28 October 2015

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Posted by Callan Bentley

coates I have mentioned that I’m on a year-long effort to diversify my reading list. There are so many great books to be consumed, and I’ve been spending far too much time with white, male authors. When I heard a few weeks ago that the new cadre of MacArthur fellows was announced, I read their biographies and thought about their work. Ta-Nehisi Coates was among them, and prominently mentioned in his bio was this book, Between the World and Me, a book-length letter from Coates to his teenaged son, on the topic of being black in America. This stirred up a memory of hearing this same book highly praised recently in social media, and so this endorsement from MacArthur served as a reminder me to seek it out. There were no audiobook versions available, so unlike many of the books I review here, I actually read this one the old-fashioned way, on paper.

I review it here with a mix of imperative and trepidation. The topic is vital and urgent, but also highly charged with emotion. I worry that I might say something oafish as I process the thoughts Coates has stirred up in my mind. If I misstep, please: forgive me. My intention is to further the discussion in pursuit of justice. It also occurs to me that even if I don’t mess up in my discussion, that a portion of my readership will be upset at my bringing up the topic of race. They may feel it’s inappropriate to talk about. Certainly, they may legitimately complain, it has nothing to do with geology. I don’t really care about them, though: I feel morally compelled to call your attention to Coates’s book – it puts a compelling issue in the glare of our attention, and immerses the reader in the perspective of black existence that is at once visceral and highly intellectual. There are grave injustices being carried out daily in our nation, and everyone deserves better than to permit inequality to persist. Let’s care enough to take a closer look.

It’s a unique book in my experience. It’s a letter to his son, yes, but it’s also a letter to black youth everywhere, and to Americans everywhere, on the insidious persistence of racial inequality in our society. It is impassioned and erudite, and mixes personal history with U.S. history with keen socio-psychological analysis of patterns in American society. There are statistics quoted, but more often the language is the rich, evocative, and personal. Coates has a voice characterized by keenly-selected words and examples, and a mix of familiarity (Trayvon doesn’t need a last name specified) and intentionally specific semi-awkward formality (“people who need to think that they are white”).

Key elements in the book are his focus on the risk of bodily harm, on the imposition of class structure, on the sweep of history and the unchanging essentials of the problem of racism, and a fairly bleak outlook for the future of the problem. Coates writes with an expectation that racism in America is something you can bet on. It is a feature of our society rooted in our awful past, on the fact this nation was built with the labor — the bodies, as Coates would say — of enslaved people. It is a blatant aspect of our modern life, exemplified time and again by incidents both national and newsworthy (Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri) or fleeting and personal (a white woman pushing Coates’ son out of the way on a city sidewalk, triggering a shouting match and a threat to Coates: “I could have you arrested!”). There’s no reason to expect it to change any time soon – It’s reinforced constantly, he argues. Coates doesn’t buy religious claims of redemption after death – something that he admits sets him apart from most American black people. He doesn’t share their hope for better days ahead, for the meek inheriting the Earth. Instead, he’s a realist, focused on the here, and the now. This is something he and I share – without the nice happy afterlife to make it all better, our lives are all we have. The problem of racism exists here, now, in this world – and that’s the place to fix it. By the time we die, it’s too late.

You’ve got to be really careful, Coates warns his son. Even if you are careful, you can still get destroyed by the racist system in which you live. You can go to the store and buy Skittles and be shot dead, your murderer free to walk the streets. You can play your music too loud, and be shot dead, your murderer free to walk the streets. You can go to college and work on a degree and drive over to your fiancee’s house for dinner and and be shot dead, your police officer murderer free to walk the streets. You can sell cigarettes on the street, and police officers who choke you to death can trust in their own eventual exoneration. You won’t be treated equally, he tells his son – though you deserve to, though on paper you should officially be – the reality is that you will not be. You are black in a society that destroys black people. You need to watch out for yourself.

This is sobering stuff. I am a child of privilege and I am “white” by almost any definition of the descriptor. Coates’s repeated use (I think, in every instance) of “people who need to think that they are white” instead of “white people” was provocative to my mind. Do I “need to think that” I am white? I wouldn’t hazard an answer, because even if it’s unintentional, I feel certain that I’m probably doing something to perpetuate the status quo. I feel passionately that every person who I share this planet with should be treated as equal in inherent value.¬†“People who need to think that they are white” is essentially synonymous with “people who need to think that they are better or more important than other people” – it’s a reflection of the ranking of value that many people apply as they look out at a world full of other people. Professors have value equal to their students. Women have the same value as men. A wealthy person’s inherent value is identical to a person with no money at all. Convicted felons are equal in value to upstanding citizens. Somali children are equally important as American children. Every instance where the rich gain societal advantage over the poor, where men subjugate women, where a black child is denied an opportunity available to a white child, where tribalism manifests as xenophobia — is an inequality and therefore an injustice. I may here be scolded with “It’s unrealistic to expect this to change,” and that may be true – but it should change. If we can see the problem clearly, we can work towards a solution. I’m sick of shoulders being shrugged at others’ misfortune.

This really bothers me, but I should emphasize that I understand it doesn’t threaten me the way it threatens Coates or his son. It doesn’t threaten me with bodily harm, the way socialized racism threatens my black students, the way socialized sexism threatens women in Saudi Arabia or Shenandoah County, the way America’s exaltation of wealth threatens those who don’t have any money. In spite of my intentions of social justice, however, I wonder how many racist lessons I’ve internalized merely by being a cog in the American machine. I guess the best I can do is use my position as Coates uses his: to call attention to a situation that has been unjust forever, and continues to be, in front of our faces, every day. I can use my pulpit here on the blog to remind my readers that they have an opportunity to help correct injustice, starting by embracing an awareness of it.

This quotation, one paragraph from the middle of the book, I think demonstrates what the book is about and how Coates approaches his material:

That wisdom is not unique to our people,but I think it has special meaning to those of us born out of mass rape, whose ancestors were carried off and divided up into policies and stocks. I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. 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 feeling 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 dress-making and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world –which is really the only world she can ever know– ends. 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. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country for longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains – whole generations followed by more generations that knew nothing but chains.

You will note there that Coates writes with righteous passion. The passage speaks for itself, but it exemplifies the book’s second person perspective, the literary sense of description, the grounding in physical reality and real life, the personal focus and the empty hollow where the Golden Rule should apply, the infusion of history, the tone of admonition. To me, it feels intense, and that too is representative of the imperative feel of the entire book.

What advice will I have for my own son when he comes of age? Certainly the advice would overlap with the advice Coates gives to his son, but largely it would cover different terrain. Growing up and transitioning to manhood will be different for a child who looks like mine than for a child who looks like Coates’s. This is patently, wildly unfair, and so perhaps the best bet for rectifying the injustices my son will encounter is to raise his awareness, nurture his sense of empathy, and teach him techniques for enabling the advance of equality and justice. Perhaps I should give him Coates’s book as part of that effort.

Why is it so hard for us all to treat other people the way we want to be treated, and strive to help all people be treated justly? How will I answer my son when he asks me why people are so awful to each other, so endlessly cruel and hateful?

Walk a mile in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s shoes. Read this book.