I had to go see Equalizer 2 with Denzel Washington. I have been a fan of Denzel since he played Steve Biko in Cry Freedom. I remember going to the Empire cinema in Leicester Square, London, to watch the film on my own. What was happening in South Africa, at the time, meant the world to me, and I had to go see the film. Needless to say, I fell in love with Denzel’s black body! Although I sometimes groan watching some of the parts he has played over the years (like Training Day and Safe House, which makes me ask the question, “Why Denzel?”) I still go to see every film he is in! Although The Equalizer and Equalizer 2 are very violent thrillers, Denzel Washington (as Robert McCall) plays the part of a sacred warrior. He is a retired special forces agent turned avenger, who no longer follows orders to kill, but lets his heart decide. His quiet storm (rage) is directed against those who have harmed the “innocents.”
In the opening scene of Equalizer 2, Denzel is reading from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between The World And Me. I immediately sat up straight in the cinema. I know that I am in for a treat. And I was not disappointed. Shades of blackness colors this sequel unlike the first.
Between The World And Me is a long love letter woven by profound knowledge and intense emotions that Coates wrote to his adolescent son about the story of race on the American landscape. A landscape shaped by torture, theft, and enslavement, after being acquired through murder. The World, for Coates, is one secured and ruled by savage means. As Coates explained to his son, the police officer of America carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy (a legacy which gave them a strange birthright; the right to beat, rape, rob, and pillage the black body), and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be Black. In America it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage. And, because it is heritage, the destroyers will rarely be held accountable.
The book is divided into three parts:
Part 1 opens with a poem from Sonia Sanchez:
“Do not speak to me of martyrdom
of men who die to be remembered
on some parish day.
I don’t believe in dying
though, I too shall die.
And violets like castanets
will echo me.”
Part 2 opens with a poem from Amiri Baraka:
“Our world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone’s
tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air
We are beautiful people
with african imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with african eyes, and noses, and arms,
though we sprawl in grey chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.”
Part 3 opens with a quote from James Baldwin:
“And have brought humanity to the edgy of oblivion: because they think they are white.”
Coates wrote his letter to his son, with african eyes and african imaginations. What Coates wants for his son, is not martyrdom but for him to grow in consciousness because he does not have the privilege of living in ignorance. Knowledge is power. And why it is power is because it gives you a voice. You can no longer be silenced or live in silence. Of all our studies, it is historical knowledge that gives you a strident voice. And as you read Coate’s words, you can hear the boom of history thundering through his message to his son, when he tells him, “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels.” Coates’ letter is about ringing the alarm and warning his son about those who think they are white. The people he calls the destroyers and the dreamers. He understands that the destroyers have created a dream world, which is nightmarish in its contours. Coates is one who has awakened in the destroyers’ dream world and has seen through the illusion. Hence, his book is an urgent message of love with a kind of obsession. We who are Black parents know this love. It is the scent of violet. We live with the twin flames of blue fear and red rage. It is the reason we understood when Prince sang, “I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain.”
In Equalizer 2, that fear and rage animate the film, because Denzel plays not only an avenging role but also a fatherly role to a young man, Miles (Ashton Sanders). It’s an affectionate relationship of protection and guidance; echoing the love Coates has for his son which compelled him to walk the air to write the book.
I had bought Between The World And Me, probably a year or so ago. I skimmed through it and put it on the to-read shelf. This summer I moved it to the center shelf of my reading/writing desk — the space for books I wanted to read or reread. In late July 2018, I read Between The World And Me and loved it. I immediately called my best friend. I told him that I could see why Ta-Nehisi Coates has been compared to Richard Baldwin. However, in Equalizer 2, the film went even further and placed Coates as the current guardian of the Afrikan-American flame, coming from a line beginning with Fredrick Douglas! (Yeah, that clip of the Fredrick Douglas’ mural was not an accident. That was purposeful!)
What was significant for me, was that Denzel gave the book to Miles to read! Denzel had been reading 100 books in memory of his wife, Vivian. Between The World And Me was not one of those 100 books, yet this was the book he chose to give to Miles! A book relevant to “The World” Miles was growing up in.
A scene from Equalizer 2: Robert McCall with Miles.
