Holding My Entire Body In His Small Hands

Photo: Lisa Roe (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo: Lisa Roe (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Today, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, was published. I’m something of a fan-boy, having followed his blog for years now. I’ve always had a deep respect for people who use blogs to think hard and out loud, and few do so better than him. When I came across his blog, I think maybe in 2009 or 2010, I immediately thought that this was someone who had a profound understanding not only of his subject matter (race and American culture) but also of this format, the blog.

Everyone is talking about his work this week, deservedly so, about his writing and his thoughts, for instance in this very nice beatification in New York Magazine. But while his writing and thinking are what should be most interesting about him, let me just briefly tell you another reason he’s an intellectual role model for me: he possesses one of the rarest intellectual virtues, that of humility.

He is someone who knows he doesn’t know everything and who openly carries that in everything he does. I love that about him. I remember seeing him castigating some snooty readers for making fun of him after he said that he hadn’t read (I think) Hobbes. In a world of know-it-all’s, and people who check Wikipedia before they write a single line, his frankness about what he doesn’t know is not just something he does for show or to get out of tight spots, in a sense it’s the entire point of what he does. He doesn’t know stuff and then he works really hard to find out.

Anyway, I’m just getting started with the Kindle edition of the book, but so far it’s really, really good. The man can bang sentences together like you wouldn’t believe. He’s one of those people who work super hard to make things look easy. These paragraphs from the opening chapter of the book, which you can read parts of in The Atlantic, here, are not just really well written, but they also hit me hard:

The boy with the small eyes reached into his ski jacket and pulled out a gun. I recall it in the slowest motion, as though in a dream. There the boy stood, with the gun brandished, which he slowly untucked, tucked, then untucked once more, and in his small eyes I saw a surging rage that could, in an instant, erase my body. That was 1986. That year I felt myself to be drowning in the news reports of murder. I was aware that these murders very often did not land upon the intended targets but fell upon great-aunts, PTA mothers, overtime uncles, and joyful children—fell upon them random and relentless, like great sheets of rain. I knew this in theory but could not understand it as fact until the boy with the small eyes stood across from me holding my entire body in his small hands.

I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog. I knew that West Baltimore, where I lived; that the north side of Philadelphia, where my cousins lived; that the South Side of Chicago, where friends of my father lived, comprised a world apart. Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies. I knew this because there was a large television in my living room. In the evenings I would sit before this television bearing witness to the dispatches from this other world. There were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak. That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice-cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and endless lawns. Comparing these dispatches with the facts of my native world, I came to understand that my country was a galaxy, and this galaxy stretched from the pandemonium of West Baltimore to the happy hunting grounds of Mr. Belvedere. I obsessed over the distance between that other sector of space and my own. I knew that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not. I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach. I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between that other world and me. And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.

Reading them triggered some memories in me which are maybe thematically linked to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book.


In the middle of these paragraphs, I suddenly surprised myself by being viscerally taken with memories of a cool, quiet morning in a small, African country almost ten years ago.

On the way up the hill to the bus station, we were ambushed and robbed by five men. The tense, coiled anger of the man who put the knife to my throat, who took my money and who could have chosen to take my life or the life of the woman who is now my wife — his anger is still right here with me now, in my hotel room, all these years later. I’m still shaking with anger myself and fear.

I can’t forgive the men who ambushed us. They took more from us than the pitiful haul of things they took. But in another, more distant sense, their violence was understandable. To be expected, almost. It was a corrupt state with spectacular levels of income inequality and a staggering, unbelievably brutal epidemic of HIV laying waste to the population. Bad societies produce people like this, people who don’t care if they live or die, who don’t care if they kill you or not.

And here is the difference between me and the man who held the knife to my belly and hissed at me. Just a few hours later, I was in an entirely different country. I was sitting in a lounge chair by a pool in an expensive hotel in a former colonial administration house. I was steadying my nerves on a gin tonic which had been served to me by an immaculately uniformed waiter while I waited for dinner. The sky was growing dark and the swallows flew intense, intricate dances above me. The man who held the knife to me was where he would in all likelihood spend the rest of his days: in what was almost certainly an uncomfortable, unsafe place, getting high.

A few weeks later, I would be back at my desk, in my safe, prosperous, European country. I’m still here. If the actuarial tables and his lifestyle is a guide, he is almost certainly dead by now. Maybe not, maybe he was lucky, but in all likelihood he is. And his life was almost certainly an unhappy one, filled with misery, depridation and pain; caused by him, done to him.

I can’t help but think of him and his agency simply as a cog in a malfunctioning machine that reproduces misery. That misery is produced by policy, Western and African. It is a predictable outcome. A desired one, almost.

I remember sitting at the poolside, looking at the swallows dancing, thinking about responsibility and what it means to be that man who has been produced by that country. What is it to choose to do ill in a country where doing good is almost impossible? And what was the fairness in me being me, being able to afford the pool, the gin tonics, the servants, the staggering inequality of being able to summon such goods and services as if out of thin air. Who was he? What forces compelled him to do what he did? What did he want, what forces in the country wanted through him?

I’ve completely forgotten his face by now. But I can recall exactly what the knife looked like.

My life has mostly been blessedly free of fear and violence. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at some of the reasons it’s hard to understand what living with fear does to someone. I lived with fear for a few weeks, a few months. It isn’t woven into the very fabric my life is made of. I need to be thankful for that.


On another note entirely,  it’s my two year anniversary with WordPress.com today, the machine tells me. I’m actually very happy with this place and what it has become. Thanks to the wonderful generosity of the WordPress.com staff, who have featured this blog on a couple of occasions, I have over 6.000 followers and feel that the blog has begun to become what I wanted it to be when I started it.

The only thing that’s not, really, is that I can’t quite live up to my ideal of posting something every day, and that I would like to hear more from those of you who read the blog. Saying such things are a little ritual on most blogs, but I like this, I’ll keep writing, I’ll keep thinking out loud. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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