Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Comments on Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates


Ta-Nehisi Coates was one of the 2015 recipients of the MacArthur Genius Grants. The foundation called Coates, a national correspondent at The Atlantic, "a highly distinctive voice [who is] emerging as a leading interpreter of American concerns [...] and having a profound impact on the discussion of race and racism in this country." I happen to believe Between the World and Me was the catalyst to him winning the award.

As I read Between the World and Me, I tried to do what Robert Frost advised his daughter to do while reading: "One idea and a few subordinate ideas—[the trick is] to have those happen to you as you read and catch them—not let them escape you. The sidelong glance is what you depend on. You look at your author but you keep the tail of your eye on what is happening over and above your author in your own mind and nature." So I stuck sticky notes in the book, noticed my thoughts as I read along, and after a few pages stopped to write them here any which way they sprang to my mind. So what you have here is not the rambling first draft but the tinkered third draft that is still expansive. In contrast to the conciseness of the prose I read, I seem vastly voluble. I was simply unable to distill my emotional response in a few words.

And that is what this post is about. My emotional response. There are various erudite reviews of the book by the likes of The Guardian, The New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, and others. I have not read them. I wanted my reading to be a pristine read and my comments uncluttered by others' thoughts. I will get to those reviews later on to read all the insights I missed, but here are my unvarnished thoughts.

I was in the middle of the book, when I got into a discussion with author Alyssa Cole about the book and she said, "So happy to hear that you're loving it so much!". To which I replied, "I don't know if 'love' is the word there. I'm moved by it. I'm excited by it. I'm awed by it. I'm awed by the power of his words. I'm awed by the progression of his thoughts—the compassion is devastating. My heart's grieving. And I'm learning."

That is the power of this book. It evokes a visceral response to the sharp precision of his words that paint a stark and eloquent picture of what it means to be a young African-American man in present-day America. Toni Morrison says of the book: "This is required reading." Yes. It is. You only think you understand Black America until you read this book and realize the true depths and breadths of what it truly means.

In my September Reading post, I talked about Claudia Rankine's book Citizen: An American Lyric. It dwells a lot on what it means to be the person inhabiting a black body. She talks about the body as separate from the person. What happens to the body has nothing to do with the person. Similarly, Coates brings up the same separation. From the cover jacket: "The bodies of black men and women have been exploited through slavery and segregation, and today, are threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it?"

This is what racism is. "Racism is a visceral experience, that dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth."

This is brought home brutally in the poem "Between the World and Me" from White Man Listen! by Richard Wright, which inspired Coates's book title. In stark terms, the poem describes how a young black man is tarred and feathered and burnt at the stake by a crowd of watchers who smoke and drink while he screams in agony.

In BTWAM, Coates writes, "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. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body." There's nothing new about differences in hue and hair. But believing that a particular hue and hair has preeminence and that society can be organized around this belief is indelible.

At a New Yorker festival panel on police brutality, endemic racism, and the construct of whiteness, Coates explained how being at the top of a racial hierarchy requires an explanation. "When you’re born into a situation, into a class of people who have their foot on somebody’s neck, metaphorically, you have to justify this you have to somehow clean yourself and make yourself innocent. Part of how this has historically been done is the reimagination of that other as a threat."

Coates talks about "othering" at length in his book. He ponders again and again how to truly consider how do I live free in this black body. How to be safe, how to not be cowed by society, by imminent danger lurking down every street, around every corner, ever present in the very air.

He talks about fear a lot in the book. The fear that seeps deep into the bones of every man, woman, and child in Black America until they are never without it, waking or sleeping. The fear that shapes everything that they do, everything that they think. It affects how families treat each other, how children are raised.

Whenever Coates misbehaved as a child, his father reached for his belt. "Either I can beat him, or the police." This was to teach him the boundaries of what behavior is allowed him, what behavior will keep him safe. He's not allowed the freedom to play his music loud, to mouth off to authority, to hang around corners with friends...to be a teenager. "The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls." His father's fear of wanting his son to be safe overshadowed all else.

This fear is linked to the White America that was beamed nightly onto the television of Coates's childhood in West Baltimore. It was vastly different from his reality. He calls it The Dream. His reality was to survive the walk from his home to his school, survive the day there, survive the walk back home, and not give up his body to the violence of the streets. There were no green lawns, white picket fences, bake sales, pie and pot roast. "The galaxy belonged to them, as terror was communicated to our children, mastery was communicated to theirs. No one told them to be twice as good. Their parents told them to take twice as much."

