My copy of Between the World and Me arrived Friday. I read it at once, as we all should. If you know Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing, then you know to expect powerful, direct prose. A book allows him to deploy more of it than any magazine feature, but he does more than that in the slim space between the covers. Coates uses the epistolary format to address the reader directly. We all get to stand in for his son, more hearing him speak than reading words on a page. Even when I know what an author sounds like in person, I rarely read their writing in that voice. Coates had me doing it before the end of the first page. I hoped to share some insights of his here, but I think the work ill-served by easy excerpts. It has only three chapters and reads more like a single speech with brief pauses for breath than a conventional piece of non-fiction. The experience of reading it reminded me more of hearing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl performed, a beautiful eruption of thought and emotion rather than tamed sentences and paragraphs. I can’t do it justice. I considered just writing a review and moving on.
Then Julian Bond died. Via twitter, I learned how the New York Times chose to report on Bond’s ancestry in an otherwise decent obituary:
Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.
This line, brought to mind several passages from Between the World and Me. “Slave mistress” sounds almost like a strange sort of job title. The law of white Kentucky, enacted and enforced by white Kentuckians, made Jane Bond a slave, but something else made her a mistress. Nobody forces anyone into an extramarital affair, but rather the principals engage willingly and as partners. The harm done falls on someone else, an absent spouse. But as a slave, Jane Bond did not have the luxury of any such consent. The law of Kentucky took that from her and placed it in the hands of the man who raped her. It did this not by some accident or oversight, but with the knowledge that he and others would do exactly that.
To call Bond a mistress requires one to read from the slaveholder’s lexicon. It literally whitewashes the whole affair, to the point that it can slip past an inattentive or uninformed reader. Much of our language does that, with conventional phrasing chosen to obscure rather than reveal. Coates began with a consideration of such things:
The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing-race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy-serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.
In obscuring these ugly facts we may slave our consciences, but we do so at the cost of making common cause with those who broke the bones, whipped the backs, and exercised the full power the law gave them over black bodies of both sexes. I say at the cost and not at our cost, as we have ensured that we do not pay the price for such things. As Coates says:
“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.
Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom
We can imagine Bond’s owner as a farmer. In a strictly literal sense, he might have owned a farm. But Thomas Jefferson owned a farm too. When he praised those who worked the earth, he imagined a very different set of people than those who worked the earth outside his window. He may as well have lived on a different planet from them, except when he called them in to cook his meals, do his laundry, clean his house, and satiate his lusts. Those people, in Coates words, “born out of mass rape, whose ancestors were carried off and divided up into policies and stocks” did not share in Jefferson’s sometimes fleeting prosperity. He experienced slavery as a wellspring of pleasures: status, wealth, and power. With a few hundred on hand, all of Jefferson’s slaves must have run together. How many of us could keep so many people straight? But
Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, as a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world-which is really the only world she can ever know-ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains-whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.
Maybe some slave mistresses felt genuine attraction to the men who owned them, but even if they did they could not go entirely willingly to those men. Their owners held the power of life and death over them as surely with whip or gun in hand as they did with pen poised over a contract to sell away their loved ones or with a mere crooked finger. To refuse meant not vicious words or a dirty look, but death and destruction. The slave, made from the ruin of a person, could still have all the normal thoughts and feelings of a person, but rarely dared express them in full. Even if she did, they meant nothing to the man the law said owned her body. The enslaved fled from that reality when they could and dared, William and Ellen Craft specifically to spare their children such a fate. Knowing this, antislavery northerners declared the entire South a giant brothel. Mary Chesnut reports that the high society women of Charleston gossiped about it. One need not plunge deep into the history to know this, but only think about the most basic, brutal facts of slavery.
These hard facts all vanish in the Times’ obituary. It concerns Bond and not his great-grandmother, so we should not expect it to plumb the depths quite as Coates did. But if Jane Bond mattered enough to deserve a mention, than she mattered enough to deserve an honest one. It would have taken no more than an extra word or two to write instead that she served as the sex slave of a Kentucky enslaver. No one would misunderstand that or miss its significance. It would only have broken the rules of the white American syndicate.