Ta-Nehisi Coates | Sunday 20 September 2015 09.59 BST
The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are. I think of that summer that you may well remember when I loaded you and your cousin Christopher into the back seat of a rented car and pushed out to see what remained of Petersburg, Shirley Plantation, and the Wilderness. I was obsessed with the civil war because six hundred thousand people had died in it. And yet it had been glossed over in my education, and in popular culture, representations of the war and its reasons seemed obscured. And yet I know that in 1859 we were enslaved and in 1865 we were not, and what happened to us in those years struck me as having a certain amount of import. But whenever I visited any of the battlefields, I felt like I was greeted as if I were a nosy accountant conducting an audit and someone was trying to hide the books.
I don’t know if you remember how the film we saw at the Petersburg battlefield ended as though the fall of the Confederacy were the onset of a tragedy, not jubilee. I doubt you remember the man on our tour dressed in the grey wool of the Confederacy, or how every visitor seemed most interested in flanking manoeuvres, hardtack, smooth-bore rifles, grapeshot, but virtually no one was interested in what all of this engineering, invention and design had been marshalled to achieve. You were only 10 years old. But even then I knew that must trouble you, and this meant taking you into rooms where people would insult your intelligence, where thieves would try to enlist you in your own robbery and disguise their burning and looting as Christian charity. But robbery is what this is, what it always was.
At the onset of the civil war, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies – cotton – was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi river valley and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. The first shot of the civil war was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret. But we can do better and find the bandit confessing his crime. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” declared Mississippi as it left the union, “the greatest material interest in the world.”
But American reunion was built on a comfortable narrative that made enslavement into benevolence, white knights of body snatchers, and the mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honour and élan. 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. 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 ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm” – a mantra for the Dreamers if ever there 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 labour – 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 the 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. And these fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.
It had to be blood. It had to be nails driven through a tongue and ears pruned away. It had to be the thrashing of a kitchen maid for the crime of churning the butter at a leisurely clip. It could only be the employment of carriage whips,tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights or whatever might be handy to break the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation. And the bodies were an aspiration, lucrative as Indian land, a veranda, a beautiful wife, or a summer house in the mountains. For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break bodies was the mark of civilisation. “The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is – the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.
You and I, my son, are that “below”. That was true in 1776. It is true today. There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism. But because they believe themselves to be white, they would rather countenance a man choked to death on film under their laws. And they would rather subscribe to the myth of Trayvon Martin, slight teenager, hands full of candy and soft drinks, transforming into a murderous juggernaut. And they would rather see Prince Jones followed through three jurisdictions and shot down for acting like a human.
It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country. It breaks too much of what we would like to think about ourselves, our lives, the world we move through and the people who surround us. The struggle to understand is our only advantage over this madness. By the time I visited those battlefields, I knew that they had been retrofitted as the staging ground for a great deception, and this was my only security, because they could no longer insult me by lying to me. I knew – and the most important thing I knew was that, somewhere deep with them, they knew too. The struggle is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of the world under your control.
I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe themselves white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real – when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities – they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees that is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.
I am speaking to you as I always have – as the sober and serious man I have always wanted you to be, who does not apologise for human feelings, who does not make excuses for his height, his long arms, his beautiful smile. You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people feel comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.
This is an edited extract from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, published by Text Publishing (£10.99). Click here to order a copy for £8.79