"For Ta-Nehisi Coates, history has always been personal. At every stage of his life, he's sought in his explorations of history answers to the mysteries that surrounded him -- most urgently, why he, and other black people he knew, seemed to live in fear. What were they afraid of? In Tremble for My Country, Coates takes readers along on his journey through America's history of race and its contemporary resonances through a series of awakenings -- moments when he discovered some new truth about our long, tangled history of race, whether through his myth-busting professors at Howard University, a trip to a Civil War battlefield with a rogue historian, a journey to Chicago's South Side to visit aging survivors of 20th century America's 'long war on black people,' or a visit with the mother of a beloved friend who was shot down by the police. In his trademark style -- a mix of lyrical personal narrative, reimagined history, essayistic argument, and reportage -- Coates provides readers a thrillingly illuminating new framework for understanding race: its history, our contemporary dilemma, and where we go from here"--
It was not.
Instead, it was basically the rantings of a very, very angry man. And hey, who am I to say that Coates doesn't deserve to be angry? I don't know him. I wouldn't want to, either, after reading this book, to be honest.
But Coates seems to attribute every slight, perceived or real, as being attributable to white people and white oppression.
Now, before I continue, allow me to say that I do not check the "white" box when I have to fill out forms. I am not white. I am Jewish. And people may feel like they have the right to tell me that I am white (Coates amongst them, actually), but that is NOT change the fact that I do not see myself as white. Growing up, trust me, it was made abundantly clear in my small town that I was other.
So when a young black man is shot and killed, without provocation, by a black police officer working for a predominantly black county, whose fault is it?
White people, according to Coates.
And when a white woman pushes Coates' son because she is in a hurry, why did she do it? Is it because she is a jerk and would likely push any child out of the way?
Nope, it's because she's white and she has to express her white privilege.
Dude, look, I've been in New York City, and I would likely be perceived as white, and I have been pushed out of the way numerous times by people all shades of the rainbow. I don't attribute it to racism. I attribute it to people being jackasses.
Coates really strikes me as being the type who will look for racism in anything and find it just to prove his point.
And he strikes me as a racist himself.
“When people who are not black are interested in what I do, frankly, I’m always surprised,” Coates said. “I don’t know if it’s my low expectations for white people or what.” (interview with New York Magazine, July 12, 2015)
Does that sound racist to you?
How about if this was said instead: "When people who are not white are interested in what I do, frankly, I'm always surprised," [white author] said. "I don't know if it's my low expectation for black people or what."
Does THAT sound racist to you?
Your answer should be the same to both questions. If it's not, check yourself.
He also seems to believe that the lives of white children resemble those idyllic ones portrayed on sitcoms, filled with toys and love and carefree living. His life, of course, was different because he was black. It wasn't because of class - it was because of race. Now, I know that class and race can be intertwined, but let me tell you, having grown up in Appalachia, that isn't necessarily so. He might think me "white," but my childhood was a lot of being hungry and poor and wondering how cold it would get that night because our heat was turned off again and pissing in a bucket at night because it was too damned far to walk to the outhouse in the dark.
This is probably the most disappointing book I've read all year.
So, basically, yes, all those reviews saying that this is an "important" work and that everybody in America should read it are probably right.
It is written as a letter from TNC to his son Samori; in it he tries to explain himself, how he came to the beliefs and views he has about himself and the black experience in America, his biography of sorts, certainly his fears, and his "hope." "Samori" means "struggle," and that's the note upon which the book ends: Samori must struggle with the realities of his condition and struggle to enjoy life while recognizing the ever-present dangers inherent in living in America as a black man.
And yet TNC has had this letter published. In it he remains consistently cynical about "those who think themselves white" and their ability/willingness to come to grips with reality as opposed to maintaining the Dream. "The Dream" is not merely the "American dream," but the whole idealistic way of looking at America, its place in the world, its history, and its ideals, as opposed to recognizing just how much America's growth was fueled by repression, enslavement, etc.
But, of course, TNC has become the "celebrity writer" of the black experience, with extremely influential pieces in The Atlantic on "The Need for Reparations" and, most recently, on mass incarceration in America. And so many of those who "see themselves as white" are going to read this book.
I have read many critical reviews of Between the World and Me; I'm afraid that most such reviews are expecting the book to bear a burden it was not designed to bear. I refuse to stand in judgment about the book, because I am not in a position to judge it; I am most likely a younger contemporary of TNC, but I was raised in the Dream and for mastery, not in fear.
