Drawing on an established tradition by American writers of color, ‘Between the World and Me’ is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ own letter to his son. While I was reading, I heard loud echoes of a tradition of black writers passing on their experiences with race issues through their lives, including James Balwin’s ‘My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation, ‘Malcom X’s Autobiography,‘ and MLK Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ Interestingly, it also reminded me of Krishnamurti, who talks a great deal about being blinded by the Dream. In his case, he means blinded by the seemingly ‘real’ and concrete world around us. In Coates’ case, he’s referring to the degree to which people adopt and believe the (American) Dream and how it and its tradition is defined.
“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.”
There’s an intriguing theme running through the book about the importance of control over one’s body and space, and the lack of control–both historic and current–black people have over their own. Coates frequently singles out treatment of black skin in the hands of the police, as well as armed citizens, drawing upon the well-publicized cases where black people have died. Examples are wide-ranging and integrated into the writing, although sometimes almost as an aside. He doesn’t go much into issues of legal justice or the prison system, I think because he is partly consumed with the perception of safety and freedom, when the evidence is in front of us all that people of color are not equally safe or free. He muses on the meaning and social significance without feeling the need to prove the validity of his perception. If you want to understand racism statistically, look elsewhere. He will not explain for you its ubiquitous nature.
“The truth is that the police reflect America and all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.”
“I knew that these were 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.”
One of my favorite things about Coates–I have more than one–is that his work reflects chewing at the meat of meaning, to find sustenance in what he consumes and experiences. He understands meaning, subjectivity, and change, and I loved the way he acknowledges it:
“But every time I ask it, the question is refined. 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.”
Coates is less optimistic than his forebearers. He lacks the general love of humanity that Baldwin has, and yet who can fault him?
“It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness.”
Wide-ranging and thoughtful, I’d highly recommend it for anyone. I’d particularly recommend it for white Americans as part of the process of addressing their own beliefs in the Dream, or for Americans of color who might be looking for reflections and validations of some of their own experiences. There’s too many people still who don’t understand or believe how many Americas there are, and seemingly find it hard to believe that their own (white) experience isn’t universal.
“History is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.”