The Context of Violence

It seems our family is full of Baltimore lately, a city we’ve never visited. But my wife’s been reading Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, I’ve been reading The Beautiful Struggle, and we’ve both been listening to Serial. From these sources, it’s not a pretty picture.

In reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ fantastic memoir, I ran across this scene that brought the context of racial violence into sharp focus. The young Ta-Nehisi had just come home from school after striking a teacher, with all the dangerous outcomes of such an act still hanging over him. His father is there.

“He was waiting in the foyer at the door, again magically called off work at the worst possible time. 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 mother stepped in.

Paul, Paul.

He shoved her away.

Woman, get off me.

And then he was swinging away, channeling a chi ancient as Equiano. The power was passed down from mothers guarding their sons from the lash, and later from the pyre, rope, and fat sheriff. My father swing 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?

I saw my mother some hours later in our small kitchen. She tried to explain what she felt, but began to cry instead. She knew that I had no idea how close I was, would always be, to the edge, how easily boys like me were erased in impractical ways. One minute we were tossing snowballs at taxis, firing up in frond the 7-Eleven, speeding down side streets and the next we’re surrounded by unholstered guns, a false move away from going down. I would always be a false move away. I would always have a dagger at my throat.”

The idea that, in a context of racial violence, domestic violence might be in some way a better alternative had never occurred to me. In this situation, Coates doesn’t connect his father’s violence with the “breakdown of the family” but with the righteousness of self-defense and slave revolts. The options aren’t violence or peace but violence born of love/fear and violence born or hate/fear. This is violence intended as a taste of and warning against a more serious, deadly violence that lurks around each corner. I don’t think that excuses violence – I don’t think we should ever excuse violence – but it does lend a new perspective to the causes of such violence and the experience of those whose lives are lived in a context of racial violence.

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