Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Between the World and Me

        Honestly, I’ve been reluctant to write about this book up until now. I finished Between the World and Me* six months ago and then triumphantly set it in a “to review” pile on my bookshelf, admitting that I needed time to digest. As the weeks passed and I picked up other books instead, I realized that my hesitancy stemmed from a twofold fear: that I would say the wrong thing and/or that I wouldn’t contribute anything new and valuable to the subject. If you can’t tell from the picture on my blog, I’m not black. I’m actually very white and pale, despite my attempts to obscure my skin color with frequent trips to the tanning bed. I thought, How can a white girl in good conscience review a book in which the male author writes a letter to his son about the consequences of being a black American?

Nevertheless, I’ve decided to put on a brave white face and write my review. In my opinion, convictions are what differentiate us as human beings. When we feel passionately about something, it defines us and makes us unique (cue cheesy quote like *If you don’t stand for something, then you’ll fall for anything*). Of course, empathy plays a factor in my convictions, but I do believe that passion more naturally flows when I am directly affected by something. For instance, it’s easier for me to hold a firm stance on abortion than, say, the death penalty, because I am a young woman who wants to be intentional about my pregnancy or lack thereof.  I have opinions about the death penalty, but it’s a more remote issue because I won’t ever suffer at its hands (…knock on wood). Conversely, I’ve refined my position on a woman’s right to choose because I can palpably understand what it would be like to lose control of my own body.

By clearly emphasizing the effects of racism on his physical body, Ta-Nehisi Coates brings readers one step closer to more fully acknowledging his people’s pain. At the very least, he helps us envision the hardships that he has faced and continues to face because of the color of his skin. Throughout the book, Coates repeatedly refers to the American Dream. Rather than reflecting on the *Dream* in a purely abstract way, he explains that the “whites’” ability to maintain things like a strong block association and throw elaborate cookouts for our friends on Memorial Day is a tangible manifestation of slave labor. Americans think that we are the greatest nation—that we’re “above” the uncivilized countries and incapable of banality. Our racist past is just a whoopsies. Well, Coates notes that that’s a pretty big whoops. Nowadays, people point to policies like Affirmative Action and then highlight the progress we’ve made over the past century. But Coates rejects the notion that America has atoned for its brutality towards blacks and asserts that we can never fully atone. He reminds us of the bodies, saying “Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the post humorous, untouchable glory of dying for their children” (Coates, 70).

Not to mention, his people are set up to fail. We impose carefully crafted zoning laws that carve out ghettos, deprive students of meaningful education, police black youth with a hardened eye and a baton, etc.…and then frown upon disgraceful “black-on-black crime”. But, “to yell, ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding” (Coates, 111). Thus, we are a profoundly hypocritical nation without even realizing it. We are frustrated when blacks use violence in protestation, yet we are a country “which acquired the land through murder and tamed it under slavery” (Coates, 32). How can we so confidently affirm the judicial system as is, smugly spot diversity in the workforce, and proclaim that we provide equal opportunity schooling when we are actually this oblivious?

As a career writer-journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a deep thinker. When he miraculously emerged from his crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhood (Ravens rule) to attend Howard University, he thought that he should seek what “whites” seek—that he should follow the path to success traversed by so many Americans before him.  Instead, as he studied powerful intellectuals like Malcolm X, he realized that his duty was to be skeptical of any and every kind of Dream –the myth should be dispelled, not blindly embraced. The inescapable facts of America’s past and present were unsettling to him and he refused to be placated. We see such intensity in Between the World and Me not only because Coates feels strongly about the need for this kind of reminder, but because the stakes are higher now that he’s a father.

In the letter, Coates warns his son that there will be an inevitable breakdown of his black body. He speaks of the need to “contort”, transforming his body in very drastic ways in order to fit the circumstance. Talking to a police officer? Be on guard, concentrate on not being misconstrued. Talking to a friend? Be wary of how others will perceive you and pass judgment on your people. He shares, “this need to be always on guard [is] an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence” (Coates, 90). It’s a robbery of time—you might feel like you have only 23 hours in your day because of the exhaustion involved with persistent guardedness. I wonder if Jack Bauer could accomplish as much as he did with one less hour.

Overall, Coates’ description of his physical handicaps as a black man in America is well articulated. He clearly denounces overly-optimistic thinking; this is a problem that endures because we deny its existence and its not going to go away if we just grit our teeth, close our eyes, and look to a brighter future. As an atheist, he stresses to his son that this black body is all that he has and thus this problem should be of the utmost concern. He wants his son to inherit more than just his heredity traits, so he imparts this wisdom to “awaken the Dreamers” (Coates, 146). Our conception of whiteness and the lumping of our vast, intricate genealogies into “white” is not factual; it is a barrier that we erect to uphold the illusion that we deserve our privileges in comparison to blacks.

This shit is no joke and Coates conveys that very effectively, earning his book 5 out of 5 camel humps. However, it's important to note that his book is educational in a sweeping, generalizing way rather than a concrete, history-lesson way. He's not giving us a slew of historical facts about institutional racism to put in our back pockets and bring out the next time we get in a heated debate. Instead, he's reminding us of an overarching troubling past and where that leaves him as a human being.

While this medium might not be what you're looking for (i.e. you want that back-pocket jaunt), his message is certainly something that I needed to hear. Additionally, I couldn’t help but feel enamored by his passionate language and toned writing skills. It’s an important book that I think everyone should read—and it’s also short (~150 pages), so there’s no excuse. Coates’ voice has been ringing in my ears ever since I put it down and I hope that I see the world differently now, with his words in my head. Coates feels like there is a divide between the world as “whites” know it and the world as he knows it. I might not have any scholarly additions to offer to the subject of race, but I can play my part in softening the divide.

*Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. Print.

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