“Lions in the Way”: Warning to My Future Son About Race in America

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book: “Born on a Fence”. Stay tuned for further details!

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.
— James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook”, The Fire Next Time

Dear Arthur,

I know, I know how strange this must read to you. I know it is an odd thing to write to you before you are born, and stranger still to declare predictions of what your life will be like once you are — and I intend both by this letter to you, my someday-son. Well, I cannot help the weirdness of it. I cannot stop this letter from being painfully self-aware as it plays off the page, dancing, uncomfortably young, in its own skin. I’ve come to view this peculiar fatherly act — this queer letter, its awkward precognitive preoccupation — as a necessary oddity. I need to write you this strange, preemptory correspondence — if only for my own absolution to you! If only so you know, beyond a shadow of any doubt, that your mother and I love you and will love you, and that your life is meant to be a gift, not a curse. That we have done nothing malicious by planning your birth in a country that would curse you for the color of your grandfather’s skin, Arthur, is a fact I need my son to understand: you have a right to be, and to pursue your happiness.

Your Namesake, My Father

“Arthur” — such a regal name you’ll bear! It was my own father’s name, your name, a name your grandmother loved my whole life, and a name you own mother knows I intend to pass onto you. It is something of a tradition: the men in our family were traditionally named after kings. Your great-grandfather was William Napoleon Jones, your grandfather was Arthur Charles Jones, and he gave me the middle name ‘David’; however, the men in our family have not died kings’ deaths. Both your grandfather and great-grandfather died diseases related to the color of their skin, and both before they could see their grandsons. Both men died in relative poverty, bodies and spirits broken by a world that — despite your grandfather’s brilliance — neither man managed to understand. Even before you are conceived, I am nervous, wracking my brain and twisting my soul in uncomfortable impatience for your birth.

I have put an undue and unjust amount of weight on your mother’s shoulders in expediting your birth into this world — and purely out of my own selfishness to know you and be in your life. I aspire to be your father still, and not a ghost, when you turn thirty and thirty-five. I hope that you will be born soon enough so that my grandchildren might know their grandfather, and that I will not leave widows to outlast me, weighed down with that stinging sadness of mourning, by long decades. I also hope that, unlike your namesake, the weight of your country’s attitudes does not weigh on you as it weighed on your progenitors, and you escape the burden of our kin. My faith is that the love your mother and I endow your life with allows your name a reprieve from the patterns that precede it, that you and your siblings will escape the prophesies of that Latin poet Marquez: “las estirpes condenadas a cien años de soledad no tenían una segunda oportunidad sobre la tierra.[1]” I name you after my own father not with aims that you will imitate him — although I will count myself blessed if you’re given his charm and his humor. I name you “Arthur” — I name you for kings — for the same reason my own father was named that way, and his father was named similarly. As your father, I will not accept that my country’s expectations for you will be as limited as they were for your ancestors. I will not accept that our family — my family — will have their spirit broken each generation until we are none. You will carry a king’s name and inherit a king’s destiny — for that belief is, given nothing, the only way our family might survive. Otherwise, the Destroyers — boys who don pride and charge into our nation’s capital with bright irreverence — will surely ruin your spirit before your body. I name you as an act of rebellion against the country of your birth, and the closed fate it might dictate for you.

I hope (which, strictly speaking, is not a prediction) that this last sentiment puzzles you. I hope it grates upon your mind a spell. With luck, this last fact sits so uneven with the floor of your reality that it takes you aback. Maybe leave for a bit: put down the letter, come back after a long run and a cold meal and try to peel back the semantics another time. I hope that my dismal prediction strikes you in a way that forces you to confront me: “but Dad,” I can almost hear you in my voice (which, by all accounts, was my father’s voice, once), “Black people are not limited in this country,” you will say, “and we’re not Black”.

Arthur, my dream I dream for you, my own flesh and blood, is that you will never be thought of nor treated as Black — not by others, and not by yourself.

I know, I know ‘ole chum: this will all seem so strange to you. Allow me to explain:

I am not saying I hope, or predict, that you will be born fair-skinned and light-haired. The likelihood of this is high, yes. Your mother is both these things, and I, myself, am no shade darker than a root of ginger, as light as my grandfather was when he was run out of Georgia for kissing women like your mother. Your light complex is not certain, however: the physical traits this country has come to recognize as ‘Black’ sometimes skip a generation, our pidgin genetics shifting at random along the branches of our family tree. It is entirely possible that you will hold this letter with hands darker than mine, hair larger and louder than mine, with a face that looks more like your grandfather’s than my own. Either way, dark or light, I will be overjoyed at your countenance. I would be overjoyed seeing the strength of my father’s features again in my son; I am not saying I wish for you to be a lighter shade of grey. I would hope you inherit my complexion and look as my son: I am not wishing you to be an alabaster changeling. Nor would your mother — who loves me, in part, for that beautiful darkness my own father gifted me — be glad to see you deprived of your Mendelian birthright. No: what I am saying is that I wish, emphatically, that you are so separated from Blackness — not dark-skinnedness, not nappy-hairedness, and not brown-eyedness — but the quality of being recognized as Black as opposed to White — that it would seem universally inappropriate for you to be ascribed that identity.

