Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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I purchased this book when it came out several years ago, but gave up on reading it at the time because I didn’t have the patience to absorb Coates’s words and perspective. I restarted it this week, and finished it in a couple days, as it’s not a long book…but it is a powerful one.

The book is addressed to his then 15-year-old son to share his experience of being black in America, from his childhood on the violent streets of Baltimore, to the broadening of his horizons at Howard University, which he calls his Mecca, through his adult experience of New York City and Paris, which seemed like far-away galaxies in his youth.

What made the book challenging for me to read back a few years ago was how he described America and the American Dream as built on and through the exploitation of black bodies, from slavery through sharecropping to the present-day prison-industrial complex. One of his lines in the book applied to me at that time:

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this.

I did not have that mettle a few years ago to acknowledge the horrors, and turn toward that murky and unknown version of America. But Trump, and particularly the 40% of citizens who still support his every racist and authoritarian move, has made it clear to me how the culture of America is damaged, and increasingly damaging.

But I wasn’t ready to believe that a few years ago. As he puts it, “This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.” I truly believed that Dream a few years ago – I’m embarrassed now by a post I wrote in 2013 where I argued in favor of inequality as a reflection that some people “deserved” a greater share of the rewards. Friends pointed out my blindness to the structural inequities that enabled some to earn more, but I defended my viewpoint at the time as being how things “should” be. As Coates observes, “my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.”

Even as a boy, Coates was aware of the fragility of his life. He recounts an experience in sixth grade, where he was on the outskirts of a fight, and another boy pulled a gun in anger, and looked at him. He did not shoot, because as Coates writes, “He did not need to shoot. He had affirmed my place in the order of things. He had let it be known how easily I could be selected. …I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog.”

This fragility was reinforced by his experience in school, which was a funhouse mirror of the streets. On the streets, “Not being violent enough could cost me my body.” At school, “Being too violent could cost me my body.” Either way, he could not get out. The two worlds reinforced each other:

“Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body. And I began to see these two arms in relation—those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society could say, “He should have stayed in school,” and then wash its hands of him.”

This devastating analysis of how American culture uses personal responsibility as a reason to sentence its citizens to danger and death (“He should have stayed in school”) without examining its own structural biases is now evident to me in several contexts. When a black man is killed by the police, the media looks for a reason that he “deserved” it. When a woman is raped or sexually assaulted, we see the same investigation for why she “deserved” it. The focus is always on blaming the victim, so that we never have to inspect the white man who committed the crime, or the fairness and justice of the system he represents. As soon as we question the system, we have to question everything that we have “earned” in our lives, and most white people (including myself until recently) do not have the mettle to do so.

His analysis also shines through in his critique of the trope of “black-on-black crime”, where he notes that the ghettos were “as planned as any subdivision. They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are, all again, plundered of our dignity, of our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. … “Black-on-black crime” is jargon, violence to the language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel. And this should not surprise us. The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting…”

Similarly, he describes the theories “that justified the jails springing up around me, that argued for ghettos and projects, that viewed the destruction of the black body as incidental to the preservation of order. According to this theory, “safety” was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value.” In other words, portraying the black man as inhuman and dangerous enabled the construction of a racist system that is manifestly unjust in the name of “safety”…but safety only for the white folks who are part of the Dream, who are protected by that system. As an aside, this emphasis on “safety” also enabled the ongoing capitalist plundering of white people because they were reminded that even if they were poor, they still needed the system to protect them from the blacks and from immigrants, a trope that Trump has weaponized and made explicit to acquire and consolidate power and wealth.

One of the most personal examples he shares of this system is taking his son to a movie on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His five year old son was dawdling on the escalator, and a white woman pushed his son and said “Come on!” Coates rebuked the woman with a white hot anger (harking back to his childhood survival tactics on the streets), and a nearby white man defended her and accosted Coates loudly. When Coates shoved the man away (as the woman had shoved his son), the man said “I could have you arrested!” which Coates interpreted as “I could take your body.” One moment of anger, and he could be arrested and possibly killed by the police sent for public “safety”, while the white woman is vigorously defended.

He reflects on his keen awareness that one moment of relaxation, even with his son, in New York City, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in America, almost led to disaster for him. As he says, “This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contributed to the fast breakdown of our bodies.” (read Whistling Vivaldi for the impact of this type of stereotype threat). And even being constantly on alert isn’t enough – he shares the story of his college friend, Prince Jones, who was shot and killed by an undercover cop despite Jones committing no crime and not looking anything like the suspect the cop was tracking, except that they were both black men (the cop was exonerated, of course).

Coates observes “The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear … to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream.”

The title of the book “Between the World and Me” comes up throughout the book, as he reflects on what separates him from the American Dream. Late in the book, he shares “I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” In other words, race is a construct, and white people in America have decided that the color of one’s skin matters more than anything else about a human – it doesn’t matter what a black man has made of his life, as he will always be considered a criminal and deserving of death when he runs afoul of the power structure of white society.

And yet he closes the book with a challenge for his son:

And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do 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, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.

This is where people with privilege like me have to step up and join the struggle. I still haven’t figured out what my part is in that struggle, but I will continue reading and learning and finding my way.

P.S. One thing that I think will be necessary is a new version of the social contract that is less exploitative of people of color, of women, of the working class, and of the planet – Riane Eisler’s The Real Wealth of Nations offers some ideas in that direction. As an example, Jacinta Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, submitted a budget last year based on broader indicators of well-being than GDP.

P.P.S. I have used many quotes from the book in this summary to share the power of Coates’s writing. He learned to write at a young age, as his mother taught him “the craft of writing as the art of thinking.” He later describes his study of poetry: “Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.” which is just an utterly fantastic line. I am not a poet, but this blog has been where I process my thoughts to find what remains after “the slag of justification” falls away, and I appreciate the questioning and criticism from my readers to continue to refine what I think.

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