Sep 5, 2015

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book, quietly released a few months ago, has enjoyed a resurgence very recently, and rightly so. America's longstanding reluctance to acknowledge continuing racism and racial inequities is slowly melting away against the onslaught of media attention finally being directed to the killings of black men and women, particularly by the police force. It's becoming clearer that we can no longer be complacent about this latent anti-black sentiment that seems to pervade American policies.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a journalist, but this is not a work of journalism; it is a work of the heart. "Between the World and Me" is a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, who, though he is growing up in a very different world from his father's projects of Baltimore, is nonetheless witness and subject to the racial violence that plagues our nation. The most important aspect of this slim book is that it positions the problem in a very different light than has been the norm. This is not a scholarly piece, and the audience is a teenage boy, so Coates frames it in bare, understandable terms: What the black person fears, throughout his or her entire life, is losing control of his body. From day one, cradle to the grave, black men and women are in danger of violence being acted upon their bodies by their parents, their neighbors in the ghetto, their police officers, even total strangers (Trayvon Martin). Assault, rape, guns, even the seemingly unthinking act of a white woman pushing Coates' four-year-old son out of the way are indications of the danger to a black person's body. Incarcerated at rates magnitudes higher than whites, far more often victims of police brutality, inheritors of a people enslaved, beaten, raped, and owned - Coates has hit the nail on the head. I'm not black, but I am a woman, and so I feel I understand what he means. There is a sense that at any time, any place, someone could take advantage of their physical superiority over me and hurt my body. For black men, the reality that someone physically inferior could do the same is, I'm sure, even more psychologically damaging.

The other main point Coates makes is that the racial problem is created by people who think they are, and need to be, "white." I have a bit more trouble understanding this argument, for the obvious reason that I am ostensibly a member of this category. Even so, I think I see what he means. It's the age-old dance of us vs. them; to make us feel better and safer, we have to define ourselves against something else. America's history of black slavery has left black people in this perpetual underclass, even those who are financially successful. Coates inveighs against the American Dream, that mostly unattainable life of white picket fences and Ivy League schools and yachts. This Dream, he argues, does not apply to black people. It is a soporific that tricks Americans of all colors into accepting the current situation as the status quo. This is a point I wish Coates would have discussed a bit more fully, because I think he's onto something but don't have enough to really understand it. I hope that as the popularity of "Between the World and Me" grows and our national conversation about race continues to evolve, he will build upon this incredibly important work.

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