A Letter to My African-American Daughter, and a Response to Ta-Nehisi Coates

(Lane Erickson/Dreamstime)

This month, Ta-Nehisi Coates published Between the World and Me, a powerful collection of essays written in the form of letters to his teenage son. The book is a sensation on the left, and it is full of rage and even hate. Rather than write a conventional review of the book, I thought I’d respond with my own letter, written to my seven-year-old African-American daughter.

Dearest Naomi,

So far, it’s the small moments that are hard to explain. Like this summer, when we walked past a young black man in Manhattan. He was frustrated. Cab drivers were zooming past him, refusing to stop. He stood in the street, hand raised, but no one would slow down. Finally, a white woman shook her head, walked into the street, and instantaneously hailed a cab. She held the door open for him, apologized, and said, “One day, things will change.”

This confused you. You asked why the cab wouldn’t stop, and we told you that some cab drivers won’t stop for black people. Your response touched my heart. “Why won’t they stop for black people? I’m black!” It wasn’t the words, it was the look on your face — incredulous that someone wouldn’t want you in their cab. After all, you live in a world of love and warmth and kindness. In your deep-South home, the kids yell out your name when you walk down the hall at school. Your tutors greet you with undisguised delight each time they see you. Your day at home begins and ends with love. You are a delight, and the vast majority of people can’t help but smile when they see you.

But not everyone. Not all the time. And these small moments — like the elderly woman who demanded to know what you were doing in the neighborhood pool, or the little boy who told you that his daddy won’t let him go to neighborhoods where black people live — are bringing me, inevitably, to tell you about the big things: about things like the Middle Passage, the overseer’s lash, the Klan (founded not too many miles from your own home), Jim Crow, redlining, and the progressive “science” of eugenics.

These are things that happened — painful things that you’ll find so difficult to believe, especially as you prepare for a future where anything is possible, where college and careers open before you, where your private education gave you advantages you won’t understand until much later, and where your intact, loving family brought you a sense of peace and stability that sadly too few kids understand. Your life is a place of possibility. The past looks like a place of pain. So that’s why we’ll ease you into an understanding of the truth. That’s why we’re not going to dump all of life on you all at once. As we tell you the truth, we will never forget to tell you the larger Truth — that man is fallen, prone to evil. Yet God is holy, prone to redeem. And you can never forget both realities. This is the Bad News and the Good News that represent the past, the present, and the eternal future.

The Bad News has always been countered by the Good News, even when the Good News was only a spark, a lone voice crying out. In the days of the overseers’ lash, there were still voices decrying bondage — crying out until the quest for justice ultimately culminated in America’s most terrible war. In the days of Jim Crow, the voices cried out until a movement swept this land — one that, instead of culminating in war, led people of deep faith to answer violence with peace and slowly but surely win the heart of a nation. It is critical for you to understand that these voices crying out for justice were black, but they were not only black — that hundreds of thousands of white men spilled their blood in the war that ended slavery and that white partnered with black to end Jim Crow. These are facts — facts every bit as important as the facts of white supremacy and white oppression.

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And here are some facts that may be the most confusing of all: Your own family has its own place in that history. Your name is the name of freedom fighters, of slave owners, and — through it all — of the faithful. As you learn about your family, you will learn of distant relatives who came across the ocean on a ship called the Mayflower, seeking the right to worship as they pleased, free from the heavy hand of an oppressive king. You’ll learn of a young man shivering at an awful place called Valley Forge, laying his life on the line for an idea of freedom — the idea that birthed this land of opportunity.

But then, as you learn more about this long legacy, you’ll learn of your family’s move to the South — to the place not far at all from where you live now. You’ll learn of ancestors who owned people who looked like you, of men who wore gray and fought like lions to stop an invasion, to preserve a way of life that included — the truth is inescapable — the right to keep owning people who looked like you. They lost that war but clung to the pride of their service, the pride of their valor, and wore gray for the rest of their lives.

You’ll learn that the legacy of their valor inspired other young men in your family, who in their own turn picked up rifles and fought — this time against great tyrannies in Europe. And you’ll learn more about your own father, and the night I flew into Iraq — desperately praying for my own life and for the opportunity to see my family again — the very night you were born.

