Last night, in front of the fire, I finished reading the book “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It affected me in a way most books don’t, where I could actually feel my worldview expanding because I was looking into a world I had not looked into before, understanding it in a way I’d not understood it before.
I’d seen glimpses, sure. Hollywood is rife with movies about The Struggle of the Black Man. But I’m not sure a one of them made the impact that Coates’ book did. Before reading this book, I couldn’t identify why that was, but after reading it, I can, and the reason is uncomfortable to say: It’s because so many of those stories created and distributed by Hollywood, even though they were about blackness, were written for me, someone who, to borrow one of Coates’ phrases, was raised to believe herself to be white. And “Between the World and Me” is not for me. It’s for his son, who has a black body.
A lot of this book made me uncomfortable, largely because it states truths anyone who’s part of white America doesn’t really think about because we don’t have to think about it. In the early pages of the book, Coates recalls his son’s reaction to hearing that the killers of Michael Brown would go free, and he excused himself from the room because he didn’t want to cry in front of his father.
I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.
Coates takes the talk of race and racism that’s only glossed over in most other media I have consumed about the topic and cracks it open. He does so simply, without any kind of blinders or big words. Simply: This is life.
In the midst of his study of being black in America, he gives us some amazing nuggets of his history. I read the paragraph where he fell in love for the first time, at Howard University–that’s all he gives to the woman, just a paragraph, but it’s all we need– and reread it twice, and then read it aloud to my husband, because it is the simplest, most beautiful description I’ve ever read about falling in love.
He details the first time he left the country. He was an grown man, going to Paris after his wife went and came back a changed woman. He has the kind of solo travel experience that is romantic on the surface and life-changing beneath, visiting a place without America’s specific racial history, having a black body in a place without America’s specific racial history. He comes back a man with an altered view, and he knows he wants his son to have that experience young and often–and not as a thirtysomething man, like his father.
It’s always been fascinating to me that there is still a discussion about equality and racism in this country, as though some truly think equality has been achieved, as though some truly think racism is dead. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the belief, and after reading Coates, I officially think those with such ill-informed fantasies are being purposely dense. I can forgive naivete to a certain extent–they don’t know any better because they just simply lack the experience to know any better, and as Coates points out, our history does the best it can to gloss over the atrocities of the Civil War.
The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are (…) I was obsessed with the Civil War because six hundred thousand people had died in it. And yet it had been glossed over in my education, and in popular culture, representations of the war and its reasons seemed obscured. (…) But American reunion was built on a comfortable narrative that made enslavement into benevolence, white knights of body snatchers, and the mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor, and elan. The lie of the Civil War is the lie of innocence, is the Dream.
But I can’t forgive the refusal to learn. To listen.
I first read a selection from “Between the World and Me” in The Atlantic, where Coates is a writer. It is the selection where he first discusses the Dream, the American Dream, the construct that has allowed so many people to remain so naive, to feel justified in their refusal to learn and to listen. And I knew I was reading something big, something important.
I picked up the full book last month, after finishing Jodi Picoult’s “Small Great Things,” a fiction story about a black nurse who is charged with killing the infant of white supremacist parents. The book is told from three points of view: the white supremacist father, the black nurse, and the white defense attorney who takes the nurse’s case. She is the kind of woman who is so convinced that she’s not racist, she says things like “I don’t see color,” revealing her own naivete.
After the story Picoult gives the reader a brief rundown of the research the book required–delving into the world of hate groups and delving into the world of black women. She wasn’t qualified to write about either, so she read all she could, she interviewed people who agreed to serve as advisors. And then she admitted that plenty will lambaste her story because she is white, because hours and hours of interviews and research can’t possibly make her understand, really understand.
I’ve thought about that since I finished the book–is the topic of race off-limits for white writers? I think it goes back to the audience: Picolt’s book was for a white audience. She wrote it for people who live in the Dream, who might not consider themselves racist simply because they don’t know any better.
It’s why I am so hesitant to hit “publish” on this post. Who the hell am I to share any of these thoughts? The writer in me, though–the woman who likes to push boundaries and learn, who acknowledges that sometimes, learning means you fall on your face and looks stupid and make a mistake–wants to share this. Kind of needs to. Selfishly, to grow.
And selflessly, to encourage anyone who lives as part of the Dream to read “Between the World and Me.” Frankly, it should probably be required reading as a citizen of this country.