Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It does not matter that the "intentions" of individual educators were noble.  Forget about intentions.  What any institution, or its agents, "intend" for you is secondary.  Our world is physical....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 on criminal irresponsibility.  The point of this language of "intention" and "personal responsibility is a 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.

Wow. Between the World and Me really has some mustard on it. I'll preface my review by saying that though this book is a vital addition to any understanding of race in America, it is pretty advanced.  If you gave this book to someone who thinks #alllivesmatter or that the Confederate flag isn't necessarily racist, much of it probably will go right over their head.  On the other hand, if you're a person who believes him or herself to be white and you have started learning and listening and reading about the experiences of black people in America, then this book is essential.

Coates writes Between the World and Me as an open letter to his teenage son as a way to try to guide him in his life as a black man in America.  Throughout the book Coates writes about his own experiences.  Coates describes his childhood and his overprotective parents, which he says is common among African-Americans, explaining it as a product of love and extreme fear (his dad's theory was, "Either I can beat him, or the police."), which is perfectly understandable given recent events.  Though he was restless and unmotivated during high school, he had an intellectual awakening at Howard University (the "Mecca"), where he reveled in being surrounded by so many vibrant, lively black students and devoured writings by black thinkers, especially Malcolm X.  He writes about the death of his acquaintance Prince Jones by a bullet from an overzealous undercover police officer in a (barely credible) case of mistaken identity.  Coates also describes how he changed after becoming a father.

Coates also surgically deconstructs race in America.  One of the most interesting points he makes is that race didn't create racism, racism created race; that what we think of as race is mutable and is really just a tool to oppress certain manufactured groups when convenient for the powerful.  Coates acknowledges that Americans did not invent this practice, that it has been going on for centuries, but he doesn't let us off that easily:

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, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.  One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and the plead mortal error.  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.  This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not inquire too much.  And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.  But you and I have never truly had that luxury.  I think you know.

As you can see, this is not a comfortable book to read, especially as a white man, but I think that makes it all the more important.  But it is also powerfully and wonderfully written, and at times has a poetry to it that makes it even more effective.  There are many other passages that I would love to quote, but I'll leave it at two.

I bought my copy of Between the World and Me at a local book shop so that I could also get a ticket to his upcoming lecture at the Carter Center.  I hope that he clarifies a couple of things: first, he writes often about the taking, assaulting, or breaking of black "bodies."  But often he uses the word in a way that you could easily interchange selves or lives.  So I wonder if there is some reason why he keeps focusing on "bodies" or if it's basically just a poetic choice.  Second, he often writes about the "Dream."  It seems like the Dream is basically a desire for an upper-middle class life in the suburbs, with the picket fence and two car garage, etc., (and only select and regulated interactions and proximity to black people.)  It seems like Coates sees the Dream is inextricably linked to systemic racism.  What I wonder is whether this desire is possible in a hypothetical society without racism or how the Dream fits into urban areas.  Other than the whole white flight part, most of the things that Coates argue constitute the dream seem pretty innocuous, but he seems to condemn it wholesale.

Of course, the answer may be that it doesn't matter, because, as Coates predicts at the end of the book, climate change, for which white supremacy has been one of the forces most responsible, will soon doom us all. It's kind of a bleak book (but definitely worth reading).

1 comment:

Christopher said...

I doubt it's a "poetic" choice to use the term "bodies" instead of "lives" or "souls"--partially because it avoids the comfort of the abstract, but partially because of the weight of the dehumanizing legacy of slavery. I won't venture to elaborate because it's not really my turf to stomp around on, but I highly recommend this article by Hortense Spillers: http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/jgarret/texts/spillers.pdf

It's definitely focused on the female body, but I think it gives a good idea of why that particular term is so vital.