He points out to his son how he lives without this all-pervasive fear. In doing so, Coates explains how privileged a life his son leads and how much he's experienced, despite being black. "There is no real distance between you and Trayvon Martin, and thus Trayvon Martin must terrify you in a way that he could never terrify me. You have seen so much more of that is lost when they destroy your body." While Coates feels that he has done his best by his son by allowing his son to feel distanced by fear, he cautions him that "to be distanced from fear is not a passport out of the struggle. We will always be black, you and I."

For White America, "Good Intention is the hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures The Dream. What any institution intends for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. The forgetting is a habit" on part of the Dreamers.

Coates protests against the movies on the Civil Rights Movements that were shown to the kids during Black History Month when he was a kid. The schools extolled the African-Americans who forgave being raped, tear-gassed, fire-hosed, cursed, spat upon. This is the morality the kids were held to. It was very much in evidence when the black church leaders forgave the white supremacist who shot up Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. These black leaders were said to be gracious and showing compassion. Anger and rage was denied them. In Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine writes that it is very difficult for black people to express rage because the stereotype of the angry black man is so prevalent that most people bend over backwards to stifle even normal human anger.

Over and over again, he warns his son never to forget that for 250 years, black people were born into chains. You, the reader, and I know this number, but seeing 2 5 0 in stark black on white—it hits you like a sucker punch. Whole generations didn't know a world that was different. "Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It's a particular, special enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is an vast as your own." When he visited Civil War battlegrounds, tour guides talked of rifles and battle plans; slaves were hardly mentioned. The complete erasure of why the war took place in the first place was profound. Like Holocaust denial is a crime, slavery denial should also be a crime. "You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold."

At the New Yorker festival panel, television producer and creator of The Wire, David Simon spoke at length about the issue of over- and under-policing of poor and black communities. "We’re savagely over-policing our poor. At the same time ... where you need the police to step in and arrest the violence, they’re either functionally incapable ... or they just don’t give a damn." Coates said that this is the result not of the police being particularly racially biased but the existence of widespread and unchecked endemic racism in the society.

In BTWAM, Coates writes, "Fully 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail." And then you read that a judge took money from juvenile detention centers to send nearly 4,000 kids there for trumped-up or minor charges that the kids had no way to defend against. All those cases have been now dismissed but all those lives are now ruined. It's an easy guess how many of those kids were black.

"At this moment, the phrase police reform has come into vogue, and the actions of our publicly appointed guardians have attracted attention presidential and pedestrian. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them." This then is the prevalence of The Dream that allows White America to hide behind it and pretend to be post-racial. The reality is that the police are mere byproducts of the attitudes and beliefs of the society in which they live. You cannot expect reform among the police force without reform in the society at large. Unless those things are changed, sensitivity training and body cams are going to do nothing. Black bodies will continue to be disproportionately broken and jailed. Because make no mistake, it's not solely the criminal element that is treated this way, any black person can be. Witness the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for trying to un-jam the front door to his own house.

Coates's saving grace have been books—in early childhood, in college, in his daily life. He learned to read at four. His mother taught him to write not simply as a means of organizing his sentences, but as a means of investigation. Whenever he had a question, something troubled him, or he was in trouble at school, she made him read books and then answer a series of questions and in so doing find the answers. Brilliant parenting! His house was full of books by black men and women about black men and women, since his father was a research librarian at Howard University. Coates read through his home library while in school and through the Howard library at university.

Malcolm X was his hero and his role model. Malcolm recovered from his mistakes by reading, reading, reading. "I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their morality, unlike the streets and their bravado, unlike the world of dreamers. And like Malcolm, he was enthralled by the world of books. "The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was learning to live in the disquiet, in the gnawing discomfort, the chaos, the intellectual vertigo. It was not alarm. It was a beacon." This has got to be the best testimony of a good Liberal Arts education.

Howard University was the making of Coates. He was exposed to a wide diaspora of people who identified as black. Here he was comfortable in his skin. The fear was always there to some extent but lessened here among the thinking cosmopolitan peoples. He learned that "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,", that universal properties of mankind belong to everyone; they're not exclusive to certain tribes. This thinking allowed Coates an entrée into the bigger America, into the bigger consciousness. He discovered that there were white people who "saw in my unruly curiosity and softness something that was to be treasured and harnessed." Journalism allowed him to bring his thoughts and his emotions to a wide readership. Witness the adulation and awards he is receiving for BTWAM as he lectures around the country to packed lecture halls. Perhaps America is ready to begin a dialogue of fundamental change.

I've said this before. I'll say it again. If you're going to read only one book this year, let it be this one.


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