Oh, how must I sound so awful to you, my son! Perhaps you will look on this letter and grow to hate me — you would not be the first. I have heard firsthand that your namesake, my own father, was an ‘Uncle Tom’, a traitor to his race, for marrying a White woman, and moving his half-bred mulatto offspring to a White city. Likewise, I have been confronted by my more liberal White friends, when uttering this hope for you; they have told me to ‘chin up’, to take pride in my Black beauty, to remember the lessons of sweet King Martin cast out any incubus weighing on my heart about the universal praise of all racial membership. They do not understand, though, the high cost this Black beauty has had to pay for its membership. My White friends were not there in Oakland when it was on fire, set ablaze for its population’s loveliness; they were not there when police officers murdered children for their beauty in the street in the ‘90’s and the ‘00’s. And it is altogether unclear what your cousins hated more about your grandfather: the fact that he denigrated Black beauty by spreading it beyond the solidarity of his own race, or that his children got to grow in a space where they were not immolated for their luster.

Perhaps you will see me through our cousins’ eyes when you grow older, and read this letter in shame and disgust that I might want something different for you than what my father had — that I am a traitor like him, abandoning the struggle of my race. I beg of you first though, my son, to try and understand the calculus this Judas has made in wishing such a life for you: one hundred and fifty-four years after the passage of the 13th Amendment, which recognized (never granted) the freedom of our enslaved ancestors, our condition is still not so far removed.

The world has progressed — interracial marriage is legal, and (on the east and west coasts of our 2,800-mile-wide country) largely unopposed — and the rule of the Old Jim Crow has been replaced. We have had a President and Vice-Presidents darker than me, and we can even count some billionaires with Black skin. Still, it bears remembering that Pandora’s last beast is a slippery, temperamental creature. It is very easy for the long arc of justice towards progress to wobble and bend backwards — or even snap in half. I helped elect the first Black President of this country — but North Carolina’s 1st Congressional district had a 111-year gap between the election of the first free Negro and a modern, Black congressmen. It is entirely possible that the Black Vice President we have today will be the last one, and that our gains towards political equity will be forever erased. This is clearly the case, some places in the United States.

In my life to date schools are still, largely, segregated along divisions of race[2]. And your grandfather was among the first Black children integrated in his state! No: racial progress has not been, will not be linear — it can turn backward. Many of my peers already know it has. 8/10ths of Black people believe that the legacy of slavery affects our position in society today, and that our country has not gone far enough to ensure Blacks have equal rights to Whites. We are still excluded, in proportion, from the highest-paying jobs (a fact that 3/4ths of us believe), receive the harshest treatment in the criminal justice system (9/10ths; though what bureaucracy has the audacity to reduce humanity to a ‘system’ cannot by any peoples be recognized as ‘justice’), and have less access to higher-level education (3/4ths — I find it fitting, given our history, to frame the democracy of our dispositions in these horrid fractions). Half of us believe that the racial situation in America will never improve — less than ten-out-of-a-hundred of my White neighbors believe that to be true.

We may take pride in our Blackness — I know I do, and I know the urge to reflexively castigate someone who will speak to our races’ dour prospects — but this pride is but a survival mechanism. It is a spell we cast upon ourselves so that we do not fall into such a broken state, fall off such a steep chasm into the Gehenna of the mind, that you become, like your grandfather and great-grandfather, unable to climb out. But our folk magic — a necessary and pragmatic art of witchcraft — cannot hide that the numbers above reflect what Black people believe about ourselves, about the reality of being called Black in America.

And that is not even to think of our White countrymen who would deny, with full force, that it is worse to be Black in America. “’How bitter you are!’”[3] We have heard this chastisement before. “You exaggerate.”[4] So we have been accused. Well, if our grim presage is sour, know that you come from a long line of bitter men, who all, conspicuously, are poorer than their White neighbors, are killed more often by the agents of their own tax dollars, die younger of varied diseases of the mind and body, and camp, without shelter, in the shadows of empty skyscrapers owned by sweet, sugar-souled White neighbors.

