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ON TA-NEHISI COATES’ BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

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By David Mura

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The Montréal Review, September 2018

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Preface on My Identity

My friend, the Vietnamese American poet Bao Phi, writes in one of his poems: “Oriental flavor must be a sidekick flavor/must taste like the margin and not the center/must taste like an ally and not the masses….must taste like go back where you came from.”

Do police racially profile working class Asian Americans?  Of course they do.  Does Jeb Bush feel it’s better to claim that when he said “anchor babies” he really meant Asian immigrants rather than Latinos?  After all, he needs the Latino American vote.  Bush doesn’t care how many Asian Americans he pisses off.  We’re not a political force to be reckoned with.  When the European American Emma Stone plays a quarter Hawaiian, quarter Chinese American in Aloha, do any non-Asian Americans care?  Does anyone think of how Stone would never be able to play someone who was half black because the uproar would be too huge? 

How do I, a third generation Japanese American, center myself in such a world?  Is that even possible?  As I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, part of me keeps these questions in abeyance.  They are not questions Coates invokes in his book.

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me, is written in the form of a letter to Coates’ teenage son (echoing Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time which is written to Baldwin’s nephew).  In Coates’ dissection of what it means to be a black man in contemporary America, there are two quotations I’ve gone over again and again.  The first is this:

When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my West Baltimore neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world. They would stand on the corner of Gwynn Oak and Liberty, or Cold Spring and Park Heights, or outside Mondawmin Mall, with their hands dipped in Russell sweats. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T- shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a catalog of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired.

I felt the fear in the visits to my Nana’s home in Philadelphia. You never knew her. I barely knew her, but what I remember is her hard manner, her rough voice. And I knew that my father’s father was dead and that my Uncle Oscar was dead and that my Uncle David was dead and that each of these instances was unnatural. And I saw it in my own father, who loves you, who counsels you, who slipped me money to care for you. My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us. Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns. It was said that these lost girls were sweet as honey and would not hurt a fly. It was said that these lost boys had just received a GED and had begun to turn their lives around. And now they were gone, and their legacy was a great fear.

Though he loves his son—or rather because he loves his son—Coates will not soften or mitigate the constant presence of this fear in the lives of black people, and therefore, inevitably, in his son’s life.  On the street, while driving, in any public or private space, that fear is present in the consciousness of the black people Coates knows.  Coates is an atheist, and he tells his son that because of this, his father cannot buy in to a vision of redemption, of hope at least for the afterlife, where this fear will not be present.  His is a seemingly coldly realistic position, and yet it is constantly redeemed by the context of its form: Each word is part of a letter of love to his son, is infused by that love and a wish to impart a necessary wisdom and truth to his son about what it means to be a black person in America. 

But then there is also a love of black people in this whole passage.  If you are black, you certainly feel this love in Coates’ words.  But if you are white?  Part of this passage’s effect on a white reader arises from a very different mindset than that of a black reader.   Whites have been conditioned by hundreds of years of racist stereotypes to fear blacks, to see them as threats—indeed, that is what many whites feel when they turn on the television and view the demonstrations in Baltimore, at the Mondawmin Mall, after the death of Freddy Gray from his arrest and ride in a police van.  That is what most whites feel if they find themselves in an urban environment where whites are a minority--fear of blacks, of the black body.  Thus, the fear that black people live with daily in Gray’s neighborhood is never the primary lens through which white people view them.  But unlike the white television viewer, Coates knows the people of this neighborhood, knows their fear because he himself has felt this fear, has felt how heavy a weight it is to drag through your life day after day (even if, as Coates has done, you have escaped the neighborhood and now live a life most in that neighborhood cannot even dream of because they believe it is an impossibility for them).

In his book, Coates goes over the autobiographical details of his parentage and his family history and explains why, along with his prodigious intellect and talents, he was able to escape his neighborhood.  Perhaps because of that distance, he is able to see that fear through the lens of its immediate causes—the violence of the police and a society based on practices of racial supremacy:  “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.  The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology.  The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.  The law did not protect us.”  In such a state of oppression, Coates argues, it is virtually impossible to feel a sense of safety.  And so, the blacks in Freddy Gray’s neighborhood fear not only the police or other representatives of societal power, but also fear for each other:  “My father was so very afraid.  I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all round us.”  Coates’ father is saying to his son, “I need to keep you in line, I need you to keep from straying into the jaws of the monster, I need you to be as filled with fear as I am because I believe that is the only way you are going to survive in a society which fears your body and wants to destroy it.” 