When I had finished reading Between The World And Me, I thought about doing a post on the book because I loved so much of what Coates had to share. By talking to his son, Coates speaks to us. His letter is intensely personal but profoundly communal in its reach. It reaches into my life, your life, our lives. We are all sitting at the banquet of despair, starving, and crying out not for food but for sustenance. Whether you agree or disagree, this is a w e l l w r i t t e n book! It sustains you. Of course, there were parts of the book that I was not feeling. I felt Coates had yet to grow in spirituality, which went beyond the pale. He had awakened in the dream world but on his wanderings, he has not found his mother’s garden. I did not see the reason he needed to go to France, because the ones who have awakened him, his ancestors, are not there. It is always amazing to me that if one does not believe in the three patriarchal religions: Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, one will encounter the question, “Do you believe in God?” Does God/the creator/creatress only exist in these three religions? Religions that were created, rather organized, yesterday? And by yesterday, I mean within the last two thousand years. Considering that Afrikan people have existed as homo sapien sapien for over 300, 000 years, am I to believe that everything my people believed in for over 288, 000 years before there was “religion” is worth nothing???
And is there a place in this world that a Black wo/man can be free or have a feeling of freedom, when the destroyers are still at the gates, after burning the cities, killing the men, raping the women, scattering the people, and exploiting the lands/resources??? It is an illusion to believe that there is any place in this world where the air is not tainted with racism, exploitation, corruption, and hatred.
After watching Equalizer 2, I realized that I should definitely do a “Ten Quotes” post. I felt that Denzel was acting like Eleggua/Esu at the crossroads, and gave me an opening. And if Coates needs a spiritual tradition to stand on, he should definitely explore Lucumi/Santeria. Rather than France, he should go to Cuba, where the Orishas and ancestors are waiting for him because he has been struggling for them, and those yet to come. Or he could do an African Ancestry DNA test so that he finds his mother’s garden, and reconnect with the source of the power and inspiration within himself.
And yes, if you are a Black father (or mother like I am), please buy Between The World And Me! It is true what the great Toni Morrison has said about the book. Indeed, it is required reading.
Here are Ten Quotes from Between The World And Me:
1. [Euro-Americans] believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism — the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate and reduce them — inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.
2. These new people (those who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white) are…a modern invention. Their name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white — Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish — and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. It must be said, that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in white, was not achieved through wine tasting and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.
3. To be Black in Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy…
4. I could not retreat, as so many, into the church and its mysteries. My parents rejected all dogmas. We spurned the holidays marketed by the people who wanted to be white. We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God.
5. If I could have chosen a flag…it would have been embroidered with a portrait of Malcolm X, dressed in a business suit, his tie dangling, one hand parting a window shade, the other holding a rifle. The portrait communicated everything I wanted to be — controlled, intelligent, and beyond fear. I would buy tapes of Malcolm’s speeches — “Message to the Grassroots,” “The Ballot or the Bullet” — down at Everyone’s Place, a black bookstore on North Avenue, and play them on my Walkman. “Don’t give up your life, preserve your life,” he would say. “And if you got to give it up, make it even-steven.” This was not boasting — it was a declaration of equality rooted not in better angels or the intangible spirit but in the sanctity of the black body. You preserved your life because your life, your body, was as good as anyone’s, because your blood was as precious as jewels, and it should never be sold for magical, for spirituals inspired by the unknowable hereafter. You do not give your precious body to the billy clubs of Birmingham sheriffs nor to the insidious gravity of the streets. Black is beautiful, which is to say that the black body is beautiful, that black hair must be guarded against the torture of processing and lye, that black skin must be guarded against bleach, that our noses and our mouths must be protected against modern surgery. We are all our beautiful bodies and so must never be prostrate before barbarians, must never submit our original self, our one of one, to defiling and plunder.
6. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feelings is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone… For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history.
7. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you have come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the street that America made.
8. Hell upon those who tell us to be twice as good and shoot us no matter. Hell for ancestral fear that put Black parents under terror. And hell upon those who shatter the holy vessel.
9. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.
10. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom… Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name.
Picture credit: Ta-Nehisi Coates by Victoria Cassinova.