I appreciate TNC's perspective. He has thought through his atheism and secularism more than most and his book, by necessity, gets reductionistic to the point of spirit in bodies and what happens to the body. His perspective on "whiteness" is a good challenge; he is right that whereas once there was prejudice based on ethnicity (say, Irish, German, Italian, etc.), now all such things are subsumed under "whiteness" in comparison with others. Being forced to grapple with being raised to master as opposed to being raised in fear was quite difficult as well. And there are a hundred different ways in which TNC's eloquence and perspective, even if I "disagree" with it in many ways, at least makes me think and forces me to grapple with my privilege.
Religious people will not like TNC's atheism and thus cynicism and hopelessness. White people, especially those infatuated with The Dream, are going to have very strong visceral reactions to what TNC has to say. It would do not a few a bit of good to have to grapple with it, to see things not only from a different perspective but one which intentionally finds the most stark and provocative way of describing what one sees. I doubt you'll come away entirely convinced, but you probably will never be the same.
Coates, a writer for The Atlantic who has been helping form a national conversation on the state of race relations and the state of blacks in America, takes readers back to what his Baltimore neighborhood was like. He describes the difference between his black blocks and the ones he saw on his television set. Those people on TV are living the Dream. Their white world is not his, even though they could be in the same city and are in the same country. Black kids, he writes, have to be twice as good to be seen as half as worthwhile. Many of their parents treat them harshly out of fear that they will step out of line. Coates could have died as a teen when another boy pulled a gun out of his coat pocket, but he changed his mind and put it away.
As he notes:
"Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket."
In college, Coates found his Mecca at Howard University. The glorious education he had there, in class and by meeting so many others, is brought to vivid life. Anyone who loved their time at university, who had the opportunity to know at the time they were learning about life and themselves, will enjoy this section. Coates does a marvelous job of depicting how important that time was to him, all the more important because it was Howard and all that represents. (Although Coates did not graduate but started carving out a career as a writer, the education he received there was fundamental to his joy in life and his continued search for knowledge. When Coates goes into a history book-recommending mode on Twitter, the depth of his knowledge is tremendous.)
Before the tragedy after tragedy after tragedy of the last few years, from Travyon Martin to Michael Brown to John Crawford to Jordan Davis (whose mother Coates interviewed and to which he took his son in a powerful passage) to Freddie Gray, and on and on, a fellow Howard University student was gunned down by a cop. This cop followed Prince Jones out of his Prince George's County jurisdiction and shot him.
The description of the man that the officer was looking for was 5 feet 4 and 250 pounds; Prince Jones was 6 feet 3 and 211 pounds. The wanted man had long dreadlocks and Prince Jones had very shortly cut hair. The officer drew a gun on Prince Jones but showed no badge. The officer claimed Prince Jones tried to run him over with his Jeep, the same Jeep his mother bought him for high school graduation.
The mother of Prince Jones, herself a doctor and the child of sharecroppers, references Solomon Northrup of 12 Years a Slave in her talk with Coates. And how Northrup's home and work and family did not matter when he was taken. And how, years later and under different laws in the same country, the wealth and respect she built up and the things she gave her children did not matter.
The structure Coates uses in what is essentially a long essay (the book is less than 200 pages) is similar to one James Baldwin used in addressing a work to his own nephew. Coates has been tied to Baldwin because of Toni Morrison's advance praise of this work, and both this work and Coates are now established in the line of black Americans writing about themselves and their society, and how that fits into what white Americans see of our society.
The title comes from Richard Wright's poem of the same name:
"And the sooty details of the
scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me ..."
The sooty details of what has happened to the man in the poem, to what happened black people, to what continues to happen to black people, and how their experience continues to be different from others in this country despite any laws, any cultural changes, are what keep Americans separated. Slavery was replaced by Jim Crow and has been replaced by housing projects, predatory loan sharks, voting laws, inequitable education and other shams.
But it's not just legal structures, or the way banks handle loans or companies hire people without "ethinic-sounding" names. White people still cross the street to avoid black men in suits who are still followed in stores. Black women are told by boutique clerks that they cannot afford pricey clothing. Black people who do not become shining models of making it (Coates calls them the Jackie Robinson elite) are told it's their fault, despite any obstacles in their way.
