Like Meditations by Aurelius, Hamlet by Shakespeare, or 1984 by Orwell; I had an incontrovertible feeling that this book will stand the test of time. Between the World and Me does not represent the black experience in America. It is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ personal journey, or as he puts it, struggle to reconcile his experience in the land of Dreamers so as to impart it to his son. The book is an intimate essay by Coates to his 15 year old son about how to live in a black body in America.
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.
Coates explores this question by first setting the context of American history and her ideals. A history that is irrefutably built on the bodies of black slaves, but a fact all too willingly pushed under the rug by the ruling class: the Dreamers.
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.
The artifacts of this destruction, however, still pervades America’s values, systems, and institutions. Statistically, black bodies have it worst, be it police shootings, courtroom acquittal rates, or opportunity. There is overwhelming evidence from across all of society. Coates delves into his experience, the streets being his teacher as opposed to schools, where he felt an outcast. He looked over his shoulder, was always on edge, and had a heightened sense of protectiveness over his son. The black body is vulnerable, and unless you have one, it is a difficult notion to empathise with. This was perhaps the biggest light bulb moment reading the book as a bystander on the other side of the world insulated from their struggle.
But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. 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.
Coates doesn’t censor the realities of his struggle, or of his beliefs in this address to his son. The black body is too vulnerable to have the luxury of sugarcoating his language. For example, playing music too loudly, wearing a hoodie at night, or even just going about your business visiting family. Those have all been causes of harm, of death to a black body: Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Prince Jones.
So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
Highly recommended. As a bystander to the plight of black bodies in America, I found this palpably sobering, demanding, and illuminating. Coates offers no easy solution, or that it will all be OK in the end for black bodies in America. It is deeply personal, crushingly intimate, and brutally honest essay addressed to his 15 year old. More specifically, it explores Coates’ assessment about living in America as a black body and how it has evolved. From his early days in West Baltimore contending with the streets and the schools, to his experience Howard University. Moving to New York, going overseas for the first time, and struggling with the death of Prince Jones. Moreover, his throughout prose is beautiful – so much so that it compelled me to finish it in one sitting.