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The Terror of Kindness: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Overriding Our Cultural Conditioning and Living Beyond Fear

The Terror of Kindness: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Overriding Our Cultural Conditioning and Living Beyond Fear

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” James Baldwin said to Margaret Mead in their forgotten, acutely timely conversation about race, forgiveness, and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility. And yet when trauma, injustice, and cultural conditioning smear our vision with blood and tears, we begin to lose sight of this essential, life-affirming truth.

That’s what Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Baldwin-plus of our time, addresses in a beautiful passage from the altogether stirring Between the World and Me (public library).

Ta-Nehisi Coates (Photograph: Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times)

Coates reflects on the transformative experience of his first visit to Paris — a perspective-reorienting pilgrimage he made from West Baltimore, by way of Harlem, as soon as he received his first adult passport:

It occurred to me that I really was in someone else’s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America I was part of an equation — even if it wasn’t a part I relished. I was the one the police stopped on Twenty-third Street in the middle of a workday. I was the one driven to The Mecca. I was not just a father but the father of a black boy. I was not just a spouse but the husband of a black woman, a freighted symbol of black love. But sitting in that garden, for the first time I was an alien, I was a sailor — landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before — that I had never felt myself so far outside of someone else’s dream.

Loneliness — particularly the loneliness familiar to those of us who are immigrants or alien in any other way, the kind that comes from being in a culture but not of it — is a paradoxical emotion, stretched between longing and fear: we long for inclusion, acceptance, and equal belonging, but fear we’d be hurt, rejected, or violated in the vulnerable-making act of making our longing manifest. The fear takes over — especially if it carries the momentum of previous violations, be they personal or inherited — and erects a protective wall that only further separates us from the very thing we long for.

With an eye to that divisive fear, Coates addresses his young son:

We came back to Paris that summer, because your mother loved the city and because I loved the language, but above all because of you.

I wanted you to have your own life, apart from fear — even apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next. I think of your grandmother calling me and noting how you were growing tall and would one day try to “test me.” And I said to her that I would regard that day, should it come, as the total failure of fatherhood because if all I had over you were my hands, then I really had nothing at all. But, forgive me, son, I knew what she meant and when you were younger I thought the same. And I am now ashamed of the thought, ashamed of my fear, of the generational chains I tried to clasp onto your wrists. We are entering our last years together, and I wish I had been softer with you. Your mother had to teach me how to love you — how to kiss you and tell you I love you every night. Even now it does not feel a wholly natural act so much as it feels like ritual. And that is because I am wounded. That is because I am tied to old ways, which I learned in a hard house. It was a loving house even as it was besieged by its country, but it was hard. Even in Paris, I could not shake the old ways, the instinct to watch my back at every pass, and always be ready to go.

A few weeks into our stay, I made a friend who wanted to improve his English as much as I wanted to improve my French. We met one day out in the crowd in front of Notre Dame. We walked to the Latin Quarter. We walked to a wine shop. Outside the wine shop there was seating. We sat and drank a bottle of red. We were served heaping piles of meats, bread, and cheese. Was this dinner? Did people do this? I had not even known how to imagine it. And more, was this all some elaborate ritual to get an angle on me? My friend paid. I thanked him. But when we left I made sure he walked out first. He wanted to show me one of those old buildings that seem to be around every corner in that city. And the entire time he was leading me, I was sure he was going to make a quick turn into an alley, where some dudes would be waiting to strip me of … what, exactly? But my new friend simply showed me the building, shook my hand, gave a fine bonne soirée, and walked off into the wide open night. And watching him walk away, I felt that I had missed part of the experience because of my eyes, because my eyes were made in Baltimore, because my eyes were blindfolded by fear. What I wanted was to put as much distance between you and that blinding fear as possible.


Complement this particular fragment of the thoroughly terrific Between the World and Me with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor on how kindness became our forbidden pleasure and Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves.

HT Tara Brach

Published September 7, 2016




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