Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehsi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, was an insightful, empathetic, and frame-shifting book for me. My life has no shortage of mind expanding intellectual experiences — my wife is an erudite, accomplished political organizer; my family spent vacations reading books; I’ve had the privilege of doing work that lets me travel all over the world; my circle of friends includes people who, to a person, are interested in and passionate about understanding their world.

But something early on in Between the World and Me hit me in a way that I had never thought about before, and I felt a mixture of shame and fascination as it did. It was this, and it was on page two:

This leads us to another equally important ideal, one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim. Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism — the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them — inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible — this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

It seems so obvious — of course the idea of race is not a defined feature of the natural world. Of course it only exists as a side effect of racism — otherwise, why would it exist at all? But with those two paragraphs I had to face up to the fact that, my entire life (and I am almost 40) — that simple, basic truth had not occured to me. It hadn’t been taught to me. No matter how apparent it may be, or how profound its implications, the simple fact of it was impossible to ignore: the nature and privilege of my own upbringing was inextricably tied to the idea that such a naming was normal, natural — that it existed a-priori in the world.

It was a horrifying realization. I grew up in a place that, in the grand scheme of diversity, had essentially none. I remember precisely two people of color going to school with me (there may have been more, but I would put good money that there were less than 20 total in the entire history of my schooling after the second grade.) I had to move to Phoenix, Arizona, to form my first real friendships with anyone who wasn’t considered white — to even be exposed at all. I’ve spent a not-insignificant amount of my life reading philosophy, history, and politics — and yet my perspective had always been profoundly, fundamentally, irrevocable wrong. I like to believe that I’m empathetic, that I strive to understand, that I want all human beings to be treated equally. I’m a feminist! But damn if, at the root of it, I didn’t believe that it was somehow fundamental. It had literally never even occured to me that it wasn’t.

His book continues, and explains more fundamentally the way it feels to be trapped in a world built on the savaging of people like you, of the daily risk inherent in simple existence. It’s a moving, incredibly well written portrait of a man trying to impart what wisdom he may have gained to his son, and you should read it.

In the New York Times review of the book, Michelle Alexander references the work of James Baldwin, which was the inspiration for Coates’ book. Interestingly enough, last night, at a potluck for my daughters school (in the heart of San Francisco) — I was discussing how much I liked the book with one of my daughters incredible teachers. She asked me if I knew James Baldwin, and I said no — her immediate response was “Your daughter will”. In that single moment, I knew in my bones that our decisions about where, and how, to have my daughter be in school were right — this woman, black, queer, full of ambitious experiements and caring about equality for all the children she teaches, was already influencing my five year old daughters view of the world. It gave me hope that she might grow up never needing to be rocked by the idea that race existed as the child of racism, not the other way around.

Michelle Alexander also expresses a disappointment with the lack of an answer to the questions the book provides — she recognizes that it’s possible he believes the search for answers is the point. I once had a conversation with a dear friend of ours about whether or not there were innate human rights. His position was that there were, and that there must be, or else there was little hope for the future. Mine was the opposite — that there are none, and that our hope for the future must come from the fact that what rights we do have, we have established as a people — that it is the creation of mankind, rising above our own petty squabbles and hatreds, to create a better world for ourselves, for our children, and for each other. To see the establishment of universal human rights as requiring an external force to justify it is to rob us of the beauty in the victory, and sets us up for a dangerous reliance on magical thinking.

I suspect Coates feels the same way — that if he failed to provide a concrete enough definition of The Dream, or a path forward for the Struggle, it is because he sees some of the danger in reducing it to a universal reality. If we are to replace it with something better, it will be because we resist the urge to boil it down for each other. The value of the Struggle is the internal journey each and every person must go on, in order to create a humanity they are proud to be a part of. It makes our obligation to act, our organizing each other to protest, our pushing against the injustices of the world, all the more meaningful — there is no a-priori answer, any more than there was an idea of “race” before there was an idea of racism.

I loved that he left the book there — adrift in the existential questions, rather than proposing another complete view of the world.

It was a great book. Everyone should read it. I’m excited to read James Baldwin. I’m sorry I didn’t understand it’s lessons sooner.