Who are the Dreamers?


Dear Mr. Coates:

As a child I, too, stood in the face of a brandished gun. Like you, “I recall it in the slowest motion, as though in a dream.” Like you, I did not tell my teachers, and I did not tell my friends.

I did not tell my parents. Because they were there. My mother, too, stared down the barrel of the gun—a gun wielded by my drunken father.

Like you I asked, “What was the exact problem? Who could know?” It’s taken me the better part of a lifetime to understand the demons that drove my father to hold the people he loved at gunpoint.

Like you, I knew that, “Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies. I knew this because there was a large television resting in my living room.” And I desperately wanted to escape—to create a life of harmony and happiness like those families I saw on television.

I did escape. Like you, I had parents who believed in the power of learning. Can you fathom that? My father, who threatened to “blow [my] brains out” when he was drunk, preached to me in every sober moment that I should “use the brains God gave [me].” He believed with all his mind and strength that I should place my faith not in the small god of the Bible Belt but in the Holy Trinity—“readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic”, which were worthy of worship because they led to the God with a capital “G”—Graduation.

Believing that you and I had more in common than what separated us, I began Between the World and Me with great hope, waiting for that moment described on the book jacket as your “transcendent vision for a way forward.”

When you first used the phrase “people who think they are white” and referred to them as “Dreamers,” I highlighted those lines. When you told the story of Nzinga, who commanded her adviser to make a human chair of her body, I experienced a vicarious sucker punch with you when you realized that you were more like the adviser than like the queen who was “heir to everything she’d ever seen.”

As I read the last few pages of the book, though, you hit me hard as a sucker punch to the gut when I realized that you could not see me as I am. I am white. And I am a Dreamer, though the term means something different to you and me. Before I read your book, I thought of the DREAMers as children like my sister and me—those who dreamed of being the first in their families to go to college.

Yes, I am white. And I guess you would say that I am a Dreamer. But I feel just as powerless as you do to stop the people you describe in your book. I struggle for wisdom. I struggle for warmth.

I closed your book sadly, left with the haunting image of you sitting in your car, watching the rain coming down in sheets.

And just as you drove away thinking of your son, I put your book away thinking of my only child—a daughter. She is white. Like your son, her life is very different from my own. Like him, she has sometimes known the grandness of the world.

Unlike your son, who has grown up with a president who shares his race and gender, my daughter does not know what it’s like to grow up with a woman president of any race. But she remembers the words her grandmother spoke shortly before her death at the age of 79: “Who would have thought that I’d ever live to vote for a woman and a black man for president?”

And my daughter has had the good fortune to grow up with our closest family friends, a biracial couple whose son is two years older than my daughter. From the time she was six and he was eight, our families have vacationed together, have broken bread at each other’s tables, have shared joys and mourned losses. And all of our lives are the richer for it.

I fear for our children if they cling to the anger of their ancestors so much that they can’t realize our shared humanity. But I hope for them. And I am moved to pray for them. Every day.

Near the end of your book you said that you’ve often wondered if you’ve missed something—some “cosmic hope, some wisdom…because something beyond anything [you] have ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life.”

I believe with every fiber of my being that we must depend on that something beyond us—and within us—that calls us to be exceptional. We can’t depend on the many among us who, like Nzinga, seem to be heirs to everything they’ve ever seen. But we can depend on our shared humanity to bring us together in a quest for compassion and justice.

I’m not sure there were ever glory days—at least not for most of us. And I’m pretty sure the quintessential American Dream is a myth. But, if we can let go even a little of our anger and distrust, I believe we can find that cosmic hope in our shared wisdom—in that something that is beyond our understanding. Come, let us be dreamers together.

Peace be with you, Ta-Nehisi!


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