When Coates took his son to a movie on the Upper West Side and they were coming off an escalator too slowly, a white woman pushed the child for going too slowly for her. When Coates yelled at her for pushing another person's child, a crowd gathered and a white man got in his face and, when Coates dared to push him away, was told: "I could have you arrested." Coates writes he felt shame for endangering his child and himself by the act of standing up for them.
This is an essential point to this work. Because those of us who are not black cannot have the same experience, any of us who care about the state of the country need to find out as much as we can, to educate ourselves. This is an eloquent, thoughtful and honest work to use in the pursuit of knowledge that may, in time, become wisdom.
It is a point on which Coates frames this entire work. His thesis acknowledges that the powerful always work to keep those without power from gaining it. But America, he notes, was supposed to be different. America says so:
"Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, ...
"I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard."
Acknowledging that exceptional moral standard means recognizing that individuals operate under the burdensome belief of American exceptionalism. It also means that those who expound this belief in exceptionalism need to apply it not only to other individuals, but to the society as a whole. For in that application is the possibility of a new understanding of what means to have those sooty details affect every aspect of an individual's life.
He quotes Solzhenitsyn in this regard:
"To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act inconformity with natural law." Coates notes this is the foundation of the Dream that he refers to throughout. It's how a black police officer could shoot Prince Jones, how black officers could take part in Freddie Gray's death.
Coates says that he has continued his studies, in part, to try to find the right question to ask. The "gift of study", he adds, is "to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers." That questioning is a gift he passes along to his son and other readers.
The killing of Prince Jones, the murders that continue, the sorrow that Coates's son felt when learning that Mike Brown's killer received the same treatment as the killer of Prince Jones, form the backdrop to the final words Coates has for his son.
While Coates is reluctant to aspire to hope, expressing the need to be honest, one statement toward the conclusion of this work is something on which hope can be built:
"They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people."
Taking pride and celebrating that pride sounds like an honest way to live with eyes that can see into and beyond sooty details, not ignoring them, never ignoring them, because, as Coates tells his son:
"...there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else's country, but in your own home."
I feel weird giving this book less than five stars, but that reflects my reading experience, not my objective opinion of its merits. I found it dense and difficult in parts; I sometimes had trouble following his argument. That’s odd because it some ways Coates seems to be trying to avoid the abstract and the theoretical: he always discusses white supremacy in terms of its effects on the bodies of black people, for example. As a person who believes myself white, (Coates’s preferred term for “white people”), it was sometimes difficult to read the unvarnished anger directed at my quote-unquote race, even though I believe the anger to be completely justified.
I’m thinking about this book, and I’m thinking I would love to make this a group read in my library, if I can persuade the powers that be.
This is an excellent book and deserves to be widely read.
The book is structured as a letter by Coates to his son. Coates's son is deeply impacted by the injustice towards black people, especially by police and the reality that the American justice system fails to bring true justice in most cases. Coates explains, in fairly harsh terms, that this is the reality of being black in America and that the nation's history is most often defined by its exploitation of blacks. That exploitation necessarily involves violence and that the killing of black men by white police officers is a direct outgrowth of that exploitation.
Coates speaks of his childhood, growing up in dangerous neighborhoods and his own experience as a black man in America. He talks powerfully about his education at Howard University (the "mecca") and how that education allowed Coates to connect his experience to the larger black experience in America. He also deals with the death of a friend who is shot by a police officer for dubiously suspicious behavior and how that death drove home to Coates how fragile basic safety can be just because you were born black. This leads Coates to muse on his struggles and fears to raise his son and how powerless he feels in his ability to protect his son.
The book is raw, depressing and powerful. As someone who does not fear the neighborhood where I am raising my children and do not generally consider the police a danger to my or my children's safety it is a hard book to internalize. Part of me wished for a solutions section to the book where Coates could talk about how to make things better. It isn't there and I understand why it isn't there. Coates is making his readers face the reality of modern America and how much of the American dream has been denied people, specifically black people, based upon their race.
Magnificently done with a distinctive and unique voice. The book has lingered in my thoughts for weeks.
I'm not sure this is really a review. I finished this book two weeks ago and I still haven’t fully processed everything I read and learned about the state of being black in 21st century America. It’s written as an open letter to the author’s teenage son and while Coates maintains the framing device consistently throughout the book it never becomes intrusive or detracts from the message.
