In the tanakh section of the Hebrew Bible, we meet the great prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others. They share an ability to consider the past, look squarely at the present, and predict or imagine a future. Listening to or reading these men’s words stirs something inside me that is part poetry, part history and part recognition of the truths embedded within their prophesies and predictions. In the history of Christendom, we find holy men like the Desert Fathers who withdrew from society and creature comforts in order to be alone with their meditative spirits which whispered truths most often rejected or shunned by a society geared toward luxury and an easy credo that did not interfere with important things like commerce and personal success. Some of us believe that every age has its prophets, often quite without honor in their own countries, but nevertheless intent on proclaiming what they are sure is the path of a culture unless its members make radical changes.
Today, I consider a middle-aged black man named Ta Nehisi Coates to be such a contemporary prophet. In a series of long articles published in the Atlantic magazine, and now in a book-length letter to his adolescent son, Coates is limning a clear worldview centered on his understanding of what it means to be a black man in America at this moment in history. Reminding and more often informing his readers of the centuries-long pattern of denigration and overt harm visited upon people in this country of African descent, Coates spells out in specific terms what needs to be done to avert the disastrous course upon which this country continues to travel. In a long essay on incarceration of blacks in America, he leaves no historic stone unturned under which lurk hideous examples of the dominant white culture’s defining of all blacks as criminal, hence paving the way for things like the seemingly unending string of murders primarily though not exclusively of black men by police who believe the only way to interact with such individuals is by using excessive and fatal force, i.e., shooting them or choking them or physically abusing them and then refusing to offer medical assistance when its need is completely obvious.
In an earlier article about the need for this country to make financial reparations if we are ever to begin to escape the debilitating ghosts of slavery days, Coates argues with razor-sharp logic that, since the United States is the prime capitalist country on the globe, our best way to take responsibility for the financial rip-off of blacks by virtually every one of our institutions is in terms of money. So, for instance, college educations could be offered to any black person who qualifies for admission, since it was originally against the law to teach a slave to read. Another simple way to address history’s tangible wrongs against blacks would be to pay descendants of documented slaves a lump sum prorated to be the equivalent of lost wages incurred during slavery when labor by such individuals was never “paid,” or wages lost over the last 2 centuries because of unfair hiring and advancement practices. (Jamaica recently did precisely this, by the way.)
And, in his latest book, Between the World and Me, a heart-wrenching letter from Coates to his son, trying to help that young man come to terms with the simple fact that his physical body, seen by Coates as the most precious thing belonging to any of us, can be taken from him any second of any day on any street in America. Toni Morrison has said, in a blurb she wrote at the time of publication, that this book is “compulsory reading” and I agree completely. If I had unfettered funds, I’d stand on a street corner in Minneapolis and hand out copies to all and sundry. Combining deep love and a natural sense of protectiveness with absolute clarity about what is going on in our towns and cities just now, Coates prophesies that entire generations are being erased and that, if our towns and cities and political leaders do not act soon to begin to change this devastating arc, our culture may well find itself no longer viable in relation to the platitudes we claim define us as distinct from many other countries.
At night, after I’ve read myself into hopeful sleepiness, I pray for certain people who seem to me central to recovery for this country and world. The Obamas, including their dogs, are first, as they have been since the night of Barack’s first election to the presidency. They used to be the only people I named specifically, but since his elevation Pope Francis comes next for me since I believe his refusal to be silent about how far his particular institution, and now the whole political structure that refuses to be good stewards of the planet, has gone to stifle kindness and inflict unnecessary pain puts him in danger from those within the Roman Catholic hierarchy who find his policies entirely to their dislike. So I pray that no one shoots him. Finally, after reading Between the World and Me twice, I now name Ta Nehisi Coates in my nightly orizons, asking that he remain safe and alive so that he may continue being my/our prophet in this sometimes heartless and confused country/world.