perceiving, acknowledging, learning
Since Charlottesville, I’ve been wrestling with what I wanted to write and say. Not because I have some new or special insight, but because I felt that maybe with the presence of such overt white supremacy, more people would be ready to do the work of social justice. Then, I found a review I wrote for Between the World and Me after reading it the second time. I’ve decided to share that here because it helps outline a bit of my journey, which maybe will be useful to someone starting their social justice journey. Thank you for reading.
I first read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates in August 2015. In the summer of 2013, George Zimmerman had been found not guilty for Trayvon Martin’s 2012 murder. I knew this never would have happened had George Zimmerman been black and Trayvon Martin white. I also knew that the young Mr. Martin would never have been killed had he been white. Then Mike Ferguson was murdered in August 2014 just after Eric Garner was murdered in July 2014. At that point, my worldview dramatically shifted. I started devouring articles and books, started to try to converse about racism. Then, this book was published and Toni Morrison heralded the work — I hit purchase on Amazon without a thought to how this book would impact not just my life, but my view of America.
Mr. Coates’s book — a letter to his son in the vein of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time — describes the war on black bodies waged in the United States. I am starting this review before rereading the book so as to capture what has remained with me in the eighteen months since first reading Between the World and Me. I am not the same person now, in part, because of this book. My determination to be “not racist” transformed to becoming anti-racist, to actively working for the liberation of people oppressed here and now, to actively work on my own liberation. To wake up from Dreaming the Dream that white people, and only white people, can Dream about life in America.
Mr. Coates is just a bit older than me. I recall his childhood pop culture references mirroring my own. But where I did not learn curse words until middle school, Mr. Coates was faced with violence up close and personal. My childhood was not bucolic — we were food-stamp poor, too many kids, not enough space, chaos abounded. But violence was a threat of a spanking with the follow-up discussion about proper behavior. Violence was not guns pulled by kids at the gas station around the corner.
As a woman, I remember feeling in my core how fragile Mr. Coates described feeling in his body. I, too, fear for my safety as a woman. But as much as I fear, as much as I have had to defend my body for myself, it does not compare to the threat of state-sanctioned violence Mr. Coates describes. Mr. Coates set out to lift the veil, if only for a minute, on the constant and continuous barrage people of color face for being people of color in the United States, a barrage that people who are white have been content to simultaneously authorize and ignore throughout the entirety of our country’s history.
My rereading affirmed for me my understanding of this tome: Mr. Coates’s direct efforts to describe for his son that only he can try to protect his body, and that his body is always at risk, because he is a black boy growing into a black man in America. He offers a brief of his biography, his learning, his growth; the story of the murder by a police officer of Prince Jones, Mr. Coates’s friend from Howard University, along with the murders of many black Americans; and, in closing, he offers us Prince Jones’s biography and Prince Jones’s mother’s biography to demonstrate that what all of these murder victims share is blackness — a construct created by those who think they are white to maintain the Dream only shared by others believing themselves to be white, a construct that wealth, education, and status cannot erase.
The fear that permeates Between the World and Me is a fear that goes beyond this generation. Mr. Coates discusses his parents’ fear, their parents’ fear, his own fear, his fear as a parent. This fear — of his body being an object subject to those in authority — is at times pulsing and at other times quietly lurking in the shadows. But it is present in his life like a close family member, invading even his sacred places (like Howard) and his sacred moments (such as with his son).
What is impressive to me about Mr. Coates’s work is that he conveys this fear so that it palpitates in my air, too. I can see it distinct from my fear as a woman, a fear that sometimes lifts. I might not walk at night without clear designs and a key between my fingers and my phone in hand. I might shrink in elevators and hallways away from men. I might avoid certain establishments and certain men. But when I am with my family, I do not worry about my extended family being killed for being white. I do not worry that when I am pulled over, my life is in danger. I do not worry about my son being disciplined at school unnecessarily or regarded as a troublemaker or his beloved orneriness taken for a character flaw that cannot be addressed except with punishment. I do not worry about my spouse being killed during a police stop, while running errands, while walking with our son, while working.
But Mr. Coates does. Of course he does. It is his experience. A lived experience shared with all people of color in the United States. There is no respite from this fear because terror reigns as white supremacist systems enforce themselves time and again. Mr. Coates does not see much hope. It is hard to read a book about race in America without hope because so often messages about race in America are packaged neatly so that white people will open them and maybe read them and maybe understand them. But that’s my privilege. And in this book, Mr. Coates does not speak to me. He speaks to his son and lets me see the words.
It’s been nearly two years since this book was written. Not much has changed for the better. An openly racist white man has been elected president and appoints openly racist white men to serve in the highest offices of the nation. People — children — continue to be killed because they are black. Racist rhetoric has found an open audience. Mr. Coates was right to not make vague and sweeping overtures to hope. Not enough white people have awoken or been awakened. But I do know some, others like me, who — now that we have seen our America under the veil the Dream wields — are learning, working, trying to wake up and awaken others. Some days I have hope. Some days, a police officer kills Jordan Edwards. His body, too, was not safe here.
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