Because Black Lives Matter, and that's all any of us should be talking about right now, I'm taking a pause from SFF to review a book that's not new but is new to me. Published in 2015, Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me is an epistolary essay written by the black author to his black teenage son. It's a complicated book, full of love and pain, holding the meditative quality of black man remembering the process of living into himself in the midst of a racially divided and divisive America. And it is the story of a black body vulnerable to the continued violence of a deluded nation. So in essence, Coates tells the story of our times.
Important reading, and the text does not pull punches. This is a book that will change your life, because it will change your heart. Coates changed my heart. And in the change, the view isn't prettier, or relieving. Here, the pressure is on.
First, language. The words here are strong and clear, and the book moves with a relentless connection to place and community. Coates' world is Baltimore, Maryland; Howard University, Washington D.C.; Brooklyn, NY, and finally Paris, France. These places and their people made him, and in the rhythm of his words, I feel city streets, neighborhoods, corner stores, bodegas, and the ever present threat of police.
I grew up in East Tennessee, in wide open rolling green hills, in a very liberal family, with parents who revered the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but who had no local black friends themselves (Neither did I; none lived in our small Southern town outside of the maximum security prison that lay in my backyard--this is in itself a part of the larger story that Coates marks). I love King's work and legacy. But Coates doesn't appreciate King's message, especially in his youth. Instead, as a young black man, he reveres Malcolm X. From the beginning, he's very clear about the demarcation of legacy, and as a reader, I found a sense of rightness in it. I haven't read Malcolm X's autobiography, "By Any Means Necessary," but I remember watching Spike Lee's 1992 film Malcolm X in my teenage years and being immeasurably moved by his power, pride, and strength; he had the force of a man demanding justice from an unjust world. And from the first pages of Between the World and Me, there is a similar demand, to commit to whole-hearted living outside of and in opposition to the narrative of white supremacy and patriarchy. Indeed, Coates tells his son, this struggle is the only living that is worthy of breath.
The book struck me as a kind of quest. As Coates travels from childhood to adulthood and enters the world of Howard University in Washington D.D., the Mecca, he builds from the philosophical relationship with Malcolm X to a relationship and kinship with many other black authors and thinkers. Over and over again, Coates describes his parents refusing to give him answers to big questions, but instead sending him out into the world to ask and seek. The book is a record of that journey of questions and answers in a world of black men and women, a call and response, even within its very format as a plea and record for Coates own son. For every parent, Between the World and Me offers this powerful lesson: encourage your children to seek truth, and they will be changed by it. They will grow to become bigger than the self who first asked the question. Coates seeks this for his son, as I seek it for my own. And he shares wisdom and pain in the seeking.
"Between the World and Me" squeezed my heart in a painful vise. As a white woman, it's impossible to read this book without a deep sense of shame and self-disgust and copious tears. We white people are deeply responsible for the sins white America has visited on our black brothers and sisters time and time again. The sins that continue to be visited.
But the most powerful section of the book came in the repetition of the theme of the American Dream, and how that dream was never meant for black bodies. He says, "A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself, and in America, these precipitating chapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals. In fact, black bodies were the ground on which the Dream was born and on which it is sustained." This echoes a Ted Talk our history teacher at Odyssey shared recently (shared below), in which Hasan Kwame Jeffries reflects that the home of James Madison, Montpelier, the home of the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, was crafted from bricks that black slave children made.
This lie, this Dream, is a myth we have all been told. And there are more lies. As Coates says, "Perhaps one person can make a change but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen." God what a truth to be spoken again and again, especially right now. And here is the thing about truths that go this deep. You just live to them, to their recognition out on the fabric of society. And we are living toward this truth still because the truth will always out.
What does it mean to be woke, that term that's come to mean so much? I don't fully know. I know that to wake up from the Dream, as a white person, if that's even possible means to recognize all the violence that has been done and continues to be done on your behalf. It means I realize I am part and parcel of continuing that violence, even when I don't want to be. It means I have to fight that violence actively in order to deny its lies.
May we heed the warning.
Again in Coates' words, "There is some passing acknowledgement of the bad old days, which by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. 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. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind." Coates to his son, but also to every one of us.
Between the World and Me comes with a quote from Toni Morrison on the cover. "This is required reading." True. This is not a book for most young children, but every teen should read it, as should every American. It's a text that will bring you to your knees.
I've spent more than a little time reading over the last few weeks, as North Carolina has been sheltering in place for more than five weeks. Odyssey moved to remote learning on March 17th, the first school in Buncombe County to make the decision to close the physical campus to students. And while my outside "container" has gotten a lot smaller, I've been exploring the multi-verse of recently published fantasy and sci-fi novels. Here's the first of a series of book reviews:
It's been a busy spring, but just a quick update here about the WNC Teen Film Festival. This is a new competition sponsored by Odyssey working in partnership with Paul Bonesteel of Bonesteel Films, Brad Hoover of the Asheville School of Film, and Katie Damien from Angry Unicorn Entertainment. The competition closes in just another week, so if you get a chance, encourage teen filmmakers you know to go ahead and make a submission. The Awards ceremony will be held in April at the local Fine Arts Theater.
