Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.
Between the World and Me (103)
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a powerful, raw, letter to his son about his life and coming of age, the horrors of systemic racism and police brutality, and being black in America. A mix of memoir, history, and fatherly advice, Coates is completely honest as he writes to his son. He talks about the women he dated in college and smoking weed with his future wife. He talks about his college friend who was unjustly murdered by police. He talks about slavery and racism.
“You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.” (107)
Reading Coates gives someone like me (a white male with basically every other form of privilege) a brief glimpse on what my privilege truly means.
“…there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies. I knew this because there was a large television resting in my living room. In the evenings I would sit before this television bearing witness to the dispatches from this other world. There were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak. That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in the wooded backyards with streams and glens.” (20)
Though I can’t really understand what it is like to grow up black in America, Coates tells the story of his life in a unique and compelling way. Publishing Between the World and Me, Coates intended his letter for the American public, but even when making an important point about how racism affects children, he frames it in a way where he is truly talking to his son. To Coates, the reader is a welcomed eavesdropper.
“I am sure that you have had to deal with the occasional roughneck on the subway or in the park, but when I was your age, each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise numbers, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not— all of which is to day that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body…I think I was always, somehow aware of the price. I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things.” (24)
In many respects, Coates is giving his son the talk about being a black in America. It’s no coincidence then that his focus is on the ways in which society (mis)treats the black body.
“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you—the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.” (71)
However, Coates also gives the story of his own coming of age, with a particular focus on his intellectual development. As a historian, I identified with his first encounters with the complexities of learning about the past. As a writer, Coates describes it beautifully:
“I had come looking for a parade, for a military review of champions marching in ranks. Instead I was left with a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.” (48)
Coates’s experiences with education and learning underscore the stark differences of growing up black in the United States. Experiences that I never encountered. Experiences that it is important for me to hear.
“I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. I loved a few of my teachers. But I cannot say that I truly believed any of them.” (26)
The cover of my copy quotes Toni Morrison as saying “This is required reading.” And it should be. Everyone should read Between the World and Me. It is insightful, powerful, and raw. Coates shines as a father, intellectual, and writer.
Next time: Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind
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