The message itself was a sucker punch for me, even as I pride myself on having suitably enlightened views about equality and race relations. Coates does not give credit for trying; there is no A for effort in these pages for progressive whites because, as Coates so eloquently shows, none of us are doing enough to right the lasting effects of our collective historical sin, slavery. In graphic terms Coates demonstrates just how those aftereffects are still being felt, and the ways that “those who believe they are white” lie to themselves, each other, and people of color made me extremely uncomfortable. Which I suspect is at least partly his point:
They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free.
But I fear I am misrepresenting this book to you. It is not an unrelenting jeremiad enumerating all the ways that the majority class has subjugated and made life impossible for the minority. Coates isn’t afraid to turn his critical lens on himself, and he openly relates the ways in which his preconceived notions about race have been upended over time. The turning point for him was attending Howard University, a historically black college that he refers to as Mecca. There for the first time he realized the full spectrum of what it meant to be black:
I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variation. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were the high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses. It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of “Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key.
The lessons Coates learned at Howard — few of which were absorbed in classrooms, he readily admits — as well as later insights gained from an extended trip to Paris and his eventual settling in New York to raise his family, helped shape him into the man and the extraordinary writer he is today. A man who can rage, rage, against the injustice that his people have been subjected to, without giving in to despair or acting out in anger. Above all, he is clear-eyed about the the way the world really is.
We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.
I marked so many more quotes in this books, all representing either moments where Coates caused me to see something in a completely new light, or made me rethink an assumption I hadn’t even realized I held until he shattered it. I’ll just leave you with this:
The power is not divinity but a deep knowledge of how fragile everything — even the Dream, especially the Dream — really is.
Rather than a cohesive evaluation, this review offers several scattered reactions to the book. It skips over two of the most important threads of the book - the freedom offered by the community at Howard University; and the life and death of Coates' friend Prince Jones - because I don't have much to say about them, other than: Coates makes a lot of sense, and both threads are central to what he has to say.
Form. Coates is an artist, and all art is to some extent contrived. Here, Coates casts the book as a letter to his 15 year old son, echoing 'the talk' many African-American parents have with their kids. For me, it also echoes the tradition of advice left by ancient philosophers for their followers (more on that, below) on how to live. It allows Coates to speak of race without addressing 'people who consider themselves white', letting him say what he wants without dancing around white misconceptions and triggers. But, of course, he is a well known columnist and public intellectual, the book is published by a major press, and the reading audience includes a mess of non-black Americans. For Coates' purposes, it is key that this audience not pigeon-hole what he has to say as a polemic (because it isn't), and his choice of form helps avoid that.
The Dream. Coates doesn't spend a lot of time dissecting the purposes or mechanisms of oppression. Instead, he lumps them all into a broad narrative he calls 'the Dream' - "perfect houses with nice lawns...Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways...treehouses and Cub Scouts"(11)- in a larger sense, everything that's a part of middle and upper class America, built on a heritage of robbing the rest of the world, especially Africans and African-Americans. His vision of history isn't wrong, but the concept of the Dream is a simplistic symbol of the oppressive Other. It makes a lot of sense for what this book is - a meditation on the fight to free oneself from internalized oppression - because he experiences so many different aspects of America's economy and society as manifestations of a single, brutal machine.
On the other hand, they aren't. To see this, ask whether globalism that builds the fortunes of wealthy Americans is part of the Dream as Coates conceives it (yes); then, whether the anger of Tea Partiers who fear the federal government is part of the Dream (yes); and the tragedies of men and women who deny themselves and others kind and just relationships because they are in thrall to rigid concepts of masculinity, household roles, or faith-driven codes of purity (yes, yes, and yes). What Coates calls the Dream isn't one thing; it's oppression as an emergent property of billions of decisions - moral decisions, even when they aren't conceived that way or are hidden behind institutional facades - made by millions of people with varying degrees of power and self-awareness.
This isn't to deny the reality of systemic racism, or to suggest that nonviolent protest is the only or most effective strategy for dismantling it (something Coates doesn't buy). However, without some greater nuance in the analysis of oppression, it's impossible to figure out which approaches - education, litigation, legislation, economic pressure, direct action - are needed to dismantle or shift which instances.
