Between the World and Me is not written for me and yet I knew it was required reading. I, like the rest of the world, have watched as the idea of America has been continually challenged on the streets of various cities. I’ve watched it all from across an ocean, living in country that is often at ideological and physical odds with itself, and that added odd twinges to it all. I’ve talked about it all extensively with fellow American ex-pats and Northern Irish natives alike. I was teaching sociology to university students in the months after Ferguson and found myself having frequent conversation with confused students who had only experienced America on holiday (mostly to Disney World) and through television.
I told those students repeatedly that I was not the best gatekeeper to that world or to discussions of that answer. I knew bits, I had read a lot and did a lot of academic and empirical research on racial tensions in Camden, New Jersey during my MSW, and I lived outside and interacted with Philadelphia for most of my life. I could tell stories I had heard and offer witness to things I had seen, but I told them repeatedly they should seek out authors like bell hooks and Roxane Gay and Gene Denby. I will now tell them to also seek out Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Between the World and Me is a long letter, written from father to son, that tracks Coates’s journey through his own blackness and how different the blackness of his son is. The influences of changing culture, the realities of America for black men, the legacy of slavery – all are addressed. I found myself stopping and breathing several times after some of the quotes, breathing prayers for understanding in my own self.
“The police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body” … “the destroyers [of your body] will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will be given pensions” These words are not written in anger, they’re written in resignation. He’s calling for his son to understand so that he can adjust his behaviour – Coates has long ago given up hope that America will change. This America that was built on the backs and the bodies of First Nation people and then slaves imported from lands afar, this America has no space for Coates and his son.
It’s the resignation that got me. He writes of his explorations of oppression in the library of Howard University, wondering if other nations had other groups they oppressed. He saw the diversity of the blackness of America outside his window, but knew that White America sought to flatten that diversity – making everyone of a non-caucasian skin tone into one subset. Then again, my brain added, we do that with white-ness as well. The “melting pot” of America I was raised to idolize would actually benefit from an understanding of the texture the various immigration movements and patterns have brought to it. But I digress.
One of his concluding comments will linger with me for – I hope – the rest of my life. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body. It is heritage.” It is. I know this. It is also heritage to oppress female bodies and bodies of difference and bodies which are deemed unworthy in all manner of ways. As a citizen and a human, this is what I want to wrestle with and grapple with. The embodiment of oppression and how we define acceptable bodies.
In the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, visitors watch a visual presentation of the framing of the Constitution when they first enter. I’ve toured the center several times in the past decade since it opened and that presentation arrests me every time. After explaining about the congressional meeting of 1776, the actor comments “We knew we were made for the people and by the people, but we have never really understood who ‘the people’ are. This is something we struggle with to this day.”
That is Coates’s point. America is for the people – but who are the people? Who do we include in this? And – as an educator and researcher – what is my role in that expanding and understanding? If I ever get to teach sociology again, this book will be put on the syllabus. It is not perfect, but it’s a significant and important piece of a conversation that I know will go on long after I am gone.
For me, this book had to be read with coffee. I went through several cups as I worked through his meditation – this weight of writing demands a hot beverage, I feel. If you’re not a coffee person, then tea it is.
- Charleston Syllabus: After the terrorist attack on Mother Emmanuel in Charleston, the hashtag “Charleston Syllabus” started getting accumulated on Twitter. I’ve been slowly working my way through the list and it should be a first stop for anyone after finishing this book.
- Ain’t I A Woman: Kerry Washington reads Sojouner Truth’s iconic words – arguably the first published work of intersectionality between race and gender. 3 minutes of your time and worth every second.
- Howard University: If you’re not familiar with Howard University or the HBCU moniker and can’t figure out why Coates calls it “Mecca”, start here.
I got a copy of this book from the eBook section of my library but then immediately purchased a copy for my personal library.