 

In the past few years, as I say to my students, technology has overtaken racism.   Even white Americans who never believed black accounts of police brutality and injustice have been forced to reconsider this question.  But it took videos of police misconduct to do this, which means whites did not believe the accounts of black people describing their experiences with the police.  Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sondra Bland, these are now familiar names in the national debates about race.   Yes, there have always been those who been devoured by the monster, but in this past year and a half, unlike in the past, some of these names are no longer anonymous to the white public; they are known and have, at least to some extent, a face, parents, loved ones, are pictured with some scraps of humanity even as the police and parts of the white population continue to demonize these dead who bear witness to the monster, to the presence of this monster, in the lives of black people. 

“But what about black on black violence?” one can hear white people chiming.  “More blacks are killed by other blacks than by police.”  There are so many answers to this specious proposition:  First, more whites are killed by other whites than by police; yet in the context of race, no one talks about “white on white” violence and how that needs to be stopped.  Second, an unarmed black person is twice as likely to be killed by police than an unarmed white person.  That disparity is not mitigated or erased by talk of “black on black violence,” and yet the latter is used to cover up or dissuade attention from that disparity.  Fourth, there is, as many have pointed out, a difference between violence between individual citizens and violence by representatives of the state upon individual citizens.  Fourth, the rise in the level of guns in the black community in recent decades has far more to do with the white gun lobby than any changes in the black community. 

Fifth—and this is Coates’ most difficult point: As racism engenders fear in the black community and a sense that there is no place of safety, why would anyone expect that sense of fear would not extend to other blacks?  When not just the police force, but an all pervasive system of oppression brings poverty, unemployment and economic scarcity?  When there are few resources and many scrambling for those resources?  Beyond this, Coates argues that this fear is a result not just of present circumstances, but also embodies the legacy of our history. 

 

As a result of all these factors, this fear on the part of blacks is so overwhelming and pervasive, it does not allow or afford the members of the black community to let down their guard, implies Coates.  And if you are never completely safe from the ravages of the monster, of the white racist system, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to view the others who suffer from this system without some degree of fear and suspicion—unless you know that they will die for you.  Those who will die for you could include your family or whatever others who have declared and demonstrated such fealty.  All others remain suspect; and you must put up a mask of protection, a shield, against them when you go out in the world.  That is what this fear does to you.

Conservative whites are fond of quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s admonition that a person should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; these conservatives use King’s words to argue against any measure, such as affirmative action, which would provide any advantage to people of color—while at the same time ignoring any number of practices which disadvantage people of color.  But what is rarely asked is this: Are whites truly capable to judging the character of blacks (or of other people of color)? 

I would argue that they are not.  Indeed, most white people are incapable of truly seeing black people as three-dimensional human beings.  For most whites, there is a limit to how deeply they understand the psyches and experiences of black people.  That limit is reached when what a black person says something about race or takes an action that, to the white person, makes no sense and is deemed incomprehensible, unjustifiable, irrational.  It’s at that point that the black person leaves the realm of white approval, of white sanity, of white propriety or manners, of white rule, of white morality, of white psychic understanding.

But how can this be?  Are white people so racist?  According to Coates, this inability to see and understand black people as fully three-dimensional human beings stems from the attachment of whites to what Coates calls “the dream”:  

This lie of the Civil War is the lie of innocence, is the Dream. Historians conjured the Dream. Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories. John Carter flees the broken Confederacy for Mars. We are not supposed to ask what, precisely, he was running from. I, like every kid I knew, loved The Dukes of Hazzard. But I would have done well to think more about why two outlaws, driving a car named the General Lee, must necessarily be portrayed as “just some good ole boys, never meanin’ no harm”—a mantra for the Dreamers if there ever was one. But what one “means” is neither important nor relevant. It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden.

