Shaken Awake

James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and how to survive in America

“Map” by Jasper Johns (1961).

Author’s note: I know the texts I’m writing about are not directly meant for me, but I feel I have to read them. I am a dark body, in America, both estranged and inextricable from it, and from its insufferable, intoxicating culture — so I feel I have to read the texts, to find out why, and what this means, for me, and for us.

This summer, I read James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon

Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

I read them as a diptych: poolside or on BART rides, I listened five times, through earbuds, to Jesse Martin reading the Letter, and then in between listens Kindled the latter.

James Baldwin on left. Pulled from

I read them together because Coates noted that he was reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time — of which “My Dungeon Shook” is a part — in the years before writing Between the World and Me. It seems to have catalyzed the book, too, perhaps.

Coates has noted also that he digs Baldwin’s non-nonsense: Baldwin never was one to sugarcoat (the) shit.

But there’s this line at the end of Baldwin’s letter that I can’t yet accept, even as the rest of the text grabs at something inside me—at something way, way back, in the back of my head; something I’ve circled around but never caught; something that peers out at me from everything I read about what it is to be a dark body in America; something that speaks to what it means to be a human person, and wishing desperately to be one, even as they who call themselves human persons deny me such status.

Baldwin, at the end:

This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

The word must catches me off-guard, so distinct from the grave stoicism lacing every sentence preceding — this must so optimistic, and forward-facing, and hopeful and assured. The word America slices at me, too, as though it is somehow here, in its uttering and then its echo, supposed to connote something other than terror and greed and filth, to me who I like to think knows better.

And then the word home, which makes me ache. This — America — has never felt like home.

This America, for 23 years, has felt like prison.

I think it’s important that Coates, as of Between the World and Me’s publishing, was on his way out of this country— to live in Paris, with his family, for a year.

I think it’s important that Coates notes, in the book, the epiphanies of extranational excursions: the discovery that there spin other galaxies, elsewhere, with different terrors and greeds and filths, but with that qualifier (“different”) making (pardon) all the difference.

I think it’s important to note another very relevant diptych/difference: being driven from a place, and choosing to leave a place not worth inhabiting.

I learned the hard way that, on a micro, person-

to-person level, you can’t force someone to change. I’ve loved addicts and depressives, and in my time, I’ve tried to shake them and slap them and bully them into getting help or getting clean or getting sane. (This, as anyone who loves an addict or depressive will tell you, is a terrible thing to do, and yet also often one’s first instinct.)

But an addict won’t be freed from addiction until they want to be freed from it. And a depressive can learn to live inside depression — look forward to it, even, in a twisted way incomprehensible to anyone who does not know depression, in the way that anyone who keeps a routine is most comfortable when following it — until they wish to know what it is to be free from it. But they cannot be coerced into escaping what has come to define them.

I understand the frustrations of the author of this article, titled “Between Pain and Despair: What Ta-Nehisi Coates is Missing.” I have always leapt to challenge the cynics and the pessimists who take down and demolish and level and leave nothing but rubble in their wake. But I don’t think Coates is this. I don’t think Coates is missing anything.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on left. Pulled from

I think Coates’ pessimism—the idea that they who call themselves white must awaken themselves, and that they might not (ever) do this, and that one cannot force them to change nor struggle for them but only struggle for oneself—is not pessimism. I think it is wisdom.

And if it is wisdom; if it is true, on a micro, person-to-person level, that you cannot force or coerce the people who call themselves white — the people addicted to whiteness, the people who might sometimes hate whiteness but who have become accustomed to it, and learned to live inside it — to cease fleeing from reality; then how to imagine the United States anew, when awakening from the Dream can take a lifetime but creating a new Dreamer takes but nine months?

The author of “What Ta-Nehisi Coates is Missing,” in the article:

[There] can be no certain knowledge of the future. Humility, borne out of our lack of knowledge of the future, justifies hope.

And yet there can be certain knowledge of the past.

To peer backwards at centuries (millennia?) of terror and greed and filth and think ourselves or our futures different in any meaningful or significant way — how can that at all be humble? How is that not terribly, tragically arrogant?

Coates, in the book:

My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent towards chaos then concluded in a box.

And so I think there is something bigger, about what it means to be a human person, inside everything I read about what it is to be a dark body in America.

And I think Coates’ indirect call — not forceful, nor demanding, nor hopeful nor pleading — for the Dreamers to awaken from their Dream might fall short of what maybe is the complete awakening (or else is the unspoken awakening to which Coates wants us all to come).

I think that there is an myth to which we all subscribe, and that the truth veiled by that myth is this:

No lives matter.

Nor have they ever.

The universe, if personifiable, does not care whether or how we live or die, and whether our species expires gracefully or painfully slowly. Earth seems to me, increasingly, a waiting room for the void — and America one of that room’s filthiest corners.

I think that, unless you know the filth, you cannot see the myth as myth. Unless you know the terror, you will continue to believe that there exists a vast and boundless universe, and not instead merely a tiny, bounded box.

The wisest people I know — in the solemn, common

way of film’s and fiction’s wisemen — often invoke an awful platitude, one I come back to just as often as it’s repeated to me. The one about life, and journeys, and destinations, and which of the latter two the formermost is.

The author of “What Ta-Nehisi Coates is Missing” asks:

If we are all just helpless agents of physical laws, the question again emerges: what should one do? Coates recommends interrogation and struggle… but interrogation and struggle to what end?

This is an unanswerable question — because the means and ends are the same here, I think.

I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing.

But I think that it is true.

This is not your home, my friend, do not be tethered to it; grim men have done grim things here, and will again, so let them keep America until America comes undone.
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