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Tuesday 21 May 2019

Writing race

Dear white America…

  • At some point, every black child is given ‘the talk’ by their parents on how to survive racism
  • For writers, this has been in the form of impassioned letters, simultaneously personal and political
  • Reading those letters spanning 200 years, it is depressingly clear that too little has changed in the plight and status of black people

By Colin Grant

A line from a rap song by Fugees on their second album, The Score, contains a lesson that has been seared into the souls of generations of young black men and women in the US: “Just walkin’ the streets, death can take you away.”

The perils that threaten the despised black body stretch back to slavery, but they are still woven into the narratives of African Americans today. When Trayvon Martin, an unarmed youth was shot and killed in 2012, Barack Obama, then president, understood, like all black parents, that he had “skin in the game”: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Parental advice on how to come of age and stay alive as a black American has become a sadly recurring trope. Acknowledging the threat contained within the dire statistics (over a quarter of the 1,165 people killed by police in 2018 in the USA were black, despite being only 12.6 per cent of the population), African-American parents recognise that the time will always come when they must give their children “the talk” on the dangers of living in America as a black person.

The talk shatters the illusion that black youths will share their white peers’ expectations of fairness as they walk though life. Often it is couched as an apology by black parents for bringing their children into a world where, despite their best efforts, their children will be largely unprotected.

A protester raises a bloodied finger at a police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina, 2016

How, then, to repair the breach, and pass on the lessons of survival from what the American writer John Edgar Wideman calls the “miracle and disgrace of history”? A number of writers, including the American author Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Canadian novelist David Chariandy, have recently composed letters to sons and daughters. Coates wrote to his teenage son, 15-year-old Samori, in Between the World and Me (2015), and Chariandy now does the same to his unnamed 13-year-old daughter in I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (2019). These are intimate in the detail but public in their design to illuminate the great calamity perpetrated on the souls of black folk.


The publication of such personal epistles from writers of the African diaspora has a long history, dating back more than 200 years. Ignatius Sancho, born aboard a slave ship and later a protégé of the Duke of Montagu in London, was a great African man of letters. On 11 October 1772, Sancho took it upon himself, almost as a surrogate father, to counsel Julius Soubise, a former slave who in the 18th Century had become a foppish darling of British high society: “Happy, happy lad! What a misfortune is thine! – Look round upon the miserable fate of almost all of our unfortunate color – superadded to ignorance – see slavery, and the contempt of those very wretches who roll in affluence from our labours…. You, Soubise, tread as cautiously as the strictest rectitude can guide ye… but armed with truth, honesty and conscious integrity, you will be sure of the plaudit and countenance of the good.”

By 1962, 100 years on from emancipation, James Baldwin was not sure that humility or magnanimity was the answer. His essay “A  Letter to My Nephew” opens with a warning to his 15-year-old nephew, urging him not to pay attention to what white people think of him. That was the mistake of Baldwin’s father, such that “he was defeated long before he died”, he writes.

I AM A MAN. This civil rights march through Memphis, Tennessee took place only a few days before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the city

Baldwin’s tone is both despairing and defiant. Published with an accompanying “Letter from a Region in My Mind”, the essay was a searing indictment of America and a prediction of the terrible price that would be paid for the continued denial of black civil rights, spelled out in the book’s title, The Fire Next Time.

An unforgiving Baldwin put his white compatriots on note that their souls were damned, and that time was running out to atone for the violent subjugation of black people. His countrymen had destroyed “hundreds of thousands of [black] lives and do not know it and do not want to know it [but] it is the innocence which constitutes the crime”. Soon there would be no more water to put out the fires that would surely rage through American cities.

The cadences of the African-American preacher are reflected in the lyricism of Baldwin’s writing. But though sounding as if delivered from the pulpit to the pew, the letter to his nephew was not a sermon; it was more a case of testifying with an unflinching regard for the truth.

Just over five decades later, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s perspective on the devil that lurks in the heart of the white man matches Baldwin’s bleak assessment: “Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining [creating black ghettoes]). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white,” Coates asserts. “Without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.”

A lynching in 1950s America. In this image, some of the perpetrators are teenagers

Early on in Between the World and Me, he recounts his paralysing dread on reading the news that an amiable college friend has been killed by a policeman, allegedly in self-defence. The dread gives way to rage and the sober reminder to himself and his son that black people are never in the clear. His friend’s death – “haloed by all that was possible, all that was plundered” – is evidence of the constant threat faced by young black men.

Coates’s conclusion to his son is chilling in its simplicity and clarity: “All you need to understand is that the [police] 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.”

A life of watchfulness, of living on amber alert, can be wearing. The deficits are many but the letters by Baldwin and Coates both signal at least one advantage: a unique way of seeing through writing. Each generation seeks to protect those who follow. On becoming a father, Coates better appreciates his father’s defence to his wife on taking a belt to his son: “Either I can beat him or the police.”