Coates calls white Americans “The Dreamers.”  The Dreamers believe in the lie of white innocence, in the lie of American innocence; the two are inextricably intertwined in the white psyche.  For this innocence to maintain itself, the legacy of racism in American history and in present day American society must constantly be forgotten, denied, mitigated, justified; it must be placed in the bin of “an exception to the rule” or “a mistake.”  With the last phrases, what is implied is that racism is not a system upon which this whole country’s history and political and economic power was and is based; no, racism is simply an occasional misstep, an oversight, a slight wrong turn which was eventually corrected.  It was never a constant and systematic execution of oppression, injustice and exploitation. 

To believe such a lie—racism as the exception and not the rule—is quite easy for most white Americans.  And yet, at the same time, it requires enormous powers of repression and denial, an active and constant shield to blunt out the truths spoken by blacks (and other people of color) about their experience and their history, about the reality they live with and within.  It as if whites what to say to blacks, “Yes, you are part of this country but whatever happened to you and whatever is happening to you is not part of what this country truly is; instead, it is marginal or inessential to what this country is.”  In other words, blacks are only part of this country when their experiences prove and maintain white innocence.  When the experiences of blacks and what they say about those experiences challenges white innocence, that is no longer part of the mainstream of America; that is the exception. 

The double-stepping required to maintain this posture can be regarded as comical if it were not so oppressive.  It says: You blacks are part of the American mainstream and essential to what America is only when we whites say so.  Everything you say that does not fit our vision of American or who we whites are cannot possibly be true.  Our innocence must be maintained.

And that is why most white Americans cannot see black Americans as three-dimensional human beings.  To do so would mean that white Americans would have to give up their dream of innocence—and that is what they are unwilling to do (Baldwin reminded us of this long ago).  This is what Coates means when he says:  “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 build on the destruction of the body.  It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”

 

For most white Americans, their whiteness is not essential to their identity.  It is not something they must think about.  They are individuals, not white people.  That is why, when a white author introduces a white character in fiction, the white author does not need to identify the character as white—unlike the practice of almost all writers of color when introducing characters of color.  Whiteness must remain invisible, unremarked upon.  For to call attention to whiteness is to question whiteness—that is, the unspoken definitions of whiteness.

What is perhaps not readily apparent here is how deeply white denial runs—that is, how it reaches down into ontology, into the basic categories of our thought.  In the school of academic theory called Afro-Pessimism, the argument is that the ontology of the Master-Slave still functions today and structures not just the past but continues on into contemporary American society.   In this Master-Slave ontology, Whiteness is deemed human and therefore able to be a citizen; Blackness is non-human and therefore cannot be a citizen.  Any violence done to Whiteness—the citizen—must be justified by the laws within the nation or between nations.  But violence can be wreaked upon Blackness—the slave—without justification or prior provocation, without legal justification or a declaration of war.  Whiteness—the human—can own property.  Blackness—the slave—is fungible; that is, it can be bought and sold as property (think here of the prison industrial complex).  

In additional to the White Master/Black Slave ontological opposition, there is also the ontology of Settler Colonialism or the White Settler versus the Red Savage.  Only the White Settler can institute and be a member of a nation.  The Red Savage can never constitute or be part of a separate nation state.  The White Settler, as a member of a nation, can claim possession of land.  The Red Savage can never claim possession of land.   The White Settler can wreak genocide upon the Red Savage as a justifiable act in the claiming of the White Settler’s land in the name of the nation.  No act of retaliation by the Red Savage is ever justified or legitimate.  Another facet of this ontology is that the Red Savage is relegated to history; there are no Native Americans in the present; they are all dead.  A third ontology—less developed theoretically perhaps than the first two—is the White Colonial/Empire versus the Oriental/Terrorist. 

For me, when I look at American history or its present, these ontologies explain that history and that present in ways no other ontology does.

But what then do the white “Dreamers” offer as a counter ontology?  That there is no basic ontological difference between “Whiteness” and “Blackness” or between “Whiteness” and “Redness” or “Yellow” or “Brown”?  That there are no ontological racial categories operating within the American psyche and history and practice?

That is why Coates calls them “the Dreamers”—because whites dream of a history which never happened, dream of a present in which the reality and experiences of people of color do not intrude, do not count, are non-facts.  Such a “dream” of innocence belies both the facts of our history and the facts of our present. 