No, Arthur: do not trust the judgment of men who look away from the devastation of their fellow man. The evidence is there for those who care to look. There exists hundreds of hours of moving images to testify that Black lives do not matter to the discretion of metropolitan police departments, and decades of recorded silence to confirm Black lives do not matter to my childhood neighbors in the suburbs. Oscar Grant’s life did not matter in 2009 when he was executed at my childhood train station, where I went on my first date, where I always stepped off to find my way home. Rodney King’s life did not matter in 1992 when, before your father learned to read, images of Rodney beaten flashed before my eyes on the television screen. Your grandfather’s generation wrote volumes to testify towards our enforced poverty, our bodies wrung dry to water America’s prosperity: they have testified about the redlining and the school-to-prison pipeline, the cyclical structure of poverty and the disparity of the welfare state. These men who deny our black reality have taken the wrong lessons from the same books that sought to impress these realities onto the minds of our accusers: “Take no one’s word for anything, including mine-but trust your experience.”[5] When man becomes the measure of all things, then a stranger’s pain becomes an inch to your yardstick. Retain your perspective and retrain your belief, my someday-son, but know that reality is bedrock, and death not mere matter of perspective. Know that the world will not wash away when you close your eyes and, regardless whether they shine like your mother’s emeralds or glint in my fierce copper, your country has allotted worse fates if they belong to the face of a Black body rather than a White frame.

And, so, I have wished for a different world for you. I beg for something close to fantasy. I pray for a world where the mythology of race has ceased to exist. I pray for this letter to shock you, Arthur, so you have the luxury of a life of sanity.

The Black folk’s world has never been the sane share of this country. Part of the absurdity of the situation is a problem of reality — a problem of experience, of seeing and hearing — but another is an obstacle of language. This country has never had (and has intentionally repressed) the ability to intelligently converse on the topic of race. It is this deficit of language that — again, I hope — separates father and son now. I hope you find this letter mad (or at least written by a mad-man) because, in your reality, a Black man has fair treatment in the country of your birth. I imagine that, to you, this will be because what it means ‘to be Black’ will be fundamentally different from what it has come to mean to me.

Understand, Arthur, that no-one is born ‘black’, and not a soul on Earth has ever been black-skinned. I know this by virtue of having sight; I have been to Africa, and the people of that continent are beautiful in their dusky tones, but they are not ‘black’. I have met Jamaicans so dark their hues are purple — still, they are not the color black. And if man were to find a specimen amongst us who are indeed truly ‘black’ — that in the ghettos of Oakland and the Bronx, or in the slums of Lagos or Cape Town (not to mention Rio, or Hyderabad), we were to find such a fine, obsidian, wrought-iron specimen whose sheen of skin alone would transcend Hellen of Troy’s glamour — it would still preclude the ability for any impartial observer to say our whole race is black in association with them. No: ‘black’ people are so-called in America to separate them from the concept of ‘whiteness’. We have been labeled as such because the dark skin of our ancestors was transfigured into a mark of moral impoverishment, of diminished and mundane value, and so-called ‘White’ people saw themselves as an alien, superior predator.

This, also, is insanity to think: you know your mother. You know her family, your aunts and uncles and cousins and kin. Not a suspect among them is guilty of being ‘white’. Your mother’s kin are gorgeous shades of peach, eyes the color of fine stones and sacred fires — there does not exist a real, physically ‘white’ man outside of albinism (which, ironically, touches every ‘race’ on the globe in equal measure). Further still the plot thickens: your mother’s kin aren’t wealthy. If ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ is purely a material condition, then they have been robbed or wrongly entitled. She grew up in the same ghettos of indignation your grandfather hailed from. They have escaped the means to be wealthy in America by being honest folk: they never enslaved free people nor tortured men for profit. They are from the same rotten urbanity and faced the same fears your grandfather’s cousin did when he was knifed to death in Compton. If they take share in ‘whiteness’ it is from the shared psychosis of a nation that equates their skin with the power and the sins of cotton bolls.

And oh: this account ‘whiteness’ is truly a psychosis! An impermanent insanity! It is a lapel-pin of power so recently adorned. One hundred years ago, when your Mother’s family came to this country, they were not ‘white’, neither. They belonged to one of the “dead” races of men[6], invented to gauge the moral difference between these brass-colored immigrants and your mahogany-skinned grandfather. There is not, nor ever has been, a ‘white’ race: and if this one in my generation continues to coalesce — to rope in Irishmen and Poles and Spaniards into the great con of color tribalism — it is a choice born of egoism and historical illiteracy. They became White, were brought into the social-club of ‘whiteness’, when it became clear that there was no way the club officers could deny them the privilege of membership without dispelling the charade of color requirement. Just as my ancestors were not born — ‘from the hour of their birth, marked out for subjugation’[7] — as slaves. We were made by man as slaves, not by the hand of Nature. There is no born ‘black’ folk and no born ‘white’ folk: we have been shaped this way. And this is the route of why you might be confused by this letter: our language has been designed to lie to us.

