Between the World and Me

This was a fantastic book, a very short read (or listen via audio book), and simultaneously quite striking to hear. Ta-Nahisi Coates is a premier writer in America, regardless of race, and provides a powerful message about race in America to his son.

One of the most striking aspects of this book is the language and tone. It’s not something I come across every day, so while difficult, it was good to hear. Coates talks about how policies and cultures and traditions are not only ideas, but physical — they manifest themselves through the appropriation of black bodies, which makes a black person loses ownership of his/her body. American history is built on the black body, through slavery and segregation in our more distant history, redlining and intimidation in our recent history, and through police violence today. He tells the story of growing up in Baltimore, and how physical presence mattered. He talks about going to Howard University, where his father worked, and calls it Mecca — again, a physical manifestation of a nearly perfect idea. After this, he moves to New York and witnesses the many tragedies that unleashed the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a reaction to the killing of often unarmed, not dangerous black men and women and sometimes kids. He adds an interesting note, that he doesn’t say these are all innocent people; he simply asks whether it is part of America’s policy (Fourth Amendment applies most directly) to put the law, judge, and jury into the hands of a single police officer. He wraps up with a warning that America’s professed love for democracy and equality (this was written in 2013, so in a time when many thought these were high priorities of our people and government) may speak for those who call themselves white, but that a black teenager such as his son will always have to tread carefully, for fear of losing control of his own body.

Coates is a great author, and I have had the pleasure of following his career for quite a few years through The Atlantic magazine. His writing is insightful and he has written quite a few provocative and brilliant pieces, which have changed how I think about a few issues (reparations and the recent rise of white supremacy come immediately to mind). The book is an uncomfortable experience for a white person (or to more accurately reflect Coates’ language, those who believe themselves to be white; Catholics and Irish and Italians and Jews didn’t used to be considered white, which shows how fluid the term is over time, and who can be part of the “privileged class”), and that is precisely why I think it is such a useful read. It is an edgy book, intentionally, and while he cloaks it in superb rhetoric, he delivers a message that is fairly pessimistic. He has facts and thoughts to back up his assertions, and so I find it difficult to disagree with his negative conclusions even with the spirit of optimism that tends to pervade my life. My hope is that this can help me forge a path forward that incorporates these lessons of race, helps me engage intentionally and respectfully with people of color, and guides me as I help teach my children about race and their exceptionally privileged status in American society.