How should one live? Sketching the Dream as a monolith doesn't hurt Between the World and Me, because the book is isn't a discussion of strategies for change. Coates repeats several times that he is not a theist. Because of that, the philosophical posture of the book reminds me of ancient philosophers - not, how can one live a good live as measured by a cosmic moral standard, but how best to live a life free from fear, or at any rate, how to lead a life as much on one's own terms as possible. Coates' response: "I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself."(12)
Comparing this to ancient models, Coates sounds almost Stoic: face reality; take no comfort from false assurances; free your mind, but don't expect your sense of right and wrong to convince anyone else. "[D]o not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves..."(151). But one place where ancient Stoicism now seems weak is its failure to address the injustices of ancient society - including slavery - head on. Some Stoics engaged in politics and policy, but they did not contest privilege. They won't light a path to social change.
Demographics.So Coates' message is hard: you can't expect to change anything, but you must nonetheless struggle to be free. But, in fact, change is coming: the United States is becoming a more diverse nation, and state by state, 'whites' are moving from majority to plurality status. Interracial marriages - and therefore, more importantly, interracial social networks - continue to grow as a percentage of all marriages. That doesn't automatically mean African-Americans will be better off. It doesn't mean that our economy will necessarily become less oppressive. We're already committed to a measure of the ecological havoc Coates invokes in the final pages of his book. But the demographic change does mean that the meaning of race in the political and social context in which Coates' son Samori lives out his life will be increasingly different. Between the World and Me doesn't address this future at all. That's okay; it's a work for our time, and Coates' thoughts will continue to evolve, and hopefully we'll hear more of them as we live into that future.
In this book, Coates presents a firm counterpoint to the cherished but wrong "inclusive" idea of America that requires its black citizens to adapt and perform just like white people in order to be accepted into polite society. Barack Obama who is probably the whitest black man ever is the perfect example. The classics department website at Yale used to present a photo wall of its faculty which was removed, most likely due to its glaring whiteness. The one non-white face belongs to a professor educated in the UK. Similarly, it was Barack Obama's African father who had no family history of US slavery that allowed his son to jumpstart his career in a predominantly even almost exclusively white environment.
Coates speaks about a different world, his own world of black Baltimore where the government only shows up to police the locals - in the now all too well known American style. At least, there has been a marked shift in public perception and killing another unarmed black person is no longer seen as business as usual but makes the news, even if it is quickly forgotten and the killers left off the hook with a slap of the wrist (like the US killers in Iraq, one of which was fined 5000 USD for the murder of an Iraqi civilian).
The book thus is profoundly shocking in its rejection of the happy American family myth of integration, one of whose chief promoters was Bill Cosby who scolded black society for its unwillingness to behave while he perpetrated his crimes.behind the scene. Coates clearly sees (at least) two Americas, a white and a black America with markedly different lives lived depending on the skin in which you were born with. The shockingly large support for Donald Trump shows that still around a third of US society is quite proudly racist. While this racism is swept under the rug in polite society, it is perceived and experienced by blacks and Mexicans.
In this supposed letter to his son, Coates openly says that his son must always pay attention or risk getting shot by police or other nutcases. To be a black man in the United States means to carry a heavy burden with a high risk of ending up in jail or living a life of relative poverty. Perhaps not incidentally, the slave owner Thomas Jefferson could write about the American Dream of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and without much thought ignore that he personally kept hundreds of people from enjoying that dream. Coates is more in the Malcom X than MLK tradition, though the latter's social and anti-war ideas have been largely scrubbed out of official memory.
This brings me to the one defect of the book. While it is great at raising awareness that another America exists and that this America for a lesser kind should not exist, it does not discuss ways to achieve it. The grim reaper and generational change will certainly take care of the old style racists such as Donald Trump. Unfortunately, America still produces young racists such as Dylann Roof or Adolf Hitler, a name some Ohio parents apparently thought a good idea for their own child to the shock and awe of the whole world (fortunately, child protection services later stepped in). Unfortunately, political institutions at all levels in the United States are still stacked in favor of preserving inequality. Bringing change to one police department, to one school, to one board or association at a time is hard work. It is especially mean that the already disadvantaged black communities are also tasked with effecting this change. It would be good if the federal government used some of its might to finally complete the mission it set out to do when it fought and won the Civil War. A new civil rights movement for equality would be helpful too to put the Confederate zombies to rest.
Most powerfully told are Coates's thrilling immersion time at Howard University ("The Mecca"), and the meaningless death of a fellow student of great promise, Prince Jones, whose mother's great striving and their successful efforts to achieve "The Dream" are smashed and murdered by a Prince George county policeman.
""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 natural phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men. "
"When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid."
"That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being "politically conscious" - as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty."
"The truth is that I owe you everything I have. Before you, I had my questions but nothing beyond my own skin in the game."
