Every now and then I come across a book that renders me nearly speechless. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is one of them. Written in epistolary style as a letter from father to teenage son, it generally follows the author’s life journey from young boy growing up in Baltimore to young college man at Howard University to his present day role as both a father and a professional writer.
Coates grew up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood where he had to learn how to survive on the streets. He learned to recognize the fear that was innate to the boys in his neighborhood, “in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against the world.” He learned about the American dream from watching white families on TV, with perfect houses and lawns, Memorial Day cookouts, treehouses, and Cub Scout events.
In my youngest years, I lived on the south side of Chicago. I only had to learn how to play kick the can. My family, while not affluent, was living the white American dream. I learned about black families (or colored families, as we called them then) from the kids at my integrated school, and I was perplexed by the phenomenon of white flight, which drove our neighbors, and finally my own family, out of the city when I was only eight years old.
Our lives were vastly different, but Coates and I each grew up wondering about racism from very different perspectives.
Coates writes that racism is a (relatively) modern invention by people who were Catholic or Corsican or something else before they self-identified as white. Skin color became important, and racism was invented, to help whites maintain their position of power and differentiate themselves from others. The American dream was conjured by (white) historians (and fortified by Hollywood), and it thrives on generalization and limiting questions. Our police forces, according to Coates, reinforce the institution of whites-in-power (he calls our leaders majoritarian pigs). And schools, which are far more concerned with compliance than nurturing curiosity, are run by educators who use words like good intentions and personal responsibility to exonerate themselves for how they treat blacks.
Throughout the book, Coates alternates between the general and the specific, the distant and the close, and it’s in these close-ups that his words are most poignant. For example, he reminds the reader that slavery isn’t an institution but something that happened to individuals who had sisters and favorite spots in the woods and who liked to go fishing. Or that each black man killed by police had a mother who loved him and had taken him to music lessons and Little League.
I first listened to this as an audiobook, hearing the author’s emotional tenor. I then had to read the printed pages to try to digest all that he said. A fellow writer of mine did the same, saying this book gave her so much to think about, especially the concept of “needing and wanting to define oneself as white.”
As I journeyed through both the audio and the print versions, I found my own feelings vacillating from sorrow to horror to guilt to acknowledgement to despair to, ever so slightly, hope. I was deeply sorry for what he and his ancestors experienced. I asked myself what I can do, as a white woman, to shift the world’s perspective in some small way.
But there are certain ideas he presents that triggered me. He writes that whites think of blacks as “something sexual and obscene,” and I strongly object to that generalized assertion. He recalls a time when a white woman rudely pushed his four-year-old son out of her way, and it seems he’s suggesting this rude and thoughtless act could only be perpetrated by whites. When he describes how educators fail black students, I don’t disagree but rather would add that they fail many white students as well. And when he writes to his son how much he matters, and how he has the right to be whomever he wants to be, I agree wholeheartedly–but want to add that this should be true for all of our children, not only children of color.
Toni Morrison said Between the World and Me should be required reading. Slate critic Jack Hamilton says white Americans should read it even more urgently than anyone else. They’re both probably right. This is a powerful book that offers insight, inspires introspection, and encourages discussion, not only about racism but about other topics as well, including poetry and parenting. But it’s not to be read when looking for an uplifting read, nor can it be taken lightly. In addition to all the thought-provoking commentary about race and racism, Coates veers off in another direction near the end of the book and takes a stab at whites (or Dreamers, as he calls them) for doing more than destroying human bodies. Correctly, he accuses us of destroying “the body of Earth itself.”