Two African American journalists have recently thrust themselves into the public limelight—one through brilliance, one through violence. On one hand there is Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose recent book Between the World and Me is a deeply considered and highly challenging deconstruction of race in America that takes the form of an open letter to his son. It is a remarkable achievement and deserves the attention it is receiving. On the other hand, there is Vester Flanagan III (aka, Bryce Williams) a talented journalist whose notoriety came through the brutal on camera murder of his two unsuspecting ex-colleagues in Virginia. Before committing his hate crimes, Flanagan wrote a letter to his father stating why he did what he did—a manifesto-of-sorts, only parts of which have been published. Both Coates and Flanagan wrote to expose and condemn a pernicious and persisting system of white supremacy, but they took antithetical stances toward dealing with the same realities. And the difference between the postures of protest taken by these two men—in their writings and in their lives—may ultimately make all the difference in our chances for creating the America that most of us hope for.
But before focusing on the significant and fundamental differences between these two manifestos, lets first discuss their similarities:
Both Coates and Flanagan wrote intimate, confessional messages of ultimate concern to a family member to convey a legacy of experience and insight. By writing open letters, both men sought to tell the story of their journey and what it had taught them to the world at large, including the white world that both men rail against. They were writing in the ancient literary tradition of the cross-generation man-to-man letters between father and son, a tradition that has received renewed popularity in the African American internet media as a healing response to the increasing body count.
Coates and Flanagan share an understanding of America that rejects most of our revered views of ourselves. They both warn of a central motive within the American character—one bred in its bone and marrow—that propels the figurative and literal wounding, deforming, and killing of black men. Both of these men would probably agree that the root of this fatal flaw in our character, the American Achilles heel, is the legacy of believing in whiteness. Whiteness is a delusion that Coates calls a Dream. This Dream gives those who believe in it the power to dissociate from the worse human qualities and attribute them to those people who can never fully share the Dream—those defined as black. The Dream of being white exempts those who embrace it from empathy and responsibility for any lives that are not white, and in Coates’ words gives them the privilege and power to “take the black body” by arrest, prison, beatings, and murder. Coates’ writing, while on a higher level of discourse than Flanagan’s, resonates with the bleak perceptions which inform Flanagan’s anguished, and resentful tirade.
But sharing a dark vision of America’s fatal flaws is where the similarity ends between the two letters and the two men. Flanagan’s letter is a desperate, hastily written, feverish dispatch from the edge of the abyss just before he took the plunge into death for himself and two others. Coates’ book, on the other hand, is a painstaking presentation of fact and observation, and conveys the sense that every stone has been turned and handled by reason. Coates offers hard-won, sage advice for his son, for all sons, in how to deal with the same abyss that Flanagan so violently plunged himself into—an abyss that Coates has also peered into and found away to navigate around Coates is trying to give his son—and through him all sons and fathers—a master blueprint for how to deal with the machinery of whiteness—a machine that is not aware of, does not acknowledge, and does feel for those caught and shred by the gears that drive the system relentlessly forward through history. Coates reminds his son that he is always loved, but that love will not protect him from the system. It is a system built by sleepwalkers which is sustained by the exploitation and destruction of people like him and those closest to him. As grim and unapologetically iconoclastic as Coates’ book is, it is a labor of love and hope for his son, for all sons and fathers, and for the world.
Flanagan’s manifesto, on the other hand, exposed the psyche of a man who was unable to escape his own narcissism. He overvalued his role as an escort, as someone sexually desirable, which may have been a reaction to finding himself gay in a world that treated his sexuality, like his blackness, as a defect and emblem of sin. He apparently had a loving and accepting father, and religious prohibitions were not central to his family life. We cannot know where the acceptance and love, the many protections we might assume were given to Flanagan, failed him at the end. Flanagan’s letter to his father is bitterly sarcastic. His comparing of himself with Dylann Roof and other spree killers, his claim to act in vengeance for the Emanuel Church massacre, even the specific grievances and harms he felt were heaped upon him because of his race and sexuality—none of this is convincing as any explanation of his state of mind or justification for his actions.
Both Coates and Flanagan saw themselves in the abyss. Coates started thinking, loving, and creating a way around, or over it. Flanagan saw his own image in the abyss and he began running a frenzied circuit from its edge to its center. Ultimately, he felt too small and too unworthy to go there alone. There is no full accounting for the common human frailties growing too thick and tough within a life to be pruned to a manageable size by a bit of compassion and common sense. If Flanagan had been able to comprehend the world in larger terms—while not denying what was between him and that world—he would have been able, one hopes, to see Coates’ words, or those like them spoken by others, as speaking to him out of love, concern, and hope. Ultimately what was between the world and Flanagan rendered him incapable of widening that world enough to see the way beyond the obstacle.