Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a beautiful and powerful writer. He currently writes for the Atlantic and you should go check out some of the articles he’s written, and then read this collection of essays. Between the World and Me is written as a letter to Coates’ son, a study on race relations in America and how racism oppresses and terrorizes black people and their bodies. Coates dives into personal and national history to examine and explain the way systems in the United States work as well-oiled machines that maintain the status quo of assault and violation of black people.
A lot of the criticism of this book has been, “this is too dark, there is no hope in Coates’ words,” and these critics are correct in the describing the book as bleak. I was listening to Another Round, a Buzzfeed podcast, in which Coates guest starred in and spoke about this criticism. Coates explained that as a black writer, people expect him to speak for all of his people. He’s expected to inspire and enlighten and bring about change. As a black writer, he is not afforded the same liberties as Fitzgerald, who was able to paint a picture of excess and social failings. I think that this is an apt analysis of the criticism against Coates. Coates looks at his life and he looks at the history of black oppression and he writes what he sees.
I’m going to include some quotes from Between the World and Me that I found particularly moving.
This first quote appears toward the beginning of the book. Coates breaks down how our belief in race is a tool that perpetuates racism.
“Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism–the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them–inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores and earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.
But race is the child of racism, not the father.”
The second quote I’m going to include is one that features the American school system, which plays a prominent role in this book. Coates is very critical of public education. To him, schools are where the power imbalance is maintained. You either do well in school, or the streets will claim you and you will end up dead or in jail. If you will adapt and excel in school, you will be taught to exist and work within systems of oppression. Coates calls the classroom a “jail of other people’s interests.”
“But a society that protects some through the safety nets of schools, government-backed homes, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.”
That something darker is what Coates really dives into, and it is something that pushed me to think even harder about the issue of race. He talks about the Dream, the white man in power and how if there is a mountain of power there must be people left down below in its shadow. Which is all to say that racism exists because people allow it, because people enjoy the benefits they are allotted because of it.
“Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”