Dear Ta-Nehisi Coates—how do you pronounce that, by the way?
Lately, it has become more difficult to see in here. My intellectual wings have been chafing my third sacral vertebra. My sigmoid colon has been challenged—from within.
The last year has been a rare education for white people, particularly men who have grown accustomed to meting out objective deliberations from deep within the luscious, warm reaches of their individual buttholes. There has been a depth, power and richness to the African-American conversation about Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings that has been humbling and instructive—to my butthole particularly, which has clenched and unclenched apace.
It has been difficult, with these disturbances in my environment, to fully take in the weight of your new book, “Between the World and Me.” It is a great and searing contribution to the public education of white men. It has achieved what I previously thought impossible, and given my butthole pause—brief pause, to be sure, but one that I confess was hopelessly meaningful—before it carries on with its daily work of providing me with the brief yet pungent glimmers of inspiration that lead to each of my columns in the New York Times.
“Between the World and Me” is a mind-altering account of the black male experience. Every conscientious American should read it: even—and you may be surprised by my generosity, but that’s something that I venture to say I’ve picked up, perhaps even learned, from you—the white ones.
There is a foreign, sensuous animality to your memoir—mingled, perplexingly, with utter disempowerment. Outside “the club,” a historic gathering place for African-Americans, you write, “black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by the guns, which were so profligate; which could be raped, beaten, jailed.”
Written as a letter to your son—much as I am now, as you may have noticed, writing a letter to you—you talk about the effects of pervasive fear. “When I was your age the only people I knew were black and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.” (What were you so afraid of?)
But there is an idea in your book which is new to me, and my brain, and my butthole, and the library lined with novelty hideaway-compartment books that connects the two. Your rejection of the American dream brings up a concept that is novel to me, and altogether disturbing.
My ancestors chose to come here. For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms—an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity. My ancestors were not considered “white” in their day, and yet I, David Brooks, am. An obvious conclusion: History is more flexible than your book’s thesis would suggest.
Your ancestors—and it dawned on me slowly, reading Between the World and Me, that this is the source of both your dissatisfaction and that curious name—were not white, and neither are you. In your book, the American dream is what small girls (who look like both of us—such is the power of narrative) call a “fairy tale.” For you, slavery is the original American sin, from which there is no redemption. The innocent world of the dream—which I, if my butthole has been unclear so far in any way, still very much believe in—is actually built on the broken bodies of those kept down below.
Your tantalizing challenge in “Between the World and Me”? Those bodies, you write—are African American.
I am not, if I may explain myself, African American. Thus, I am quite disturbed in the brain-to-butthole book chamber by the wrenching violence by which I, in the abstract sense, am named.
Your definition of “white” is complicated. But you write that “White America” is a “syndicate” that is arranged to protect its “exclusive power” to “dominate and control our”—your, if it’s not clear; I, myself, am white—“bodies.” It’s a towering accusation, made more complicated by the fact that I do not think about black people very often. How, then, could this direct relationship—this deep causal chain of offense that so angers you—be true?
You obviously are not talking to me, David Brooks, directly. Sometimes in your phrasing you seem inexplicably opposed to taking into account the feelings of white people. You seem, in other words, determined to be misunderstood. You are illustrating a perspective born of rage that does not apply to white people, to our history—or to the powerful grapplings and intellectual clemencies discharged deep within our butts.
I read this all like a slap and a revelation. (Ooh, said my butthole. Very nice.) I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in—like one of my beautiful turds falling gently upon porcelain that is whiter (and is this a sin, for my toilet?) even than me. But a butthole, above all, respects its own immediate interests. I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person’s rectum have standing to respond?
If I do have standing, I must say: I’ve taken a moment to move my ear three millimeters from rectal cavity to intestinal wall. Truly, what my “gut instincts” are telling me is that the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime is inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices. In the same way that butts do strange things and then often behave quite nicely: violence is embedded in America, but it is not America’s all.
In your anger at the tone of innocence commonly adopted by jibjabbering Yacubian haunted ventriloquist dolls sold for $5.99 on eBay when they’re asked to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as “shit.”
But “shit,” if you will—the excrement that is an inevitable byproduct of the grand teleological procession of history, which is white-dominated not by any effort on the part of my people, but simply because of the way things are—is not about the past; it is about the future. It is about emptying the rectal cavity of sins, both of white people and, dare I say, of African Americans. It is about splattering the toilet bowl with wrongs in order that we may go about our day, dreaming of a time when I can go back to the postracial fantasy that allows me to do what I do best, which is advocate for bombing Iran and search for my own elusive purpose in this pretty little daisy field we call life.
The American Dream is noble. By dissolving that dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap shit in the butthole. And—as I live in the butthole—your negativity cannot stand.
Maybe you will find my reactions as irritating as a overenthusiastic round of digital stimulation. Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change. Maybe the sound I hear is not the sheer gaseousness of my attempt to literally son you by writing this letter, but rather, the faint rumbles of yesterday’s Chipotle. I venture, from deep within this rectum, that it may be not history but instead the chicken burrito that is coming home to roost.
In any case, you’ve filled my butthole unforgettably.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Bobby Finger, source images via Shutterstock