Our American language is the babbles of insanity, and our American heritage — Black, White, Red, and Yellow — is an inheritance of absurdity. There are no ‘black’ men, no ‘white’ men, no ‘red’ or ‘yellow’ men in nature. Our language, then, works to separate father and son. I am forced to speak to you in a language of ‘race’ and ‘race-ism’. I am forced to try and impress upon you — a baby not yet born, who will someday soon be a man not yet old — what it means to be Black in my portion of our broken tongue. Because the cruelest among us have transgressed a horrible crime, and have, for some-400-plus-years, worked to make the madness of their dreams a physical reality. It is my hope for you that, for the first time in your life, now learn what I have known and been told my entire life: the physicality of race is real, my son, because the billy-clubs and guns and ‘Single Home Zoning’ of those-who-think-themselves-White transcend the mundane fact of color to a moral categorization, and shrink the lifespans of their fellow countryman to maintain an illusion of moral logic. ‘Black’ is not real, being Black is a lethal reality. ‘Race’ is not a biological truth, but race is pathological fact. If I and your mother fail you, as my father and mother — and the Loving’s, and John Brown, and John Brunch, and countless poor Whites and Blacks who fell in love — failed you and to be Black in your America still means the same as it does in mine, do not fall into the same trap that keeps, as Coates would say, ‘the Dreamers in their Dream’[8]. Baldwin was right, Baldwin was wrong: do not trust your own experiences. Your world, your language conspires against you.

At the time of this letter is written, our country’s psychosis is on full-color display. All summer (a summer that, to many of your ‘innocent’ countrymen will be remembered as a summer of sourdough-baking and polite social distance, much as the summer of ’67 was remembered by Baby Boomers as a “Summer of Love” — a sour bread indeed!) the country was rocked by protests against the state-sanctioned murder of Blacks in America. It began with the live feed of the murder of an otherwise unremarkable man, a man like any other man, who I now know looks like your grandfather only because a White man choose to kill him for it. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department served as that rhetorical straw that snaps a camel’s back in ‘twain and all of America’s cities regurgitated their dusky meal onto the streets. The police responded to voices with violence (a tale as old as Greenwood, as old as Watts) and for one sudden, crystalizing moment of sanity, your country remembered the generations of Black folk cut down by Officers of the Law of Madness, and we rebelled against lunacy.

In our brief clarity your countrymen remembered the name of Breonna Taylor — herself, also, wholly normal flesh, neither wicked nor divine, slept like an angel the night police “officers” wantonly fired at her sleeping form in the darkness of a domicile they were not legally entering — and, in pure fury over Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s failure to muster an indictment for her slaying, two members of the Louisville Metro police gang were shot. Thugs and enforcers of the LMPD gang hastily arrested an exemplary young man named Larynzo Johnson, who (unlike the Louisville Metro gangsters) had no criminal record, and have accused him of “an extreme indifference to the value of human life”[9] and charged him, irony on full display, with “wanton endangerment”. Of Mr. Johnson, I will only say of him what the White House has instructed officials to say of the White domestic terrorist Kyle Rittenhouse, who drove across state lines to engage in political violence and murder against those protesting for racial equity:

there were ‘multiple gunmen’ involved, which would lend more credence to the self-defense claims

and

what I will say is that Johnson, just like everyone else in America, is innocent until proven guilty and deserves a fair trial based on all the facts, not just the ones that support a certain narrative. This is why we try the accused in the court of law, not the star chamber of public opinion.[10]

Of myself, hearing the attempted retribution against the murderous and rapine uniformed gang-bangers of the LMPD, a small, sick part of me shrugged. I know I wasn’t alone; that Black folk woke up that morning to the news and shrugged as we saw it splashed across our screens. I did not feel dismayed at the violence — whoever was responsible — against the police, because they were so often stoic to the violence they dealt (and endorsed) against my own father’s kin. That police unions first move whenever an unarmed Black person was killed was to iterate how the slain’s background was criminal, that their one drug offense from 1997 meant their current life was forfeit, that their illicit air was fouled by the stench of Black anarchy. We all remembered how these things went; we had protested police conduct all summer, all our life. Hence, I know, myself at least, when hearing about those poor (but still alive), innocent policemen viciously assaulted in the line of duty, could do no more than roll my eyes. “If they take ours,” I remember thinking so clearly, “we’ll take two of theirs” —

Argh! But you see, Arthur: there, right there lies the madness of our country, and the insanity of our tongue.

