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.
Coranna Adams is a writer, filmmaker, and educator from Asheville, North Carolina.