But “the Dreamers” prefer their dream to our reality.  And that is why they cannot see blacks and people of color clearly—because in their “dream,” we do not exist; our voices do no exist; our history and reality does not exist.   In their version of ontology, there is only whiteness; there is only themselves, the human.  There is nothing else.  That is how they can maintain their innocence.

This is why many people of color view most whites as children.  It’s not that whites don’t see the presence of guilt in the world; whites are ever ready to point to the ways people of color are guilty and responsible for everything that happens to them, for anything they experience, for any pain they suffer.  The guilt of people of color is readily available for processing whenever we are judged, whenever our character or worth is assessed, whenever there is a question as to our innocence or guilt.  No, our guilt is readily established.  It’s just that whites cannot countenance, cannot see or acknowledge, their own guilt.  They wish to be regarded as adults without guilt.  But to be an adult is to acknowledge one’s own guilt, and in the dream of white innocence, such adulthood is possible.

 

Coates ends his book on what some may take as a particularly pessimistic note: 

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 Dreams, 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 behind 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 [Coates’ term for Howard University], that drew out Prince Jones [Coates’ friend who was killed by police], the warmth of our particular world, is beautiful, no matter how brief and breakable.

In other words, Coates is saying to his son:  “Do not hope for white people to change.  It’s too unlikely.  And I don’t want you to spend your life hoping for something that will not happen.  Spend your time celebrating and connecting with the black people around you.”

As much as I empathize with what Coates is saying here, I do want to quarrel a bit with him (others have critiqued the relative absence of black women in his book so I won’t go into that here).  First, Coates seems to be telling his son that his son cannot let down his guard, that the fear that is so pervasive in the black community is a necessary tool of survival.  This is different from saying that the presence of this fear and its damaging effects can only be understood within the context of a history and a deeply pervasive system of racism.  This is saying that fear and guardedness cannot be assuaged or mitigated, much less be let go. 

My friend, the African American novelist, Alexs Pate has written extensively about how a racist society and stereotypes of blackness have helped embed a deep sense of guilt in the psyche of many African Americans.  Further, he argues that this sense of guilt can exist in the black psyche even if the individual has never actually acted in ways that confirm the negative stereotypes of blacks.  When a black person walks into a store, it doesn’t matter whether that black person has ever stole anything in his or her life; that black person is already under suspicion, is presumed guilty.  In a way, this fact is often readily acknowledged.  But what is less obvious is that given this state of affairs, it is extremely difficult to keep that suspicion and presumption of guilt from penetrating one’s consciousness of oneself. 

One epiphany Pate has undergone regarding this phenomena occurred when a policemen was shot in Minneapolis, and a police sketch of a black suspect with dreadlocks was distributed everywhere in the city.  When Pate would walk into a grocery store or a restaurant or a bar, people would look at Pate with his dreadlocks and then at the sketch and then back at Pate.  After a couple weeks of this occurring, Pate was driving home from a meeting when he had an overwhelming feeling that he had killed someone.  The feeling was so powerful he had to pull over to the side of the road and tell himself, “No, no, you didn’t kill anyone.”  After that hallucinatory incident, Pate decided that a recovery of his sense of innocence was fundamental to his spiritual and psychic recovery as a black man in America. 

Pate has now created a program, The Innocent Classroom, to address the racial achievement gap by training teachers to improve their relationships with students of color.  At the center of that program is his belief that black children need to be reconnected with their own innocence.  When Pate was speaking about this program, an educator who was a former policeman objected:  “You want us to send our children out on the streets, unguarded, feeling as if they were innocent?  Are you crazy?”  To which Pate replied, “Well, how has it been working for you and us, teaching them the opposite of innocence?”  Pate would argue that the fear Coates speaks of stems in part from the effect of negative stereotypes, and that these stereotypes become scripts which young people in the black community act out because they have not been presented with scripts based on their innocence.  The children know such scripts of innocence exist for white children, know innocence is experienced by others outside their world.  But they don’t think it can exist for them.  Pate believes it can.  He says he would rather live without fear—even of the police—than with the burden of that fear.  He offers a different way out from the cul de sac of racism, perhaps one Coates seems to think is impossible. 