The language of your country, the position you will be placed in, is to ‘slough off’ your humanity in exchange for racial membership. It is not a membership that delivers tangible benefits outside of defensive pride, and promises to destroy you entirely: if Black, your body; if White, your soul.

The pull of insanity in our language is insidious, thorough, and with many converts. They will tell you things that indemnify your conscious and condemn your character. Faces — some fair, some dark — will swim out of the ether to feed off the anima of your mind. They will point to the overbearing number of great White luminaries to persuade you that History has perfectly decided the morality of racism through proven prosperity (they will not tell you that their stolen prosperity itself is criminal); they will absolve you of your hateful prejudices by telling you (if they try to make you White) that your father’s folk are savage people who failed some faux-Darwinian struggle for civilization, or that (if they try to make you Black) your mother’s kin are irredeemable enemies of mankind and we must separate to find solace for our ‘race’. All this poison will not be newer in your day than it was novel in mine: tribal division is the mechanism of racism. To be born into the racial caste system of America is to be born into the asylum. To be Black is to be put in an insane position: to accept a moral inferiority that does not physically exist, to believe in a physical distinction that has no basis in biology, and to believe one is a color no man has ever been capable of being — and all I wish for you, Arthur, is for you to retain your sanity.

And if your parents have failed you, as is almost certain, and our country has not yet come to its senses by the time of your birth? What is the sane man’s position in the American asylum? What is the sane man’s move in a schizoid game, where the pawns are shades of earth and named not how the look at all?

To love,’ my some-day son, ‘to love with violent intensity.’

Perhaps this answer will feel deflationary. Perhaps a nation of eavesdroppers will read this letter and, collectively, roll their eyes. “We’ve heard this rhetoric before,” a cynic might critique, “and ‘love’ did not save Dr. King, ‘love’ did not spare Malcom, and ‘love’ has not solved the problem of the color line.” I must admit, I am not untouched by that cancerous malignancy of anger in my gut, and I am not uncritical of the term ‘forgiveness’ when pointed at those who, in the delusion of their own innocence, recoil at the prospect of pardon. White fragility intimidates me with its sensitivity; thus, a tinge of doubt colors my mind, here. Maybe I should take a lesson from my Mr. Coates and the lesson he sought to pass onto his own son, and gird your loins against the prospect of their failed awakening, and that you “do not pin your struggle on their conversion”. Perhaps I should consider that I am putting you at enormous risk with my immature ‘fatherly advice’ in instructing you to love the men that hate you, or allow for the exploitation of you, for the color of your skin.

This may all be true — I could be wrong, you should be prepared for the prospect of failure, it is a risk to love those whose reality relies on your subjugation — but the inherent danger of existence does not change the fact that certain dangerous waters, if they are to be survived, must be forded. Escaping the transcendental logic of racism will mean recognizing that the underlying concept of ‘race’, itself, is false. It is your mother’s and I belief that this can only be done first by recognizing — against engineered instinct, against that reactive Old Testament misconception of ‘Justice’, against the yearning for individuated tribal identities — the broken whole of our American peoples and denying, with force, the inherent difference between those bodies and those-who-think-themselves-White. America is inundated in the swamp of race and race-isms, and if we — and by that I mean ‘the relatively conscious Blacks and the relatively conscious Whites’ — are to save ourselves from muck and mire, it will only be by pulling each other to a higher ground.

I am now asking you to recognize this fact as the bedrock of reality: the lies men tell you only gain truth by the collective belief we invest in them. The lie of race is a manifestation of racism; made hard and physical through a history of its believers killing, maiming, and enslaving to make-real a lie at the center of their belief. It is in the act of hatred — the physical labor of hating and destroying, not the mere feeling — that our realities, Black and White, are torn apart painfully. It is through the dark designs of men who believe in racial purity that genocide is made reasonable, and that segregation holds positive meaning. To deny the lie of race, then — and, in so doing, end the pogrom of separation that is racism — one must deny it access to reality. The only way to deny race any reality is to leave no physical space for the separate realities of racism to hide, and to achieve that long-longed reunion of Blacks and Whites in one tangled mess of life and limbs and fortunes: integration.

