that caused it, an argument might be made that it is really from God. How else can we redeem and restore our history if we do not first face the evil of it? We have to go right into the pain of the martyred and the oppressed in order to come back to ordinary life and say with authority, as Richard Wright did and Ta-Nehisi Coates does, NO MORE! NO MORE! NO MORE!
Between the World and Me
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing, Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me….
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly upon a cushion of ashes. There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt finger accusingly at the sky. There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and a scorched coil of greasy hemp; A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat, and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood. And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches, butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick; Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the lingering smell of gasoline. And through the morning air the sun poured yellow surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity for the life that was gone. The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by icy walls of fear– The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived: The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into my flesh.
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red upon her lips, And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that my life be burned….
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth into my throat till I swallowed my own blood. My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as they bound me to the sapling. And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from me in limp patches. And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony. Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a baptism of gasoline. And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot sides of death. Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in yellow surprise at the sun….
Richard Wright was only 52 years old when he died after suffering a heart attack in Paris. Ta-Nehisi Coates is 40. Let us pray that he will have many, many more years to force us to look at ourselves and dare to visit the belly of the beast of racism in order to conquer the beast.
The following link is a filmed narration of “Between the World and Me”: Richard Wright on YouTube