My second critique of Coates is this: His vision for his son posits only two worlds—the white world of the Dreamers and the world of black people and their community.  But American today is more various than that, and the white majority he posits here will, sometime around 2040, no longer be a white majority.  We will all be minorities then, though of course that doesn’t mean the racial structures of power will change accordingly.  Still, it will be a different world; Coates and my children will live in a more multiracial and multiethnic world than the one I grew up in or the one Coates grew up in.  And we have to prepare our children for that world, not just the presence or the domination of the Dreamers and their white majoritarian world. 

When Coates speaks about the world in his title, what world does he mean?  Does his world include someone like me, a third generation Japanese American?  Or my hapa—mixed race--children?  While I appreciate so much of what he writes about, I don’t get the impression from his book, that he considers these questions.

Afterward on My Japanese American Identity

If Coates is right about the presence if history in the psyche of contemporary blacks, then I too have my own legacy.  It includes the anti-Asian immigrant laws of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It includes this poster which appeared in Hollywood in the 1922: 

JAPS

You came to care for our lawns,

We stood for it.

You came to work in truck gardens,

We stood for it.

You sent your children to our public schools,

You moved a few families in our midst

You proposed to build a church in our neighborhood

But WE DID’T

And WE WONT STAND FOR IT

You impose more on us each day

Until you have gone your limit.

WE DON”T WANT YOU WITH US

SO GET BUSY, JAPS, AND GET OUT OF HOLLOWOOD!

It includes this editorial in Los Angeles Times in 1942:

“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched. A leopard’s spots are the same and its disposition is the same wherever it is whelped. So a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere and thoroughly inoculated with Japanese thoughts, Japanese ideas and Japanese ideals, notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship, almost inevitably and with the rarest of exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, into an American in his thoughts, in his ideas, and in his ideals, and himself is a potential and menacing, if not an actual, danger to our country unless properly supervised, controlled and, as it were ‘hamstrung.’”

My fear includes the imprisonment of my parents, my grandparents and 120,000 Japanese Americans, citizens and non-citizens, during World War II.  This massive denial of basic Constitutional rights was neither an accident nor a mistake; it had been prepared for by years of rampant anti-Asian sentiment, rhetoric and, most importantly, laws.  Just as it was no mistake some of the internment camps were on Native American reservations or that the head of the Wartime Relocation Authority, Dillon S. Myer, went on, after the war to become the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

My fear includes more than this egregious abrogation of Constitutional rights.  My fear also includes my father’s white teacher in the internment camps saying to him, “When you get out of here, you should try to be not 100% American but 200% American.” 

The contradiction imbedded in that teacher’s admonition to my father is one that never leaves me.  I know I will never be 100% American, much less 200% American.  I will always be an outsider, an alien, someone whom you can ask, “Where are you from?” and then, when I answer, Chicago, “No, where are you really from?”  It includes the fear—or rather the knowledge—that my citizenship can always be questioned, challenged, or taken away.   That it depends upon America’s relationship with the countries in Asia, that it depends upon how much white people fear those countries, fear economic competition, fear immigrants; that I have no control of the fears of white people, that it can grow into something monstrous in an instant, at some downturn of the economy or some negotiation gone awry or some unpredictable military event.  I know the Oriental/Terrorist label is just one step away from me, or rather, written upon my body, and I have no control of what is written there by the white gaze—or indeed, by the gaze of other people of color.

Of course, there are other more mundane fears.  Of the reactions to the words I have written here.  Of any number of ways my qualifications to write on race will be challenged.

But there’s a more personal fear that I share with Coates—and that is fear for my children, particularly my middle son, the one who looks vaguely ethnic, and so has been mistaken for Chicano, Arab, Native, Greek, even black, as well as various Asian ethnicities.  Who has experienced both sides of the color line in his encounters with the police:  One day my son was in the park with another friend of color and about eight white friends, some of whom were drinking.  When the police rolled up and started searching this group, after they had finished, they turned to the whites in the group and pointed to my son and his friend of color, and said to the whites, “Why are you hanging out with those people?”  On a different occasion, when my son was at a mainly black party, the police let my son and the handful of whites go.  Then the policeman pointed to the blacks at the party and said to my son and the whites, “Why are you hanging out with those people?” 