Much blood has been spilt over this word, a word that has fallen into a kind of polite antiquity when I write to you today. Some of its quaintness is due to a naïve notion that what I call ‘integration’ was achieved in the 1960’s. “Dr. King gave his speeches, Ruby Bridges went to school, and miscegenation was deemed miscreation, so now Black and White are bosom buddies,” this line of thought seems to say. What these men fail to answer for is if, integration was achieved yesterday, why are the ghettos still Black and the suburbs still White? the prisons still Black and the guards still White? the homeless still Black and the landlords all White? These men will decry that the integration your mother and I seek is ‘equality of outcome’ and not ‘equality of opportunity’ — hogwash! If so, and these skeptics admit that they believe these disparate outcomes are presented to all in equal opportunity, then how convenient of them to think that it is always the dark sons of the ghetto who squander their opportunities, and never the lily-white silver-spoon sons of Silicone Valley and 5th Avenue. These integration-skeptics will believe it mere convenience that Black folk inherit our misfortunes honestly — they will believe anything that clears their own ledgers of red, any mythology that makes them innocent. But for all the blood the fight for integration has brought on, and all the red that has yet to be cleared in both debts and blood, know that the fate of your country and lost countrymen relies on its completion.

Ay, there’s the rub my someday-son: it is not for your benefit I bade you ‘to love’ and ‘to integrate’. You do not have to meld with your neighbor to survive the asylum of America; many Black men and Negros before them lived perfectly content lives succumbing to the insane, never shuddering at the hypocrisy of separatism or the nihilism of Afro-pessimistic policy. More to the point: nothing in the stars in the sky or the books of the earth dictate with mathematical certainty that America must survive, or that your fate is tied to hers. And although her madness threatens the very ground of the world — as sea levels rise, continental forest-fires rage, and hurricanes batter the shores — even America’s mad delusions of innocence will not mean extinction of mankind from the world. But she, our demented Lady Liberty, will not survive living her denialist fantasies much longer. Already the cracks in her truth begin to show: bread-lines form in Texas and the stock market rises on Wallstreet; sunny solar-powered California is choked in flames and Bible-Belt Florida is visited storms of God’s vengeance; and all around me our countrymen — full denial of their own mortality — ignore deadly pandemics whilst filling mass-graves[11]. It will only be so much longer our countrymen’s infantile charade can take place before those-who-think-themselves-White awaken to a day:

When the refrigerator naked and the cupboard is bare
People got to strip naked, stick ’em up in the air
Was it lies when they told you wasn’t nothing to fear?
Something don’t feel right out here![12]

And they come to realize that they have always been — 99% of America has always been — and will always be, Black like me. On that day they will cry and beg for forgiveness — they will reach out to their Black brothers for assistance, and find only the black air we suffocated in.

And that is what is most maddening, perhaps, is that you will need to love them not save yourself, Arthur, but to save them from themselves! That everything about Whiteness — the insistence on their own innocence, the erasure of their own history, the denial of their own bodies — has made them incapable of receiving love. They have constructed an identity and learned to associate themselves to the world in ratios of supremacy and inferiority; they have clung fast to the promise of supremacy beyond life and choking death as the virus of whiteness clings to their souls; and they have convinced themselves innocents of these dark carnalities by denying themselves the sensuality of their own bodies, choosing instead to express all their life’s truths through clinging to our limbs and disembodying us to conquer their own fears of mortality. That they cannot give themselves the love of care even when their own lungs are at stake — this is how White America will not survive without integration!

Those-who-think-themselves-White have always needed the people they make ‘Black’ to affirm their own identity, their own role in the universe. Without us — the beings that whiteness defines itself as the absence of — Those-who-think-themselves-White have no moral claim to the rapine, military adventurism that has reshaped the world to their own benefit. Without the Nigger, the White man is his own slave; without the illegal immigrant, the White man must answer for their own illegitimate occupation of brown and red bodies. But the world of the 21st century will not be the world of the 20th, or the 19th; the world has become, has revealed itself to be, morally flat. The mythology of whiteness is being overturned by a decolonized world hostile to it, and a wealth inequality that disproves its mythos. Without Black folk now to teach White America how to be — how to love themselves not as apex predators, but as the prodigal kin we know them to be — they will face the destruction of their makings and take their country with them. Integration — the removal of barriers to association, the mending of the American family as much as it the liberation of the ghetto — is necessary for the survival of America, if not the species, and for the survival of you mother’s way-ward kin-of-kin.

Remember always that those who think themselves White, and those who would call you Black, are your brothers — your lost, confused, history-less, younger brothers. Loving them will be hard (and, at times, not at all pleasant) but you will find the same beauty in them that resides in you. The absurdities of our tongue have been erected to wall off the possibility of this love. You must break that wall.

This feat is herculean in scope. It requires us to swallow a righteous anger and excrete sunshine. It requires us to move beyond a sense of ‘Justice’ (for how could restitution for 400 years ever be delivered? What bill could repay the centuries of slow genocide against a captive people — for the rapes, the castrations, the lynching’s, the humiliations? White people are lucky that Black folk want equality and not pay-back[13], because America could not foot that red bill) as we would understand it. Integration, and the material reparations needed to execute it, will not come close to Justice — but it may be just-enough to allow this country grace. The only way to do this — to accept without forgiveness, to embrace without justice, to laugh and not scream — is to love.