(all caps, mine) "ALL MY LIFE I'D HEARD PEOPLE TELL THEIR BLACK BOYS AND BLACK GIRLS TO BE "TWICE AS GOOD" WHICH IS TO SAY "ACCEPT HALF AS MUCH".
"The story of a black body's destruction must always start with his or her error, real or imagined - with Eric Garner's anger, with Trevyon Martin's mythical words ("You are gonna die tonight"), with Sean Bell's mistake of running with the wrong crowd."
"There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally."
"In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but with everything that happens after."
This book is so essential for everyone to read that when you are done, you'll see the time before you read it as "before" and then you will hopefully live your life and act in the gained wisdom and insight of the "after". It is a master work.
2015, 156 page ARC paperback
read Nov 17-25
recent winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction.
Written in the form of a letter to his son, Coates writes as if trying to explain to his son the nature of being black in the United States. It's about racism and how it leaves no solace to turn to, no corrective, but instead has a hopeless unfixable future with consequences. It's not a comfortable read.
Coates writes about his life in Howard University and his exploration of the history and nature of black history and the racial state of the country. How he worked through the intellectual literature expecting to find a clear narrative and instead found conflict, contradiction and confusion. Then he writes about his own history, and his personal development as a writer ("Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truth."). And he writes about the shooting of his college friend by a black police officer out his jurisdiction who...well, you should read it yourself. There is a lot of meditation on this. He strives for something like James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (which I haven't read). What it evolves into is a modern equivalent of prophecy of doom, an oracle of sorts on the future fall of the country.
This book put me in a weird place, which is an awkward thing to admit. Is it really a great book, or just a brave one? And is it a groundbreaking brave book, or just another rage against American history and present? It certainly is an important book, and I think if you are American it will make you uncomfortable, and upset or angry or both.
I learned recently that the very word "slave" comes from the word Slav, as slavic people were routinely traded as slaves over the centuries, and the Russian serfs were treated as slaves in their very own country under the feudal system. This is to say that Oppression carries many names and many colours and shades of pink, brown, beige, and there is no such thing as an "Us" vs "Them" which can be neatly divided in just two camps. Historically speaking, and on a planetary level, it just isn't a valid division. This book might be considered a must-read among Americans, but I felt the author was judging everyone and everything very harshly, and through a narrow lens, and it wasn't until he mentioned travelling to France that I felt he was perhaps able to put the "Black Problem" in perspective. But then why did that perspective not come through more strongly? I certainly don't mean to minimize the suffering that people of colour have gone through and still go through to this day. I find this book gave me a view from a very particular perspective, but having the privilege to be able to look at a wider picture, I found myself struggling to stick to the book to then end. I could just keep my opinions to myself, but amid all the acclaim, I don't think it's helpful to just say "It's brilliant", because that is the politically correct thing to say. It also worries me that this "Us" vs "Them" is a message that is still to this day being transmitted from father to son. Surely we should be finding ways to become a collective "We" in the 21st century? But then of course, I have very naïve wishes and dreams, I know.
I am thrilled that this book won the National Book Award. I am hoping this book starts conversations in different communities across the country. Black Lives Matter.
Coates reminds us that race is a social construct that has been fluid throughout the centuries depending upon which populations were to be subjugated allowing the powerful to maintain/augment their elevation and create an alternate reality - a dream. He argues that in America, the dream has been (and continues to be) manufactured upon the backs of the black populace. Other nations are built upon similarly fabricated "races"/castes.
"There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment."
A state of being I've struggled to understand is the seemingly community-sanctioned perpetuation of violence in ghettos. Coates explains: black children are taught fear - at home, on the streets, in school - while in others boldness and possibilities are instilled. One set of parents/role models imparting a mindset to conquer life, the other merely to survive. The propagation of this mentality stems from the purposeful isolation of black communities. Why continue with this destruction? Because isolation cloaks/disallows alternatives.
"The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real -- when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities -- they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privileged of living in ignorance of this essential fact."
The hope is that the dreamers wake up and join/ease the collective burden of the struggle of life amongst humanity. While the author makes a distinction between the consequences of being black and of being poor, I believe he would agree that "white" is again being redefined: to narrow its ranks even further with the broadening disparity between economic classes. History is so frustratingly cyclical.
Some final truth: "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 made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people's interests. The library was open, unending, free."