Still, my son wasn’t arrested; he wasn’t killed.  I know it’s not as dangerous for him as for other young men of color.  But he has known the reality of that danger.  He had a Somali American friend he worked with on hip-hop tracks, someone he went to high school with; that friend was shot earlier this summer, most likely by another Somali American young man.  My son has friends in different parts of the city that he fears for, fears they may be shot because of gang retributions, or, in the case of the Somali community, clan or tribal violence.  He doesn’t fear the police in the ways his black or Somali friends do, but he fears for them, these friends.  And that fear is part of what he lives with day by day; it weighs on him, not as heavily of course as if he were the one in danger, but with a real and true weight. 

Does my son believe his white half provides him innocence?  I don’t think so.  And indeed, given the way his white mother and I have raised him—which is to think of himself as an Asian American, as a person of color—I don’t think the white dream of innocence was a route he would take.  For one thing, he was too bonded with too many friends of color to partake in that dream; he knew too much about their lives and experiences; he knew their fears.

 

Where do I place my son in relationship to Ta-Nehesi Coates’ son?  I think they would understand each other more intuitively, have more things in common with each other, more so than Coates and I would, though I would like to think if I were to meet Coates, he would recognize in me an ally.  Still, there’s little in his book—well, nothing really—that relates directly to my position as an Asian American.  The book is a letter to his son, and as such, assumes a black audience; at the same time, it cannot help but also be addressed to whiteness and therefore white people.  But me?  I don’t think Coates wrote his book thinking of someone like me reading it, though I write thinking of someone like him reading my words. 

But how much does that matter?  It’s probably enough for me to work hard to understand his words, to imagine the realities he describes, to enter them as best I can.  And we are both, in our own ways, children of Baldwin.  Does Coates have Asian Americans in his life?  I don’t know.  As for myself, I have many black friends, have been in any number of places where I was surrounded by blacks and have been happy and comfortable in that surrounding in ways I am not in a crowd of white people.  I feel like I know intuitively what he means when he calls Howard University the Mecca and speaks of the comradeship and mutual understanding an all black environment creates.  Perhaps Coates has had similar experiences with other communities of color, but those were outside the purview of his book.

But what of Coates’ son and my son?  Or my daughter who works at an all Latino junior high in Oakland or my other son who recently went with three black friends to a mainly white party where they were constantly challenged with “What are you doing here” though my son knew the white host longer than the young white men doing the challenging?  Coates’ son and my children have experienced a different America than either Coates or I.  Coates son and my children know each other in a closer way than either Coates and I know each other.  And in that, I do have hope.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a poem about the Somali American young man who was shot and killed not more than a mile from our home.  Growing up, I probably never even heard the country of Somalia mentioned.  In contrast, my son, Nikko, has numerous Somali American friends, a Somali American girlfriend, and recently was the only non-Somali at a Somali wedding.  His life is vastly more ethnically and racially various than the world I grew up in.  And through him, I’ve come to love his deceased Somali friend, a friend I never met, but still know a little bit about, and am thankful to in ways I would have never imagined.  

In my son’s world, the white Dreamers or the beautiful black American community Coates celebrates are not the only elements.  In my son’s world, he sees black Americans through the lens of a writer like Coates, but also through the lens of his Somali American friends.  In many ways, America’s black community doesn’t accept these Somali immigrants any more than the white Dreamers do.  Indeed, in certain ways less so; a huge fight broke out a couple years ago in my son’s high school lunchroom between American blacks and Somali Americans.  Of course, there are layers of racial self hatred, of the fear Coates speaks about in such conflicts, but they take place outside the world of the white Dreamers.  Such conflicts argue for dialogues that have yet to happen between people of color.

Recently, I was talking to four of Nikko’s Somali American friends about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, a historical event they were not aware of.  But when I described the anti-Japanese sentiment at the time and the suspicion of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants that led to the camps, these young Somali Americans nodded and intuitively understood when I said the same thing was now happening to Muslim and Arab Americans like themselves.  A few days later, at our Thanksgiving dinner, some of these same Somali American friends of Nikko had a conversation with my Filipino American friend and her mother about the American immigrant experience; they all talked about the cultural tensions and conflicts they experienced and the ways they felt ostracized by American society, and the young Somali American women felt a camaraderie with these two Filipino immigrants that they had not expected to find.  