God is prone to redeem. It is this knowledge that allows us to place the fullness of our history in context, to understand that our own family could fight for the wrong cause but that God could redeem their courage.

And through it all, you’ll learn the most important thing, of the gift of faith — the true multi-generational legacy of your family. We were never all good or even mostly good. Remember, man is fallen. We are prone to evil. But we’ve all had faith — reaching back into the deep recesses of time. And God is holy. He’s prone to redeem. It is this knowledge that allows us to place the fullness of our history in context, to understand that our own family could fight for the wrong cause but that God could redeem their courage. And it helps us understand our present — why, for example, despite centuries, even millennia, of people seeking justice, injustice is still so prevalent.

It is impossible, in fact, to forget the Bad News — the evidence of its existence is all around us. The legacy of Jim Crow and redlining lives on in the ghetto, communities intentionally created to confine black people to their own space. The legacy of slavery — of families torn apart for cash — lives on in black families that even now struggle at a rate that outpaces whites and Latinos. Most horrifically, the Bad News manifests in the monstrous injustice of legal abortion, the idea that babies can be ripped apart in the womb for any reason or no reason at all. And you’ll learn that legal abortion exists in large part because progressive white people invented something called “eugenics,” a pseudo-science that tried to perfect mankind by ridding the human race of the “undesirables.”

And faced with that Bad News, a life of anger and rage beckons. There exist entire intellectual movements that will call out to you, beckoning you to join them in their bottomless, limitless anger. There are people now who write things, to near-universal critical acclaim, that betray a coldness of heart that will take your breath away. Speaking of September 11, 2001, an event before your were born that took the lives of 3,000 innocent men and women, a very angry man wrote this:

So we were there on the roof, talking and taking in the sight — great plumes of smoke covered Manhattan Island. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who was missing. But looking out upon the ruins of America, my heart was cold. I had disasters all my own. The officer who killed Prince Jones, like all the officers who regard us so warily, was the sword of the American citizenry. I would never consider any American citizen pure.

No, I wouldn’t consider any American pure, either. We’re all sinful. We all fall short of the glory of God. But we are all created in His image. We are all loved. But when you don’t believe in God, when you can’t see the redemption, your rage will know no bounds. A police officer can kill a friend, and you will see all police officers — indeed, even all employees of the government — as instruments of evil.

Speaking of that same terrible September day, you will say, “I could see no difference between the officer who killed [my friend] and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.” You will lose the ability to see individuals, and you will see only the system. You will call your fellow citizens “majoritarian pigs,” believe they would rather “live white than live free,” and fury will flare within you.

#related#What is the antidote to this dehumanizing rage, a rage that will cause you to see your own fellow citizens, citizens who died in shock and confusion and pain, as “not human?” The antidote is the God who awakens in the human heart the ability to love, to show courage, and to struggle for justice not with the violent fury of the Marxist but with the self-denying valor of a freedom rider. Understand that God is sovereign, and all good things come from God. That means that evil cannot ultimately triumph, even when it takes the body. Contrary to the assertions of the secularist, this world is not our home — this is not all we have — and our ultimate triumph depends not on law, policy, or the police. This is the liberating truth that allows us to show the “greater love,” to lay down our lives for our friends and neighbors.

When I look at your beautiful brown skin, it pains me that there will be some who dislike you simply because of that skin. But mostly I feel thankful — a sense of overwhelming gratitude. The God who gives us good things has given us a country where you can and will have the best — the best education, the best medical care, the best opportunity to worship and to determine how best to follow God’s call on your life. And you get those good things not because your parents are white. Indeed, this is a country that features countless black families who are more prosperous and more influential than your parents. They can give their children even better things than we give you. And I’m thankful for that as well.

The arc of history is long, and it bends where God wills it. Your place in that history is up to the God you love, the God your family seeks to serve, and in charting your course in a world where man is fallen but your God redeems, remember His words — seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. And, finally, please forgive us — your mother and me. We will do our very best to help you chart your course. But we won’t do it perfectly. Sometimes, we won’t even do it well. But we know the plans that God has for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope. Live that hope.


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