Ta-Nehisi Coates Will Not Let Frederick Seidel’s Arguable Racism Keep Him From Reading “Boys”



This month marks the publication of Frederick Seidel’s new Poems 1959-2009, feted variously in the Times and in this paper. Last Tuesday, in an inspired maneuver, the Russian Samovar invited Ta-Nehisi Coates and Benjamin Kunkel to read from the book. Coates, perversely, chose “Boys,” a poem about the various black servants who worked in his household when he was a child in St. Louis. It reads, in part:

    • The white-haired old Negro was a shoeshine boy.


    • One of the sovereign experiences in my life was my joy


    Hearing my father in a fury call the man Boy.


In the video above, Coates cracks up when he finishes and realizes he’s not the only black guy in the room. He also has a satisfyingly complete riff on why he chose the poem on his blog:

    Anyway, there was something transgressive about this entire exercise. The first poem is about a son who’s father exhibits a kind of paternal racism toward his black servants, and how the implicit brutality of it all thrills the son. The second poem ends with Seidel admiring the woman’s “blond hair at dawn”–among other things. Readers of this blog will know how distant I am from both paternal racism, and any woman’s “blond hair at dawn.” OK, being from Baltimore where the black girls dye their hair all sorts of colors, I confess to knowing a little about “blond hair at dawn.”

But my point is that reading these pieces was like living in someone else’s skin for a moment. And yet, in some deep sense, finding myself there at the bone. It is human to revel in brutality–race is irrelevant to this fact. It is human to revel in beauty—race is irrelevant to this fact.

The other poem is “October,” which is a bit more romantic, and ends:

    • Your husband rollerblades past, whizzing,


    • Making a whirring sound, winged like an angel–


    • But stops and spins around and skates back


    To buy some cut flowers in the early morning frost.

I am buying them for you.
I am buying them for your blond hair at dawn.
I am buying them for your beautiful breasts.
I am buying them for your beautiful heart.

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