Update – I’m compiling the list of recommendations I’ve received and posting it here. If you’re interested in expanding your own reading list, I hope you’ll stop by, and if you have further recs, feel free to share them here or there. Thanks so much.
In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.- Ta-Nehisi Coates
I read these words – sobs catching my throat – outloud to Philip on the way home from a day with Dad on Sunday. After seeing that the amazing A’Driane Nieves shared it on Facebook, I opened up Coates’ essay and started reading, and soon, the momentum of his language, the power of his truth carried from the place where words are thoughts into a place where I had to speak them, to give them the body of sound waves.
Because, after all, it was the body – his body, his son’s body, all black bodies – that Coates was crying out for. To not shape those words into the black staffs and pregnant bulbs of notes, of pitch, of tone felt like silencing them again.
So I read on and on to Philip as we traveled past plantations where black bodies were traded around souls that would not die.
The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.
I was left altered, changed, ripped apart and more whole. (If you want to leave this page and go to Coates’ essay, PLEASE do. What he has to say is so much more important than any of my words here.)
When we got home, I wanted to share the essay, to put it on Facebook with some sort of opening that would force people to read it, that would change something incrementally in all of us, the way I had been changed. Instead, I prayed, and here is what I heard:
Carry it for a while, Andi. Just carry the words.
So I have, for two days now (an infinitesimal moment), I have born them writhing and aching in my blood. I will carry them forever, let them rip new vessels for compassion, for understanding, for awareness, for change beneath my white skin.
I am learning to quiet, to settle, to gentle myself into understanding. I am learning that MY way of the world is what I can change. I forget sometimes, begin to challenge and push on Facebook, and each time, I feel achy and wrong – not because I have mispoken or started conflict, not because Facebook is not the right medium – but because change did not come for me from someone pushing. It came because people tapped and spoke softly, and because through grace, I was able to hear.
In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton says:
One of the first things to learn if you want to be a contemplative is how to mind your own business.
Nothing is more suspicious, in a [wo]man who seems holy, than an impatient desire to reform other [people.]
So I’m learning to carry the change in me, to let it bleed out in gentle waves, choosing to not let the barbs slung out of ignorance or a misguided sense of self-protection pierce me, but instead, to ingest the stories of those who have lived for years beyond my minutes this pain and grief.
Dad just built me two new bookshelves, and Philip has stained them. They stand empty in our reading room. I want to fill them with the stories of African American people. I want novels and poems and plays and memoirs, histories and picture books and slave narratives to fill those shelves. I need to throw off my “balance” as a white woman and take in more of what can never be my experience in this world. I need black voices to speak into me, to change me.
I need to listen more. Always more.
So, my people, the people who have graced me with your presence in this space, will you help me? Will you recommend books by African Americans, books of any sort, that have changed you? Will you help me fill these shelves with stories so that I can fill my heart with them as well?
What books should I read to help me know, even when I cannot live, the facets of life in a black body in America? I’ll get anything you recommend and read it. You have my word.