The Book of Human Language

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II. Wonder


My Dad always worked. He worked at his job at Howard. Worked when he got home. Worked on weekends and birthdays. Reveled blasphemous in the Lord's Season. When I think of him, work is the first image in my mind. I see him unloading boxes of books. Mashing saddle-stiched staplers. Frying fish. Mixing cornbread from scratch. Whacking kids; Quashing our young brief rebellions. 

We were enrolled into his life. And though he would surely deny it, we worked. Hauling books. Counting inventory. Packing and shipping. Hustling our wares at Art-Scape. Pitching the press at African Liberation Day. Remanded to Ayi Kwei Armah. Dommed to Ishmael Reed. Dad would sit in an easy-chair, with reading glasses low, and lecture from Up From Slavery. He had been a late 60s radical. But at his heart he was a puritan conservative dispensing a strange gospel rooted in the acquiring of knowledge, the inevitibaility of violence, and everywhere, the work.

He had labored from the start. Sweeping floors. Delivering groceries. Grasping at whatever his chid-hands could handle. His money went to his mother saddled with three kids, alcoholism. Down on relief. He devoured books even then. He would cut class for libraries and museums. He would walk downtown, running his hand along large buildings, feeling the unrelenting textures, dreaming of something, somewhere, larger than the poverty and despair of Old Philly.

How he came to love French, I do not know. I have asked him, but he can't remember. He's always loved movies, so perhaps a few spare words from the moving pictures. At all events, the salient fact is this--one season he saved his change and sent off for series of records that promised, by sheer listening and repetition, to imbue him with this beautiful language of waves and undulation. He remembers laying on his bed playing the record over and over, repeating the words, summoning France through incantations of greeting and conjugation.

He was, like me, like nearly every Coates boy, a poor student. It is a curse with us. A thing  embedded deep in the strands and nucluei. Someday a great scientist shall stick us in a big machine. Electrodes will crown our heads.  On a large screen, a teacher puts chalk to blackboard. The scientist grows wide-eyed. Data spits across the scene showing our neurons not so much firing, as stretching back to yawn.

Left alone, my Dad played that record like it was music. Because it was music. This word Bonsoir is its own magic. It is beautiful coming off your tongue. Your mouth make it's own happy ending. Your lips draw in for a kiss. And this magic is regardless of literal meaning. It is held in the very form. 


Dad never made it to fluency. But I've thought about him throughout my own  experience. And I've thought about ancestry, itself. To be black is to be able to reach back and touch people whose lives were, by law, foreclosed of certain possibility. No one cared about your intelligence, or curiosity. You were assigned to a certain lane, and there you stayed less you tempt all the violence the state brought to bear. 

I understood education as a means of warding off death. You went to school to not go to prison. To not get shot. To not be, as my mother called them, an "If I had my gun" nigger standing on the corner. This is a product of the actual environment. In so many neighborhoods education must be about saving lives. But if you are ranger, this is slavery. Wonder took my father to French. And wonder to my father Nam. And wonder took my father to the Panthers. And wonder took him to my mother. And wonder carries me now to you. To see wonder daily reduced to  plastic is another kind of death.

I write to you early this Tuesday morning, Brel in the background, from a street that is far from the streets, as a boy, I once knew.  Those of us who are rangers have seen so much more than our fathers. But they walk with us. I imagine my father in the evening, sprawled across his bed, a child again. Record on. Lights off. Music forking down through darkness. Striking green imagination. Catching fire.

*The artist is Jean Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. The piece is Boy With A Top. More info here

**Previous entry in this series here.
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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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