To be abundantly clear: I am not telling you to be naïve — although that is certainly what many eavesdroppers would hear — and that you must overlook the abuses visited on millions for generations. To do so would be to fall backwards into a different kind of insanity, and kind of cold, digital madness that seeks to erase reality, and deny the physicality of belief. There will be many naïve people who seek to equate your path with theirs; I know because I grew up with many of them in my pleasant Bay Area. They will tell you sweet things: that the problem of the 20th century is not the problem of the 21st century, that the abstraction of ‘meritocracy’ has rendered moot the force of people’s reality. These well-meaning, well-read, and well-fed people are just as dangerous and just as cruel as the sundown-town sheriff, who chased your great-grandfather from Georgia to California and America’s edge of the world. The difference between these men is that the former’s shotgun is larger. Naivete is the weapon of complicity, and willful ignorance is more damning than brain-washed innocence. Refusing to build tenements in your backyard does not mean those in tents will suddenly disappear (I know; I have lived in both), and it does not answer, but only silences, why so many in those tent cities are Black. No: never be naïve. If you are anything, ever, at all, I would want you to be a man: to face reality, and to love. You might find that these naïve ones require more love than those who so viciously protect their deluded innocence. Either way, the remedy is the same:

Love, Arthur. I cannot stress this enough: love until your body breaks and your soul seeps out.

You may be aware, Arthur, that I suspect our correspondence will be less than private, and I attach a fair bit of importance to the public aspect of this letter. There is a practice (although not particularly wide-spread) of elder Black men writing public letters to their next generation. James Baldwin — a man whose influence I owe, in part, to my own birth — wrote a very similar letter to his same-named nephew James, where he tried to prepare him for the challenges his nephew would face in pursuing integration in the 1960’s. How the loss of subservience of those battered into being called ‘nigger’, and more politely ‘negro’, would result in “the minds of most white Americans” the “loss of their identity”[14]. Likewise, Ta-Nehisi Coates penned an open letter to his son (while your own father was still enraged at the world, and could not imagine the kind of love needed to mend a broken nation) warning him of the dangerous nature of the American proclivity to dream and that this proclivity runs counter to the shape of the universe: “Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be”[15]. I’m not sure how another man would describe my letter to you, and I worry — an incessant, constant worry — that if this letter is read by others it will alter your perception of me.

If it falls flat with our countrymen, will you see your father as a buffoon, who thought he could change the world for you with a slip of paper? If observations turn out worthless — what appeals, to my mind, as the right path, but is judged, by the ‘wisdom of crowds’, as the wrong path — will you be picked on by children who are told they are Black, who are told they are White, and you will grow up a pariah to both tribes as I did (or worse — in some dark, all-too-possible version of the future — hunted for your parents’ union)? The reason I risk these fears and engage in this tradition is to make sure you know — before you are born, before you exist as a person so there is no doubt to the direction and sincerity of your father’s promises — that there is hope.

No matter the world you find yourself in on the other end of this letter — whether it be the one your elder, like elders before me, could foresee due to the transcended reality of our race, or escapes the possibility of my predictive power — there is possibility for you. There is a world that will make space for you, there is a world where you can simply exist. This was not always the case: what your mother and I are doing, and your grandparents did, was illegal less than a century ago — and there are forces in your country, my country, that would see those old strictures revive themselves. As their agents separate children from families and force hysterectomies on women in cages, their police officers choke us to death on mere offense at our breathing, these same men protest that their ‘White race’ will not be replaced by ‘Jews’ (who, oddly, my father always saw as the most polite shade of White), I beg you do not be dismayed. Let this letter be a contract for your becoming: you will be born into a world that has a place for you. Your mother and I — and parents of children, born and not yet born, all over this country — are working our hardest to make that space for you soon. Something I heard one of these other parents say struck me this way:

He sees a vision where all of the things that we chant — Black Lives Matter; Whose streets? Our streets — He sees a vision where those are totally uncontroversial things. They are, in fact, incontrovertible truths for him. These streets will be his streets. His Black life will matter.[16]

And I hope it sticks with you, years later, too. What your country owes to you, Arthur, will be your future.