I've been working on a couple of new projects this fall, and one of them is the Best Practices in Education Podcast. Odyssey School has a unique professional development structure, instituted by my leadership partner, the lovely Megan Martell. In it, our teachers come together for the weekly faculty meeting and professional development time on Wednesdays, and at the beginning of that block, there's a fifteen-minute slot for a Best Practices Presentation. All teachers sign up for one slot per semester, and we rotate through the line-up across the course of the year. Topics range from things like "Bias in the Math Classroom" to "Relaxation Strategies for Teachers."
When we first instituted Best Practices, Megan and I were quickly surprised by how inspiring they were. Both we and our teachers got a chance to remember why we had become educators. The presentation began, and faces perked up, curious and ready to learn. Weekly, we were invited to consider an unfamiliar topic or to peer into someone else's classroom to see how they deal with that pesky little problem.
The podcast aims to bring this same experience to a broader audience. Recorded in an interview style, the episodes are quick, just fifteen minutes. I hope you, like me, find them to be the right size to bring a little inspiration and awareness to new areas of teaching--and learning!
I'm still working in fits and starts on the new poetry collection, the working title of which is "Bindings of Love." Here's one from that series.
Because this year, your strength and the ability to mourn Dad makes room for us all to feel the same sadness. And because he would love a poem celebrating you, the woman he loved most.
Many of you know that the past year my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This fall, he went into hospice, and these last weeks have been a time where we've gotten the blessing to surround him with love, patiently helping to usher him forward in the process of dying. It's been revelatory to say the least, and I am still struggling with the shock of knowing, suddenly and for sure, that we all die.
Death is so much like birth; each one is irrevocably its own event. I'm so thankful to share these moments, really all the moments I've had, in my dad's company.
A student recently asked me to contribute to a Mysteries project by sharing ten things I think a young woman growing up in today's world needs to know. I don't usually give advice, but I dashed off a few thoughts.
Young women are one of our most valuable resources in today's world. Our future rises and falls on their vision, and their ability to create and sustain what the world will become.
Heady stuff! Then I realized that another way to think of this assignment was to consider the advice I wish I was given in my teens, if I had been smart enough to listen to one of my elders (I wasn't).
So take these words of wisdom with a grain of salt, meaning consider them salty and well-worn. I've grown a lot since my teen years and most of the time in between has left me battered, world-weary, and a little ornery.
Be of service to something bigger than yourself. It's the most effective way to be happy.
Return to the wild part of yourself every day (or as much as possible). Go beyond should and should not, right and wrong, roles and responsibilities and experience the true ground of your own being.
Be honest. And if you can't be honest, be real about that with the people you love.
Make it a habit to create something of beauty, either in the material or immaterial world. Beauty nourishes the spirit and will keep your heart young.
I was at Thankgiving Dinner with family and friends last night, bemoaning the life of a teen mom, when my good friend Dolly said, "I'm having to train myself out of using Well, actually on my own daughter."
I must have looked confused, because she finished, "You know, well actually aren't you thankful that you had so much time with your sweet pup before he died."
Or well actually, you'll have another opportunity to try out for that team next year."
I thought about all the ways that I use this same strategy on myself. Well, actually I should be really happy that I had that successful pitch with the literary agent (even though it didn't work out in the end). Well actually, I had so many good years with my dad before he got sick.
Well, actually is a way we, particularly women, try to mitigate the pain we feel over loss.
Don't get me wrong; it's great to not take oneself too seriously. None of us like to fail or lose something--or someone--we love. But when we try to redirect attention too quickly away from our pain, or our children's pain, we miss an opportunity to really feel what it means to not get what you want.
I've been thinking a lot about this lately. Life over the holidays slows down a bit, and over this weekend, I've been realizing how upset I am about my failures. Case in point, I turn 40 this June, and I really believed I would have my first novel published by now.
Now look, I'm not wallowing. I'm busy at work on my third manuscript. In the class I'm currently taking, a NY Times bestselling author recently told me she had to write twelve books before her first was published, so I know I'm in good company. (Well actually, you've come far in such a short period of time. You published in local mags. You're starting your own podcast. You've even had someone ask for your full novel before saying no.)
But rejection--failure--stings. I cry. I feel utterly hopeless.
Why is this valuable you might ask? One word: resiliency.
I counsel my students (and sometimes their parents) to do this very thing. Fail often! I love to say. I'm not sure they understand that I speak from a place of experience. I haven't got it all figured out yet. I have two children who stump me on a weekly basis. I still haven't written that business plan. As an artist, I've been rejected hundreds of times. Celebrated, only a handful.
Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude. This year I'm thankful for my failures, for all the things that aren't working in my life. For eating too many carbohydrates and gaining that extra five pounds back. For not pulling off the birthday party my youngest son wanted. For forgetting sooooooooo many things. For that really personal rejection letter. And not reaching all of my career goals.
Sometimes tears are the only companions on a lonely journey. I'm welcoming mine.
Coranna Adams is a writer, filmmaker, and educator from Asheville, North Carolina.