Nikko’s Somali friend who was killed was named Abdi.  As I’ve said, he and my son worked together on hip-hop tracks, went to the same high school, grew up in the same neighborhood.  Abdi too now is part of my story, part of my world.            

Poem For Abdi

10:35.  Gnats and mosquitoes blurring streetlights
in the parking lot of the Coyle rec center
and Abdi's smoking and chilling just
after the light's slipped away on this near solstice
and the lines he's on fleek flow
through that girl he passed at the Mall of America,
the apartment he'll go back to without his mother
returned to Mogidishu to aid his dying poet
father, heart failing without metaphor,
and Abdi thinks next week I'll be breaking Ramadan,
as the beats my son Nikko laid down for him
start to jump:

My brain ain't neurological,
beyond ecological
I've torched the devil's follicles
Stroking his blood red tail
Thinking where we failed
And where a bullet sails
Lurking late
For Ismael…..

Three shots: Pop, pop, pop: Hears only the first
behind him and his head, his lines, that girl,
Ismael, his mother, and the fast
off Ramadan all explode from his skull
into the June night as he topples

and suddenly there's two black brothers
over him smashing at his chest
and he's not even thinking
I can't breathe, I can't breathe,
and the street light above burns
fluorescence into his retina, gnats,
mosquitoes and a strange yellow glow
just before the red, the red, the red, the red.

And he'll never witness his brother,
his sister Jamillah, his friends Beydaan
and Khadiijah, and my son Nikko hunkered
in the waiting room as the surgeons
huddle two hours to undo
what can't be undone,
and three days later, Nikko stands
with Abdi's friends and family, the mother
just returned from Somalia—his father
still dying, unable to fly—and
there is no coffin to cover his sleeping face
as he's lowered two graves from Beydaan's brother
and my son grips his shaking girlfriend
and as he looks at Abdi's mother, the only,
Somali mother who ever accepted
him, even loved him, he thinks of the track
Abdi and he jammed on, the album
they'd planned and how, just hours
earlier at work, when he told his boss
about his friend's death, his boss shot back:
"That's what you get for hanging around with
Those people," 
                             and how did they get to be
my son's people, and how am I to comfort
my son weeping before me now in my study
or chastise him for using my wife's card
to help buy the mother's plane fare
and a bus ticket for another friend to leave for
Fargo so he doesn't become one more Abdi,
and my son's saying he looked as the mother's
face falling into her son in the grave
and he wanted to rip the clouds from the sky, rip
his boss's hair from their follicles, cut
the tracks of their album that will never be finished
and the kids in school shouting at Abdi, "Look at me,
I'm the Captain," and "Hey Mohammed Suicide Bomber,"
and my son's saying, "I can't believe he's dead,
I can't take it in," and I'm holding him as Abdi
will never be held by his mother,
his father the poet dying in Mogadishu,
and I can't say I hate this world as much you,
Nikko, though that too is in my heart,
and so I say, His life was not his death, your
friendship was not his death, his music
was not his death.  And so I say, Listen,
he's still rapping, those lines are still there,
he's still talking to you, what is he saying?
and Nikko as his body shakes
in my arms, "He'd want me, he'd want me
to be happy," and I see Abdi's face standing
beside us, and I tell him, Thank you, Abdi,

thank you, for saving my boy.

***

David Mura is an American author, poet, novelist, playwright, critic and performance artist. He has published two memoirs, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won the Josephine Miles Book Award from the Oakland PEN and was listed in the New York Times Notable Books of the Year, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity (1995). His most recent book of poetry is The Last Incantation (2014); his other poetry books include After We Lost Our Way, which won the National Poetry Contest, The Colors of Desire (winner of the Carl Sandburg Literary Award), and Angels for the Burning. His novel is Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire(Coffee House Press, 2008). His writings explore the themes of race, identity and history. His blog is blog.davidmura.com.

***

 
 

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