For a white man, reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is like someone elegantly, effortlessly setting fire to your clothes. But instead of screaming and howling you watch with fascination as the flames begin to melt your skin and eat into your tendons. It’s killing you, but it’s stunningly beautiful. You’re even relieved for it. It’s consuming a poison inside of you that you didn’t know was eating you alive from the inside. And there’s nothing you can say or do about it. Somewhere–where the mind links to the heart without apology–you’ve been waiting for this for a long time. You know it’s always been there, always a part of the world you were thrown into and benefitted from. But you didn’t know how to rid yourself of it, and no one you’d ever encountered, in person, in film, in literature, in music, could be the midwife that delivered you of it.
Coates knows. Whether that is his purpose or not, he knows how to light the fire that might–just might–burn it out of you.
He doesn’t hate you. It’s not even impossible that he’d be friends with you if he knew you. But he’s taking you apart. He’s writing about black Americans about the black experience, but you’re his real target, and you suspect that he would agree. He’s writing to his son, but his son will never understand how important he is for you, for your father, your brother, your friends, your so own son. For your country. His son might never understand how necessary it is that every now and then a prophet gets on the wall of your enclosed and opulent city built on the backs of the ancestors of people you brush shoulders with on the street and who still live in their seemingly permanent shadows. What the prophet delivers isn’t a soliloquy of hope or progress. It’s a rational, unapologetic discursus aimed at the heart of the oldest and most entrenched power in the Americas. He speaks directly to you; not to people of color, not to all people universally, but to you. This message is for you. You are the one who needs to hear it, not because you have liberal guilt that needs assuaging, and not because this is a chance to be allied to the Right Cause and be on the Right Side of History. You need to hear it because that ancient power still lives within your body and only your body. You are its ground zero, its incubator, its host. If it doesn’t die inside you, well, it just doesn’t die. Period.
He speaks your language. He is inarguably gifted; his essays on a purely aesthetic level are works of art. But you wouldn’t listen to him any other way. Sad. Embarrassing even. But true. More importantly, you simply wouldn’t hear him, and not necessarily by choice; your ears literally are not attuned to words coming out of the mouth of nearly anyone with the color of his skin who doesn’t sound a lot like you. You wouldn’t have helped elect a president with the color of his skin if he hadn’t sounded a lot like you.
In so many ways he is not like you, and that’s important, but he speaks your language and this is critical: this fact alone means that he is speaking to you and not anyone else. It’s not fair; in one sense this is yet another violent appropriation of a black body for white ends. But ask yourself, 500 years and on into the entrenchment of this ancient power in the Americas if this was really going to happen any other way, if yet another white body–not on the wall, but a co-citizen in the opulent city–was going to be able to set you on fire in a way that actually made you quiet for once, that burned the path to the poison in your body that you couldn’t see before. That didn’t feel like a loving friend or family member telling you it’s going to be okay.
Because Coates himself doesn’t know it’s going to be okay. In fact, the power of his words partly come from a deep-seated though non-passive resignation about how deeply embedded the ancient power is within you and the likelihood it can actually be burnt away. This is why he is not another Martin Luther King, Jr., or Barack Obama, universalizing figures, prophets in their own way, who gathered people of all colors together (in a desperate and fragile oneness and unity). Coates seems to be more in the tradition of Malcolm X and James Baldwin, weary truth-tellers and poets of unremitting suffering, with no patience to hold your hand and agree with you that love will win in the end. Because it might not. It hasn’t so far.
Also, there’s a twist–he’s an atheist who doesn’t have to believe that you and he share the same God, one who condemns one people to build the cities of the other people. He doesn’t have to appeal to a common Christian heritage in order to gently turn your head to shared beliefs.
Godless prophet, your prophet, white prophet, standing on your wall, speaking your language better than you can, calmly composing truths about the way things really are in their terrible, crushing, ancient simplicity. He might not want that job, but it’s too late, he’s already there, another essay, another book, another radio debate, keeping the fire alive, not letting it die until burns through your skull and into your brain, and maybe then. Probably not. But maybe.