'Tolstoy Is the Tolstoy of the Zulus'

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

I was mulling over the man who'd joked about the bouncing bullets--I was 8, and was not used to hearing things like that, and it had upset me. I was also recovering from having seen my father fly into one of his rages. That was earlier in the day, and the recipient had been a Kenyan auto mechanic who had failed to fix something, or hadn't done something fast enough for my father, or...who knows? But there had been streams of oaths and colorful language regarding the stupidity, the eternal density, of Africans. All of this had been shouted to the man's face, and I was horrified at the meanness and burst into tears on the spot. Which made Dad angrier. It was almost dusk, hours later, and I was still trying to process all of it.

I turned to my father and whispered, "Daddy, are Africans really stupid?"

He said, "No, sweetheart." Then he sat in silence, just smoking his Camel cigarette. After a long time he leaned over and nudged my shoulder with his arm. He didn't take his eyes off of the workers, he just pointed his cigarette at them. "Do you see the man with the notebook? He's Kikuyu. So he speaks Kikuyu, and he also speaks English. That's why he and I are able to talk to each other. The man with that thing in his hand--it's called a plumb bob--is a Muslim. He's from Northern Africa. He doesn't speak any English, but he does speak Arabic. And I'll bet he also speaks French. Yep, I'll bet you a hundred dollars: he speaks French. But the man who is Kikuyu doesn't speak Arabic or French. So how are they talking to each other?"

"I don't know."

"They both know Swahili. They are speaking to each other in Swahili. They speak five languages between them. Probably others. How many do you speak?"

"Just one. English."

"That's right. You remember that the next time someone says that Africans are stupid."

It's one of a handful of pristine memories that I have of him, things that I've never forgotten because at that moment he was being very kind and very patient. I learned at a very early age that the best way to placate a grumpy or difficult man was to ask him to teach me something.

Later I majored in English. In my third year of college I read the first five pages of Anna Karenina and was thunderstruck. It was so gorgeous, and I found it so thrilling, that I had to put the book down and go back to it a few hours later. I started taking Russian. I became obsessed with Tolstoy and stopped writing fiction because I knew that I could never *be* Tolstoy. Which enraged my father, who wanted me to be a writer. I entered a Ph.D program in literature, and Dad and I went on to have lots of good arguments about literature. And politics. He died in 1996, at 53.

I have a framed photo of Tolstoy in my bedroom. Tolstoy and Chekhov, together at a table. It's just a plate torn out of a book that I pilfered from the undergraduate library. But I am realizing, just now as I write this, that the picture shows Tolstoy--who was irascible, absolutely impossible, a judgmental crank and also a wonderful, monumental pain in the ass--lecturing Chekhov about something. Chekhov is wearing a very sweet, indulgent smile, with those wonderful crinkly eyes and an elegant slouch, just taking it all in. Because the best way to placate a difficult man is to ask him to teach you something.

UPDATE: A correction to this piece. Rachel's Dad, Charles Powers, and Robert Rosenthal were actually tortured after Idi Amin had left Uganda. The country was then under Milton Obote. You can read Rosenthal's rather account here. My apologies for the error.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/08/tolstoy-is-the-tolstoy-of-the-zulus/278789/