'Tolstoy Is the Tolstoy of the Zulus'

I got the following letter in response to this post on being black and loving European history. I wish Ralph Wiley was with us. I am pretty sure I owe him more than I can even know.

My father (Charles Powers) was a highly respected writer--a Pulitzer finalist more than once--and a foreign correspondent for the Los Angles Times for almost two decades. He was a very handsome lout, and cut a romantic figure. A journalist in the Christopher Hitchens mold; I think they even knew one another in the Middle East. Anyway, his first foreign post was in Nairobi.

This was a man who grew up desperately poor in Missouri, in a family that epitomized "white trash." I can remember visiting my grandparents at the trailer park they managed in exchange for a rent-free bungalow. I have memories of eating biscuits and sausage at their kitchen table, washing it down with Tang (my grandmother added a heaping cup of sugar to the pitcher because Tang wasn't sweet enough), and listening to my aunts and uncles discuss OJ Simpson (there was a lot of "they should just hang the nigger.") My grandfather chuckled as he described how "the boys" (*his* boys, perhaps my father) used to drive into "Niggertown" with two-by-fours, lean out of the car windows, and hit whoever came close enough. And out of this family came my father, the only one to go to college. And he was writing about Africa.

I could talk to you for hours about the time that I spent with him in Kenya, and all of the stories that he told me (He witnessed the executions, on a beach in Liberia, of a dozen government ministers during Samuel Doe's coup. And he was arrested, jailed for days, and tortured on the orders of Idi Amin, along with another journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Robert Rosenthal).

I could tell you about how he still carried a lot of family residue (don't we all), and even more about the attitudes--latent and otherwise--that complicated the extraordinary work that he did in East Africa.

He lived in a huge house near all of the embassies, at the outer edge of Nairobi. There was a veranda that looked out onto acres of farmland, really just a collection of small plots managed by individual families. My father was a hi-fi fanatic, and after obsessing for hours over the placement of the subwoofer he would unwind by turning the stereo up as high as it could go and relaxing on the veranda with a cigar. I have surreal memories of resting my chin on the railing and taking in a panoramic view of all the people squatting at their cookfires, each one outside of a shack with a corrugated tin roof, while Steve Winwood's voice rolled down the hillside, past the bougainvillea hedge and into the valley.

During one of my summer visits we drove out to the house that had served as Karen Blixen's home in the movie Out of Africa. Just to see if there was a story there. We sat down to tea with the owner, a beefy red-faced man who chuckled about a recent police action in South Africa, quipping that "the bullets just bounced off of their thick black skulls." I remember my father becoming silent as a stone, just sitting and staring at the man, allowing the situation to become as uncomfortable as possible.

My father liked fish and had always wanted to keep koi, so he hired a man to build a small pond in his enormous backyard. The pond was to be built on a slope, so the operation was just a bit more complicated than it might have been, and the builder had brought in another man who had more engineering experience. Dad and I sat in the grass above the pond site and watched the two men confer. The builder wore a polyester leisure suit that didn't quite reach his ankles, and held a notepad. The other man was very tall, wore a long white tunic and a white prayer cap, and carried a plumb bob.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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