In the age of Donald Trump’s flip-flopping doublespeak, the importance of accurate, unwavering speech has recently become an urgent priority for many Americans. But for African Americans, a people whose access to language and liberty have been contested since the nation’s founding, the need to speak truth to power is always of perennial interest.
From the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement, black writers and artists have led this vanguard, using words to illuminate the cavernous, shifting contours of American racism. Most recently, with the advent of live-streamed police brutality, the long-running discourse on equality and democracy has zeroed in on the use of unrestrained state force and the visceral fear it inspires. And among today’s most talented creators and intellectuals tackling the topic, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar rise above the rest.
In Between the World And Me, his award-winning memoir dedicated to his teenage son, Coates writes of the Baltimore of his youth, “the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”
He later centers this angst around the threat of violence at the hands of the police. It was a threat that could easily result in beatings, maimings, and death. And so it was a threat parents did anything to prevent ― even if it meant administering brutal violence to their children themselves.
In his first book, The Beautiful Struggle, Coates illustrated just how far parents could go. In a scene where young Ta-Nehisi has just been suspended from school, he arrives home where his father is inside.
“He was waiting in the foyer at the door, again magically off work at the worst time possible. He was there with Ma and Jovett, half smiling through an awkward mix of shock and anger. Jovett walked out of the room and then it came. He threw an open hand, and I hit the floor….
“My father swung with the power of an army of slaves in revolt. He swung like he was afraid, like the world was closing in and cornering him, like he was trying to save my life. I was upstairs crying myself to sleep when they held a brief conference. The conference consisted of only one sentence that mattered— Cheryl, who would you rather do this: me or the police?”
The police ― fear of the police in West Baltimore, writes Coates ― drove mothers and fathers to reach for cable wires, extension cords, pots, and pans. “Our parents resorted to the lash the way flagellants in the plague years resorted to the scourge,” he would later write his son.
Brutal yet nuanced, Coates’s memoirs paint a human face on a group of parents who oft have been portrayed in the media through the tropes of dead beat and welfare dependant. He recasts them as three-dimensional humans, who through a manic mixture of love for their children and fear of the police, turn to a tragic cycle of violence within their own homes. Readers leave his work with a deeper empathy for the tortured plight of adults rearing children in a racist society. However, the newfound understanding for guardians can’t negate the trauma their sons and daughters endure.
It is here, in depicting life through the eyes of frightened black youth, that Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical dexterity and conjuring imagery take the wheel.
On FEAR, a track from his 2017 album DAMN., Kendrick provides an unflinching view of the regular violence that many black youth experience as children, and the deepening fear of fatality they develop as adolescents.
“I beat yo ass, you better not run to your father
I beat yo ass, you know my patience runnin’ thin
I got beaucoup payments to make
County building’s on my ass
Tryna take my food stamps away
I beat yo ass if you tell them social workers he live here
I beat yo ass if I beat yo ass twice and you still here
Seven years old, think you run this house by yourself?
Nigga, you gon’ fear me if you don’t fear no one else”
“I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges
Body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’
Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax
Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast”
- From Kendrick Lamar’s “FEAR”
The sheer violence and terror of the combined stanzas are a mind trip for those who would see America as a peaceful, egalitarian nation.
In many ways, Lamar’s physical presence alone represents the superlative of the country’s fears. Black, gang-affiliated, Compton-bred, Lamar was born during the peak of the crack era and professes an unrestrained passion for West Coast gangsta rap. He belongs to a generation of black youth whom in the 1990’s criminologists, media outlets, and politicians widely cast as inherently criminal and violent “superpredators” who had “no conscience and no empathy.”
But two decades later on “FEAR,” Lamar has flipped the role of predator and prey. Here, it is the teenage youth reared under systemic disadvantage and violence, who fears an unprovoked, unnatural, and unredeemed death at the hands of officers.
Lamar’s deeply autobiographical articulation of fear affirms the experience and the humanity of his young, black fan base ― a group who in recent interactions with the police, have been cast in depositions and headlines as superhuman thugs. Through Lamar’s “FEAR,” we are transported into the body of a young black teenager. And there, we can see that it is not a drug-induced rage or a uncontrollable criminal craze that animates black youth’s interaction with the police. Rather, it is a deeply human fear.
In books and over beats and breaks, Coates and Lamar command language to expose the raw emotion created by interpersonal and structural racism. And thus far, their insights have helped galvanize a generation of protesters. But more than mere political literature, they offer their readers personal cues to coping as well. For it is through the very process of the naming of their nightmares that these writers have, in part, found meaning and a means to gird themselves from the long reach of American racism.