The burden of responsibility for bequeathing a life of suffering to your children lies heavily on the soul. Throughout my childhood, I witnessed its effect while growing up as a black British boy in Luton. When overwhelmed by the magnitude of what she had experienced and felt the need to pass on, my mother would carefully, in her cursive handwriting, compose a letter to her children and slip it in between the pages of the Bible, to be discovered months, sometimes years later. Those dire warnings ranged from “The devil is a bad man” to “Bad men will come to harm you. Some of them will be armed. But if they show it [the weapon], they’re not going to use it; it’s the man who don’t show it you have to fear.” Writing them down, I suspect, was an act of expiation.

My father was not so given to writing but he also had a repertoire of fiery mantras that have never left me: “You are being watched. The Englishman is just watching and waiting for you to fall. Make him wait!”

In Britain, the 1960s were the decade of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and of racist graffiti on London walls

Baldwin has schooled a number of writers, Chariandy among them. The son of Trinidadian immigrants to Canada in 1963, Chariandy considers his life something of a minor miracle. Growing up with immigrant kids whom society had failed, he realised that attending university had been a bridge to his success; he’d “made it”. But in his letter, I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, Chariandy’s calm and reflective writer’s voice is punctured when his son, in the school playground, is called a “nigger”.

Chariandy confesses that he had been lulled into forgetting that “racial identity is rarely a matter of personal choice … is always, in origin, a falsehood and violence”. He recognises how stultifying prejudice can be, how it eclipses joy from life: “The cost of being named is, potentially, to forget everything else.”

His son’s abuse stirs a long-buried childhood memory of his own response to racist abuse, the shameful feeling that “there was something unpleasant about me” – a self-loathing that recalls Baldwin’s admonition: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”

At times, the writing of Baldwin, Coates and Chariandy appears not so much a dialogue across decades as a continuation of an epic monologue – like couples who know each other so well that they complete each other’s sentences. In 1962, Baldwin asserted that, “the white man’s unadmitted – and apparently, to him, unspeakable – private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro”.

Fifty-seven years later, that sentiment is echoed in Chariandy’s recollections of how a working-class black boy like him, growing up in a white middle-class Canadian suburb, “comes to embody what is feared about a changing city and nations”. That fear was transmitted back to him. “A good chunk of my energy and attention as a child,” writes Chariandy, “was devoted to monitoring the physical presence around me, reading smiles for potentially wicked intentions.”

Though, alongside Baldwin’s and Coates’s articulations of white America’s existential threat to black youth, Chariandy’s recollections of being spat at and tripped up by school bullies can seem less dramatic, they are nonetheless quietly unforgettable.

The letters of Baldwin, Coates and Chariandy are also notes to their youthful selves, acts of penance and forgiveness. Bringing adult reflections to bear on incidents and feelings that may have proved incomprehensible at the time, each seems to illuminate the transformative possibilities of art.

Battle-hardened by the brutality of America, Coates feels duty-bound not to soften the lesson for his son. “I am sorry that I cannot save you,” he writes while adding that he’s not that sorry, for “part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life”.

A police officer pulls his gun on four suspects, later arrested on charges related to prostitution, in Los Angeles

Letter writing yields empathy from all three. Baldwin proposes that it is white people who are trapped by history; and Chariandy encourages his daughter to consider the plight of those not so privileged, like the indigenous people of Canada, robbed of the land and sometimes their children. Finally, through his tender letter, Chariandy reaffirms “the strange sense of possibility” of literature to pass on “a legacy of sorrow and power and luminous specificity that honours the past and reveals to the listener a liveable future”.

My parents were transfixed by the violence of America being beamed into our home on television news programmes in the Sixties and Seventies. But, like many of their peers, they expressed a preference for the naked hostility of the American over the veiled bigotry of the Englishman who despised you with a smile. As children we were counselled to smile back – in Jamaican parlance “to play fool to catch wise”, so as to disabuse authority figures of the belief that we constituted a threat.

That wasn’t the equivalent of “the talk” or the letter for us, but it was the closest thing we would get. And it marked Chariandy’s “sorrowful” moment when we began to see ourselves not just as we were, but the hostile gaze through which we were seen.

All images by Getty

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Further reading

Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash – letters to his sons to help them navigate a world riven with anti-Muslim feeling.

Letter to my Daughter by Maya Angelou – a guidebook dedicated to the daughter she might have had. “I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters.”

Letters Between a Father and Son by V.S.Naipaul and Seepersad Naipaul – tender letters between two fledgling writers focused on the vocation of writing.

Dear Lupin by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer – a series of humorous letters between a forbearing father and his insufferable son.

For James Baldwin’s original letter, read the online version on Progressive here.


Colin Grant is a historian and author of books including ‘Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey’ and the memoir ‘Bageye at the Wheel’, which was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley Prize in 2013.