I only recently became aware of Ta-Nehisi Coates from an article on Rawstory.com or Salon.com. Once my interest was piqued, I requested a copy of the book from the library. In the intervening time, I read at least two fiction novels. Delving into fictional worlds is my primary method of escapism and helps me forget a lot of things I would rather not remember. It unfortunately also includes a lot of things that I might rather remember instead, like what I liked about him that made me want to read his books.
I knew ahead of time that he had written the book as a long letter to his son, Salomi. I rather like that kind of one sided conversation that an author has with a particular reader, the most poignant being from a parent to a child or vice versa. When I first started writing in an online journal to read by my friends, thinking of them helped me frame my thoughts. Reading this book is being on the listening end of a very private and emotional conversation filled with love, fear, and hope.
What I like most is that he writes plainly and openly to his son. Coates does not soften his words because they are not cruel, simply the truth of what it is to experience life as a black man in America. He does not exaggerate to bolster a claim that lacks a solid foundation. His experience lights his truth. He does not hide his thoughts from his son or from us. His raw honesty to his son about what to expect in life gives his writing strength, depth, and insight. I also think that his honesty and unwillingness to look away from the truth comes not only from his experience as a black man, but as an atheist. He has no God or spirituality to fall back on, just the realization that life is beautiful and precious and irreplaceable because it is the only one that we have.
In the midst of reading, I saw again that there are some things that I will never understand about the black experience. Black bodies can be taken and abused, crushed, and killed at any time in way that happens much less with white bodies. Justice almost never comes. Mr. Coates’ honesty about this and his unwillingness to be anything but honest for his son’s sake form a gripping narrative interwoven with examples from his personal life, along with others.
There are some things I understand better or differently after reading Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Not all of these conclusions can be traced to the book. Some things that I see now or more clearly include:
- The foundation of American commerce was built on black bodies, i.e. slavery. To call it slavery disguises reality: black bodies were controlled and put to use for the profit of their white owners.
- In the Civil War, the Confederate South did not want to give up their right to enslave black bodies for profit. Calling this a way of life disguises what happened to black bodies.
- Despite the North winning the Civil War or the passage of the 15th and 19th amendments or The Voting Rights Act or The Civil Rights movement or #BlackLivesMatter, institutionalized racism exists. As long as it exists, black and brown bodies suffer disproportionately.
- It seems that some whites are still angry that they cannot enslave black bodies and have been busy trying to punish them ever since. They do not want to give up a defeated flag. They do not want welfare. They do not want affordable health care. They want black bodies to go to work to get off welfare, but make laws that prevent people with jail time from getting hired. And they especially do not want to give up their flags or give welfare or see people covered by health insurance or hire someone if it’s going to help black bodies and hurt poor white bodies. As long it doesn’t hurt rich white bodies, anything’s on the table. They want to call it a way of life or tradition. They want to silence the truth of black bodies, voices, minds, and expression with their revisionist histories.
- Black bodies are blamed for their violence done to their bodies as rape victims are blamed for their rapes. Blackness automatically equals a thug. Black bodies are told to “be twice as good”, as if this could save them from being beaten killed in the same way that telling a woman to be “twice as modest” wouldn’t work to prevent rape. Rape exists in the land of the burka. Death of black bodies because of institutionalized racism exists in the land of the free.
- As long as people live in a Dream that there is such a thing as white and it has a singular ethnicity or is associated with lightness, goodness, and righteousness, black bodies will continue to live in danger for speaking too loudly, for playing music too loud, for posing like a “thug”, for wearing a hoodie, for not pulling over for a plain clothes police officer driving an unmarked vehicle in the middle of nowhere, for playing with a toy rifle at a playground.
- The only solution to break up the systemic and institutionalized racism is to break the Dream. There is no one true white race. Racism is a physical experience for black bodies because their bodies are often not under their control to save; they cannot get or expect justice when harmed. That is the reserve of the privileged, of white bodies.
When I first read the title, it sounded similar to the phrase “between you and me” as in “this is our little secret.” However, the title signifies something much deeper and more sinister. There is a breach between the world at large and Ta-Nehisi Coates, between the world of the white bodies and black bodies. Racism and the dream of whiteness sundered the worlds of white and black bodies with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. Black bodies have not been the only ones at the bottom, but they have been at the bottom of the American Dream since America’s inception.
Let’s tear that shit down. I believe that we have a much better future ahead of us, if only we’d dare. The way it is now is not sustainable or right in any sense of the word.