We need to remember “the son” is really his son

Dear President Trump,

I am kind of late to it but last night I finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book “Between Me and The World.” You may know the book is a letter to his then 15 year-old son recounting his experience of living in race-obsessed America as a Black man. We picked the book up from one of the little free library boxes in our neighborhood and when I got to the first page there was a tiny slip of sticky-note paper with kid writing on it saying “clear it’s a letter to his son — contextual” and on the next page there was a bigger sticky slip saying “when the author (crossed out) character writes ‘you’ or ‘me’ it’s important to remember it’s addressed to the son, not the reader.” There were no more notes but having those two glimpses into someone else’s approach to the book felt, even if directed by a teacher, like a gift since it reminded me I was coming into a conversation both with Coates and with anonymous other readers. The second slip also dismayed me; the cross out of “author” and insertion of “character” seems like it put distance between the author, Coates, and the previous reader. So does the phrasing “the son;” not “his son.” Rather than being real people with real experiences, real scars, real suffering, real wisdom, real relationships, he and his son became characters and characters are more likely seen as two-dimensional, more easily discounted.

I wish there were more notes tacked into the pages so I could see whether the previous reader shifted from seeing Coates and his son as characters to seeing them as people. All of this does, of course, beg the question of whether I see Coates as a real person and not just as a character speaking to his son, to me, to us from some fictional place outside of reality. It’s actually tempting to relate to Coates and the book as though it is a fictional accounting of a life because then I could pretend the extreme and mundane examples of systemic racism he describes didn’t and don’t really happen to real people at the hands of White people. Doing so would help me stay comfortable in the Dream that maintains we White people haven’t benefited from the systematic oppression of Black people (and Native people and immigrants). But I have to face this and get woke from this false Dream and so do you. Read the book.

May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May your life unfold and intersect peacefully.

Tracy Simpson

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