Across the front jacket of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ nationally acclaimed book Between the World and Me is a quote from Toni Morrison. “This is required reading,” it says. And Toni Morrison is never wrong.
I saw Coates speak at the Free Library in October. At the time, I hadn’t yet read his latest book. I had known of him through his interviews on news programs and his journalism work for The Atlantic. In 2012 he penned Fear of a Black President, noting Barack Obama’s “remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites,” and again in 2014, he published the widely discussed The Case for Reparations, which is striking in all its heartbreaking truth. These pieces set the stage for Between the World and Me. This book follows his 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle, which recounts his childhood growing up in Baltimore the son of a Vietnam Veteran and former Black Panther.
Between the World and Me takes its influences from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and is written as a letter to his son, a full-length searing meditation on living in a country where unarmed black men and boys are gunned down by police with no repercussions. Where racism, both subtle and overt, runs rampant.
Reading his words is one thing. He’s an amazing writer and journalist but it’s hard not to read the difficult truths he presents (that so many people have known for so long) and not come away feeling overwhelmed. Empowered to act, yes, but overwhelmed with where to begin. A feeling of bleakness settles in. Seeing him in person and hearing him speak is not so different from reading his words, except that his presence is so profoundly magnetic, so commanding of attention (though he speaks softly, in truth), that the feeling of bleakness is all the more disconcerting. Coates speaks the truth, plainly. There are no fancy adjectives or methods of presenting information in any other way than honestly. And what he says stings: for centuries in our country and elsewhere, deliberate policies have been maintained to hold an entire group of people to the level of marginalized citizens. Their bodies have been hunted, their lives plundered, over and over again throughout history, by those people who believe themselves to be white.
This is important distinction that he makes in the book, and which others have reminded us, which we must continue to be reminded of until it sinks in. There are no such things as divided races amongst the human race. There is no Black race and White race. There are people who believe themselves to be white because history and policies have told them so.
(For the next few paragraphs, I’ll use the term “white” and “race” as much as it is culturally understood, because I myself am still learning the language to distinguish these things.)
My own upbringing and understanding of race was pretty much nil. I grew up, like so many in this country, in an insular, white, rural neighborhood. We weren’t wealthy, but we were okay. There was plenty of white poverty, just as much as there were extremely wealthy people thriving and living cheaply in the area. I go home now and there are TRUMP signs in every front yard, to give you an idea. My high school graduating class of 260 had less than 10 students who weren’t white. Of those, most were Asian, Indian, Pakistani. We didn’t talk about race. Not at home, not in school. But speaking of the place as a whole, it was apparent there was a fear. Fear of black men in Pottsville, fear of Latinos in Reading, a complete disregard for black women. These were sentiments that had been passed along for generations. My grandfather told me to thank God every day for being Christian (which I’m not), white (which I am only by societal standards), and American (entrenched idealism). My grandmother used racial slurs to describe the family who lived next door, who she was kind when speaking to. I didn’t recognize these as slurs until much later in life, but I did recognize that I could play with the girls in the neighborhood who looked like me freely outdoors, but the young girl next door, skin much darker than my own, I could only play through the railing that separated my grandmother’s porch from her mother’s. We passed toy cars underneath the small gap.
I thankfully attended a large, diverse college that helped to shape my worldview, but even then I was still dumb to my privilege, still believed some of the narratives that had been taught to me by family, the place I grew up, the news. It would take until after college, until my personal and professional relationships diversified, that I learned to talk frankly about race and began to understand the immense privileges I had been born with simple for having less melanin in my skin.
I bring up my own experiences because this, to me, feels like the heart of Coates’ frustration. Words and thoughts mean things. They are the narratives that have been passed along generation to generation. They affect policy. Policy affects lives. Policy change is the difference between us accepting that a 12-year-old boy can be gunned down by our police or not accepting it. Policy change is allowing soaring unemployment for black teenagers and young adults or not allowing it. It’s being okay that black and brown families in this country can be forced to live in an entirely separate world, a world underscored by fear for their bodies, with rules and repercussions no one who believes they are white will ever have to deal with.
