For actual reviews of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, please see the New York Times or Slate. Below are just some thoughts and reflections I’ve been mulling over in the weeks since I read the advanced reading copy that came to me at the bookstore.
I picked the thin book out of my monthly shipment, read the back and thought to myself, this is going to be important. Turns out it was important enough for the publisher to move the pub date up from October 13th to July 14th. In the wake of the church killings, the police violence, and the riots in Baltimore, this little book on race said a lot to me, a white girl who has never had to think much about race before. It said a lot to many people, some of them my friends on Facebook who posted the book, held up by their white hands, in between posts of their white babies and white vacations.
Between the World is framed as a letter from Coates to his teenage son, whose transformative years have rung with violence against those who share his skin color. I do not share their skin color and am one who Coates describes as having been brought up to “hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, believe that they are white.”
This sentence comes early on in the book and made me uncomfortable. Perhaps mostly because I had never even thought about the concept of a race-less society before. Coates also said, in a New York Magazine article, that he is always surprised when non-black folk are interested in his work. But he means other white people, right? Not me? Because I am interested and believe I’m not a racist. Believe.
But then, I do not recognize all the names of the black victims of police violence that he lists and am embarrassed for this. Which person suffered which crime, and would I have remembered if they were white?
What is accurate about me — and nonnegotiable — is that I don’t and cannot fully understand what it is like to be black in America. I can’t comprehend the constant, all-permeating fear for one’s flesh and bones, the most basic thing that makes you you. Coates’ book to his son is how to grow up and thrive in this country in his black skin. It is the body of the black person, he says, that Americans share a “heritage” of destroying.
Of course, I do know a little, by virtue of being a woman. Taking cabs when, if I’d been a man, I would have walked home. Holding my keys like a weapon. Avoiding that one guy at parties who gets too friendly when he’s drunk. I fought with a boyfriend years ago, arguing that rape jokes were never funny, in any situation or permutation, because no matter what it was an attack on a person’s core. The argument started absurdly with a crude, offhand joke involving Looney Tunes characters. While others laughed, it made me crinkle my nose and rethink my position on humor, which had been that everything could be laughed about. By violating the sex, a biological aspect of you that affects your world view and is part of how others see you, and that is awfully hard to change, the aggressor takes away something essential of a woman or a man. Is sex somehow less made-up than race? Maybe this is an argument for another day.
None of these, though, are the same as being afraid of the police, being afraid of “the good guys.” To be aware of my incapacity for knowing may be as close to fair as I can get, living life in this white skin. Although I was at first defensive, I understand when to be quiet and listen. I am happy that other white people are listening to Coates. I feel that listening is not enough, but don’t really know if there is a next step yet.
What I would like to do is tell Coates what a good dad he is. His son is lucky to have a father who is so honest and upfront. It’s terrible that anyone must prepare their children for a truth of violence and inequality, but to be unprepared would be more unfair.
From Between the World and Me by Richard Wright
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….