Arthur, my someday-son — you will be named, were named, for kings. It is popular — ‘was’ popular, to you, where you sit now — to call young Black men ‘king’ in place of their name. Likewise, when my dad was a young man, his peers called each other ‘man’. This slang, like your namesake, was intentional design: Black men have often had to give each other the dignity the world would not. I name you for kings so that, no matter what color you someday are, you carry with you that portion of respect your humanity deserves. Remember this always: your mother and father did not conceive you to be Black nor White; no, you were made only to be loved, and to love, with every vibrant, violent part of your soul. Your lost kinsmen will pull you to- and fro- along the color line: pay them no mind. You know who you are, and their dreams cannot change the bedrock of your reality. You were named for the last, Black King Arthur. Your life, whatever you choose to do with it, will not have need for the first part of my father’s tragic title. This is your father’s promise to you. What I cannot promise you, my unmade prince, my child-to-be is that this world I pray for you to be born into will be the one I want it to be.

Worlds, however, can be changed. You will not be born chattel, nor will your hope be 3/5ths of what your ancestors were. The moral arc of this nation can bend, we can attest to this. But there is nothing certain about this arc’s trajectory towards justice alone. There will be men and women who work to undo the advances since the 1960’s (and the 1860’s) deep into the 2060’s. Even if this country comes to its senses and adopts a more sane cant, even if reconciliation is finally achieved, and the physical reality of race is consigned to the ash heap of history, there will be those who cast dark rituals with Dreams to resurrect it. Some of those men will be your neighbor, some of those men have been my President. No matter from what station these summoners come, no amount of your hate will make them less human, nor make you ‘righteous’ for believing so. Your bitterness will only mar your reality and validate their designs — their black predictions — of our future.

A lesson your mother has taught me: those that wrong you so rarely intend to do you wrong, but instead, only act according to what constitutes their moral understanding. To divine when to forgive and when to reconcile will be your purview, and your purview alone. I cannot promise your countrymen’s virtue: I will promise instead that life will somedays be hard, because you will not know how to extend them your own moral understanding — and when you must protect yourself and those you love from existential harm, guiltless or no.

So, Arthur: I promise you adversity. I promise you the harshness of your human birthright. But the harshness of it all will not always break you: there is love, within and outside of yourself, to be found on the back of adversity.

Adversity demands that you may, at times, must have a touch of wisdom about you; this is fine, you come from wise stock. Your mother (who is much wiser than your father) would remind you of her favorite passage of Plato: “χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά”[17] or “Nothing beautiful without struggle”[18]. Hold onto that wisdom like she will hold onto you, and your spirit will never become broken like the men before you. Find will to love with the entirety of your heart, and you will emulate the best parts of your namesake.

Pictured: Your Grandfather and I napping with a cat, circa 1990-something’

I began this letter — some earlier version of it — on the third anniversary of your namesake’s death. My own father, when he was younger than when he died (still jocular, still always irreverent, still unbroken) liked to remind me: “my son, we are Black — they don’t make Negroes no more!” I’ll let you decide the truth of that in time. For now, instead, I’ll simply leave you with the careful wisdom of an old, Negro spiritual[19]:

I thought I heard them say,
There were lions in the way,
I don’t expect to stay
Much longer here.

I hope to meet you soon, Arthur, my some-day son.

With Love,
Dad

[1] Roughly: “there are no second chances for lines condemned to a hundred years of solitude.” ― Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/learning/lesson-plans/still-separate-still-unequal-teaching-about-school-segregation-and-educational-inequality.html

[3] The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, pg. 17

[4] Ibid., pg. 19

[5] Ibid.

[6] Like the Black Irish or the East German or the militant Québécois who were, as Coates would say: “abandoned because they no longer serve their purpose — the organization of people beneath, and beyond, the umbrella of rights.” Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, pg. 115

[7] Aristotle, Politics, 1254b16–21.

[8] That is, to forget, as those American Dreamers do, the gross injustices the American luxuries are purchased with.

[9] https://nypost.com/2020/09/24/suspect-in-shooting-of-2-louisville-cops-idd-as-larynzo-johnson/

[10] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/internal-document-shows-trump-officials-were-told-make-comments-sympathetic-n1241581

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/10/nyregion/coronavirus-deaths-hart-island-burial.html

[12] The Roots, “Don’t Feel Right”

[13] To borrow an immortal observation by Kimberly Jones.

[14] The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, pg. 20

[15] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, pg. 71

[16] Reece Chenault, NPR: Louisville Protests For Racial Justice Continue, Even As Others In U.S. Fade, August 5, 2020

[17] “But perhaps it is necessary to endure all this, for it is quite reasonable that I might be benefited by it. So I think, Hippias, that I have been benefited by conversation with both of you; for I think I know the meaning of the proverb ‘beautiful things are difficult.’” — Plato, Greater Hippias, 305e

[18] And I’d be remiss if I did not remind you of my own mother’s native Irish equivalent: “An rud is annamh is iontach.”

[19] Friedrick Douglass, My Bondage and Freedom

Rogue bioethicist and USMC veteran writing things, compulsively.

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