I struggle to understand exactly how narratives about race continue. My grandmother wasn’t a hateful person. But she erred when she listened without question. The narratives she’d been taught had been passed along to her, or shaped at some point in her life. Poor American leadership have supported the myths of race, have allowed for the systematic imprisonment of black and brown bodies, the insatiable poverty, the plundering of whole communities. These narratives have been passed along, shaped and reshaped, since slavery (Coates reminds us that black Americans have been enslaved longer than they’ve been free.) And now it’s nearly 2016, and this is where we are.
Coates writes, “The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.” He speaks often of “The Dream” which, he explains is “perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways” this is used as in direct opposition to the world in which he grew up in West Baltimore where, “The streets transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beatdown, a shooting, or a pregnancy. No one survives unscathed.” He writes, “And so in my Baltimore it was known that when Cherry Hill rolled through you rolled the other way, that North and Pulaski was not an intersection but a hurricane, leaving only splinters and shards in its wake.” The Dream, then, to Coates, was the world just beyond all of this, a world he couldn’t see but always knew existed. But also, “The Dream thrives on generalizations, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” The Dream is, essentially, the thing that keeps racial strata unshakably in place.
Coates’ writing takes on its most literary form when recalling Howard University, or, The Mecca, which he calls “the crossroads of the black diaspora.” He writes,
“I first witnessed this power out on the Yard, that communal green space in the center of campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses. It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of ‘Redemption Song,’ each in a different color and key.”
The language is beautiful and moves like poetry. It is rich and playful and is some of my favorite bits in the book. From this part of the story, we meet Prince Jones, who becomes the centerpiece for much of the latter half of the book. Prince, described in the book as a person who “seemed to have a facility with everyone and everything,” and “Generosity radiated off of him,” was shot and killed by a Maryland police officer after his car was wrongly identified and followed. Coates writes, “I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.” In other words, Prince’s death, just like Trayvon Martin’s, Tamir Rice’s, Eric Garner’s, John Crawford’s, Michael Brown’s, Tanisha Anderson’s, Walter Scott’s, Freddie Gray’s, Laquan McDonald’s, and the countless other black bodies that have been maimed or killed and didn’t make the mainstream news, were a culmination of fear narratives and political action held in place and perpetuated for years and years. Yes, the cop kills, but what society does the cop come from? There is no one rogue officer doing all of this killing.
Coates, like Baldwin and Wright before him, lives part-time in Paris, France, a place that (though not perfect) does not share the U.S.’s history of plundering black bodies. Paris, for Coates, “recalled New York, but without the low-grade, ever-present fear.” He moved to Paris for the language, perhaps for the food, but mostly for his son, who he wanted to have a life “apart from fear.”
The story ends with a scene on a dreary, rainy day, when Coates visits Prince Jones’ mother. It is an emotional scene, with Dr. Jones recalling the Jeep her son begged her to get him, the same one he was killed in. After leaving her home, Coates contemplates, “Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.” He goes on, “But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small change of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious.” He prophesizes that the Dreamers, after plundering bodies, after plundering the earth, will ultimately ruin themselves.
I think I want to revise what I wrote earlier. It’s not so much a bleakness that overcomes when reading Coates. It’s a deep understanding that what he articulates is the hot, coiling truth of the American story. There would be no American Dream without the foundation of bodies destroyed and used as ladders to climb to some suburban paradise. And those who believe they are white can continue to do it, over and over again, until there is nothing left for them to destroy in their goal for excess. But what can we do? How do we change it?
We can start by paying attention, listening instead of speaking, voting for policy change, being an ally, acknowledging the history that got us to this place, acknowledging privileges afforded to you based solely on skin color, gender, sexuality, wealth or lack of. We can live in a country that is fair and kind to all its citizens and to its earth, or we can carry on the way we are, the way we have been. And look where that has gotten us all.