I remember my brother first getting his driver’s license and I remember my dad sitting with him to have “the talk” on how to stay safe when driving. This talk had nothing to do with wearing a seat belt or driving the speed limit or looking in the blindspots when changing lanes. This was a talk about what to do when stopped by police. The talk did not present itself in an “IF” tone but in a “WHEN” tone. “Now son, when you get stopped by police, be sure to keep your voice calm. Keep your hands in sight at the wheel. Answer his questions. Be respectful. No sudden moves. Follow orders….” My brother listened intently and then night after night, after hanging with friends or taking a girl out, it was this repeated scenario, “Dad! they stopped me again…Dad they stopped me again.” And my dad would go over everything with my brother, drilling him to make sure he followed the “secret code of being Black in America.” It was so frustrating. It was scary for me.
It was scary for me, because seeing this happen over and over, and knowing how my brother since he was young has always had a reputation of being really kind, always respectful of authority, I worried that no matter what he did or did not do, the cops would get him one day. He has been accused of carrying drugs, guns, and questioned on where he was going or where he is coming from. As he got older, he got used to it, like we all do and it was just part of living. We know it’s not right, but what other options are there, than to just accept it as it is and still try to do life.
When I see people, especially Christians mock those killed by police and they say, “Well if he’d just kept his hands in sight or on the wheel. If he’d just followed orders. If he’d just not resisted arrest.” I think to myself, “Well so much for ‘weep with those who weep.'” (Romans 12:15) I even saw one White Christian male mockingly say in a tweet, “Keeping my hands on the wheel always works for me. Don’t see why that’s so hard for some people.” I get sick to my stomach. My brother did all of those things and STILL has had his life even threatened by a policeman because he accidentally forgot to NOT talk with his hands when explaining himself. I have even been stopped by police when driving one night in a neighborhood he thought I did not belong in. I was accused of speeding and trying to get away from him when I was literally stopped at a stop light. He yelled at me and treated me so unkindly that I know if I had not sat there as still as I could be and remained silent, he would have found any excuse to harm me.
My narrative is why I LOVE Ta-Nehisi Coates. I love him because even though I am a Christian and I have tried to live a life of grace and forgiveness, he gives voice to me and my family’s deepest pain and frustration. This struggle is why the entire time my brother and I lived at home (until our 30s as we both finished up grad degrees, etc.) my dad would stay up at night until we walked through the door. Each time we have been stopped by police, he was there waiting for us to share our hurts with and to comfort us through the pain of injustice. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son is the embodiment of what my father said to us, as a pastor, in between the lines, minus the Bible verses (my dad always used scripture to try and help us make sense of it all). Coates has found a way to use words so beautifully, so truthfully, so wonderfully raw to express the pain of being Black. He does not waste time offering a plan for change. He simply says, “This is what it is for Black people, and this is how we feel about it. ” All the anger and rage he writes with and about, I have seen expressed and I have expressed in my home, amongst my friends, safely within the confines of my community. He has no God or Biblical protocol to answer to for managing the frustration of this societal evil. I live vicariously through his writing and find myself yelling at the book “Yes Ta-Nehisi! Yes! Exactly! OMG! YES!!!” I love that he does not offer hope. I love that he does not tell us to forgive and love for sometimes those cloud society from seeing the absolute foolishness of it all. We should not be honoring those who through supernatural strength are “forgiving”, silent and “peaceful” more than we express outrage that there is still oppression going on! Why are people so hungry for the wounded to have hope, grace and forgiveness? Why can’t oppressed people, who have been so for hundreds of years, just be tired, angry and sick of it all, ONLY!? Instead of people being outraged that a group of people are literally hunted throughout their daily life by a government sanctioned organization, people get outraged when we get outraged because it keeps happening to us! I want to say it again for the people in the back…People literally get upset with us for being upset that we keep being hunted, killed and/or treated unjustly!
My brother continues to survive being hunted by police. It’s so common now, that if he is driving and sees a police car, he will think to himself, “He’s probably gonna stop me.” Most times he is right. On one night not too long ago, after leaving his medical practice he pulled through the light and saw a police car. He thought to himself, “He’s gonna stop me. ” and that is what happened . My brother pulled over. The policeman accused him of having drugs and guns in the car. My brother proceeds to tell him, “Sir, I am a doctor and an assistant pastor. The only thing in the back seat is my brief case and my kids’ car seats. ” The police man was not impressed nor did he change his rudeness to my brother, but he had to let him go. My brother cannot change the deep brown color of his skin or the beautiful full lips, high cheekbones, fierce eyes and thick eyebrows that make most cops say, “Big scary looking Black man. ” He bears the resemblance of my grandfather and my great father and uncles and ancestors brought from Africa and that powerful fierceness oozes from him.
The sad part about this is his son and my sons share these same features so when they hit double digits in age, we had the talk with them. Why? Because Tamir Rice was just 12 and his death cut us deeply, realizing that our sons could be just be outside playing with their toy guns or something that looks like a gun and we’d be childless. Each death reminds us of ourselves or times where it could be us. When my oldest son wanted to go for our family walk with his Nerf gun and my husband had to explain to him why he could not, the look of sadness on his face ripped my heart. Why can’t he just be free to walk with his Nerf gun?! Why can’t I drive in whatever neighborhood I want to? Why can’t my brother leave his job and just drive home!? And yet, we are good Christians, walking in the path of Martin Luther King, seeking to carry on his spirit of peace and none violence…but we are human. Ta-Nehisi through his writing welcomes us into a world where we are free to be and feel human and where others can learn what OUR humanity feels like.
I stay on my knees for my brother and Ta-Nehisi Coates gives voice to my fears and frustrations without cloaking it under the veil of God’s grace and forgiveness. I love the Lord with every part of me and my brother, who is now the senior pastor, is a man of deep prayer and devotion, but we are human. For us the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates are water to our weary HUMAN souls. It’s liberating. It’s healing. I feel lumps in my throat and tears well up as I read each word of BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME because his story is my brother’s story and my story too and just about every Black person in America who is not in a state of denial. It just feels so good for someone to finally tell this story so all the world can hear it loudly, unmistakably and without any dilution of the madness of it all.