Required Summer Reading: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me
In his New York Times Bestseller, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates has crafted a masterpiece that everyone in the present United States should read. I would even go further than “should” and encroach on the territory of “must.” The content covered in this work are words and realities that transcend what is shown in the media about the experiences of black lives in America.
I must offer a sort of disclaimer here. Take it as you will in the context of these delicate conversations about race. I am white, and therefore can only talk from a purely structural standpoint. I cannot speak to the experiences of what it would feel like to be victimized based solely on the construct of race. I can only speak to what I have seen unfold around me, and to the experiences others have shared with me. By offering my opinions on this book Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about his experience as a black male in America, I cannot claim empathy. Empathy comes only from shared and similar experiences. And because of that, I understand that my opinions are discredited slightly on this front.
Where does “racism” fall into place among all the other “-isms” that plague our world and target entire groups of people? Regardless of the scope of influence held by each, they all stem from the same place— a history built on the desire for dominance, for conquest. Some people claim ignorance, historically a fear of those who are different from us. But an entire hierarchical mindset that created these systems of inequality was not the doing of a few ignorant individuals. It was— and still is— the work of institutions dependent on complacency. Those in power have been complicit in the solidifying and the perpetuation of this brutal system. Those who claim “ignorance” need only engage their ears to listen. They’ll find everything they need to know in that space: the truth that those who benefit from this system are complicit in its maintenance.
The definition of “race” in itself is problematic. I would hope that at this point, we are all relatively on the same page in the acknowledgement that it is a social construct. “Race” is a term that has been used throughout our history to categorize and divide, based on very little that is actually concrete. This is, of course, the tool that has made it possible to subjugate entire groups of people. Over the course of history, we have broadened and narrowed the definitions of the “races” to fit the goal at hand. The PBS documentary entitled Race: The Power of An Illusion points to specific examples of how the United States courts — predominantly white institutions in America’s history — wielded the power to legally decide who could be considered white and who couldn’t. For example, the third installment of the documentary explains that in 1909, “the U.S. Court of Appeals in Massachusetts ruled that Armenians, often classified as Asiatic Turks, were legally white”. This opened up the ambiguity of such definitions, and saw the rise of people petitioning the courts for “legal whiteness,” since it came with many legal privileges that were not offered to those of other racial identities. But whatever the exact history, “race” is a construct that— however heatedly debated— still has the same debilitating effects on minorities in America today.
But rather than focus on these points, I want to turn to the tangibility of Ta-Nehisi’s experiences within this socially constructed and oppressive system. I attribute the weight of Coates’ story to his emphasis on the physical and the visceral. In a discussion that so frequently tiptoes around the vagueness of micro-aggressions and the subtleties of implicit biases, Coates brings to light how all of these forge a blatant and hard-hitting connection to violent crimes against the black body. Subtle acts of racism feed themselves into violent acts.
For those who are guilty of implicit biases — as I would argue we all are — the excuse of having “good intentions” is neither harmless nor excusable. We are humans, and we make mistakes, but we are also responsible for these mistakes. We are responsible for our history. The tendency for those in power to continue to perpetuate whatever system allows them to remain in positions of power— regardless of who suffers the consequences— is America’s history. The institution of racism is undeniably an integral part of our history. Marginalization in the clearest forms of slavery have transcended the Emancipation Proclamation and rears its ugly head in the form of oppressive living conditions, mass incarceration, profiling, and countless other examples. As current, contributing members of society, we must see these realities and open our eyes to how we must change them. Only then can we even hope for true racial equality to become actualized.
In the way that Coates paints the harsh reality of racial injustice in America, I can understand Michelle Alexander’s criticism in her New York Times book review. She claims that “little hope is offered that freedom or equality will ever be a reality for black people in America,” mostly because he focuses on the long line of history surrounding humans and their need for superiority complexes (Alexander 2015).
I personally feel that Coates is justified in focusing on the bleakness of America’s current situation. He drives home the long lineage of history that has made this hierarchical system of oppression so engrained in American institutions. He stresses that because of this painful past, no amount of success in the future will be able to overshadow the harm already done. Coates urges his son to “resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice” (Coates 70). There is value in this. Oppression did not end with the abolishment of slavery, as many school curriculums would have us believe. The struggle is ongoing, as the “past in all its nuance, error, and humanity” should remind us (Coates 70).
Beyond what may be considered a pessimistic view as to the future of racial relations, I think Coates is, in the end, arguing for something on the optimistic side. Although he states clearly his belief that change is not up to the individual, he does allude to the power of larger movements to promote change (Coates 96). There is something poetic in that notion of solidarity, echoed by the poetic prose present throughout his book.
I also view the dismissal of the impact of an individual as a further dig to the American Dream that Coates criticizes as a main contributor to the perpetuation of racial injustice. In particular, I am thinking about the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth: a finger is pointed to one individual who jumped through the countless hoops that had been set up by whatever oppressive institution you’d like to name and succeeded— against all odds— and is now revered as the token success story. This myth is a feeble attempt to prove that if one only works hard enough, that system they worked against is not so oppressive. Which is sickening. The institution of racism is set up so that one group has all of the hoops to jump through, while the other is given access to everything that would allow them to bypass the hoops anyways. The result? A severely uneven playing field. So maybe Coates was not just being cynical when he claimed that change lies within movements, not within individuals.
I do not necessarily believe that it is Coates’ job to offer us any solutions or courses of action. Those can already be found by all who are fighting for racial equality and justice. They already know what it looks like: a compassionate respect for all life and an understanding of what would make an even playing field for everyone. The problem lies in those who are complacent in the perpetuation of oppression. This problem is systemic. And a system cannot be undermined and overthrown completely unless the masses are all on board. I hear this book as a statement of fact, as a duty to make everyone see what has for so long been swept under the rug and denied, even when shots are being fired in the street. This book presents the persistence of racism today as a series of realities that cannot be ignored or shrugged off as an “over-sensitivity.” His work serves as an acknowledgment of truth.
What rings true through this work, though with very little direct reference to it, is the importance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. More than that, the importance to recognize that this is a movement, not an individual revelation. This movement had to state the obvious in its name, since it is an idea that is not yet met with universal validation or agreement in practice. Theoretical agreement is not the point. The point is the truth of how the statement of “black lives matter” is a direct response to these attacks on black bodies that show how our institutions and society says otherwise. An unwillingness to see this will be met and challenged head on by the words of truth spoken by Coates. Walk in solidarity with the equality for all, and where your experiences are not relevant to the conversation, let your voice be drowned out and listen.
Alexander, Michelle. "Ta-Nehisi Coates's 'Between the World and Me'" The New York Times Sunday Book Review. The New York Times, 17 Aug. 2015. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. Print.
Race: The Power of An Illusion. Prod. Larry Adelman. Perf.CCH Pounder. YouTube. PBS, 2003. Web. 24 Aug. 2016.