Initially, it seemed Coates was heading down the wrong direction, making socio-economic comparisons of the black reality versus the white world of Mr. Belvedere. Not only is this comparison hugely erroneous, but it ignores the black world of The Cosby Show and seems a rather juvenile argument to make. But these were the thoughts of a young Coates and it eventually becomes clear that Coates' argument is anything but juvenile.
Despite a rocky start and an end that gets lost somewhere in Paris, Between the World and Me is everything others have said it is. In fact, it may be more. Coates drops serious knowledge, and he does it in a way that is so incredibly eloquent, yet lyrical. If the subject weren't so incredibly infuriating, his words could easily lull a reader to a restful state.
Is Coates the next Baldwin? In my opinion, no. They are different writers with different styles. The comparison is certain to be made as both authors carry a certain eloquence and broach the same subject. But in comparing Between the World and Me with Baldwin's influential The Fire Next Time, one cannot ignore that Coates really tackles the subject, truly shines light on the issue until it becomes transparent, while Baldwin's work was more proscriptive. Baldwin spent much of his work addressing religion and its role in the issue; Coates groups all human constructs and identifies the problem not so much as the fault of God or society, but as the individual's inability to think beyond these concepts.
Between the World and Me is a phenomenal work that gives voice to Baldwin's assertion that “freedom” was still one hundred years in the future. Here's to hoping this book gets us closer to true emancipation within the next 48 years.
"The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names."
"And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy"
"Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible."
"When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Fully 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the country. But it does not."
"Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream."
"'White America' is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, 'white people' would cease to exist for want of reasons. There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all history. But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been 'black,' and this points to the great difference between their world and ours. We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible. They are the ones who came up with a one-drop rule that separated the 'white' from the 'black,' even if it meant that their own blue-eyed sons would live under the lash. The result is a people, black people, who embody all physical varieties and whose life stories mirror this physical range."
"The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you—the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold."
"All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to 'be twice as good,' which is to say 'accept half as much.' These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile."
"I did not yet know, and I do not fully know now. But part of what I know is that there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur. For their innocence, they nullify your anger, your fear, until you are coming and going, and you find yourself inveighing against yourself—“Black people are the only people who…”—really inveighing against your own humanity and raging against the crime in your ghetto, because you are powerless before the great crime of history that brought the ghettos to be."
"And all the time the Dreamers are pillaging Ferguson for municipal governance. And they are torturing Muslims, and their drones are bombing wedding parties (by accident!), and the Dreamers are quoting Martin Luther King and exulting nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong. Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals. The moment the officers began their pursuit of Prince Jones, his life was in danger. The Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept our bodies as currency, because it is their tradition. As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guestroom, their finished basement. And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers; today, when 8 percent of the world’s prisoners are black men, our bodies have refinanced the Dream of being white. Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value."
"The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans."
This book was one that helped me to better see things through the eyes of a man who has lived a life very different from mine. We may be from the same country and time period, but we share little else. I was able to grow up feeling secure and protected. I had dreams of a future that might not have all come true, but propelled me through with hope of doing well and achieving what I had worked for. I felt there was a place for me in the world and the people around me would help and support me along the way. Reading this book helped me to see the flip side. There are children who have no promise or hope for the future, and who don't find a place for them when they look at the world around them. Children who fear for the future rather than anticipate the joys it might hold.
Americans celebrate their country's greatness and opportunity. That is as long as you look at our history through the right set of eyes. Mr. Coates describes our country with a different view, where certain people are looked through, rather than looked at. More importantly, they are feared and their lives disregarded, along with their rights to live out their dreams secure and with hope. Someone with my eyes can often be dismissive of this view, but seeing things from the author's perspective gives me a different opinion and a better appreciation of what it is like to wear a different colored skin in America.
Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay for his son is a powerful look at the black experience both past and today. He is open about his search for understanding himself and his evolution throughout the phases of his life. His love for his son is the driving force and purpose in his writing. He is an important voice in current affairs relating to race in The United States today. His book challenges me to be more cognizant of the people around me and more respectful of the inherent value that each of us has and brings to life.
I'm a white woman and will never understand what it means to be a black man in America, but this amazing book (Coates' letter to his young son), so full of pain and regret and anger and beautiful explorations of what this societal construct calls race means for black bodies, has allowed me to glimpse into the life and mind of a father who does not want his son to live in fear. I can offer no other insightful thoughts, except to reiterate the necessity of reading this. As Toni Morrison says in her cover blurb: "This is required reading."