38 Between the World and Me

downloadIf you highlight every single line in a book, does the highlighting cease to matter? If I were the sort of person who highlighted their books, this is the problem I would have run into here.

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015) is one of the most eloquent, impassioned writings on race that I’ve ever come across. In a time where we claim to be post-racism, where we eliminate the racial disparity of violence with #AllLivesMatter, where we wonder what it means to inhabit a body that is inherently devalued, this book stands as a call to arms. If we claim that W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison are our past, we cannot deny that Coates is our present. For what Coates explores here is what it means to be black in America, a land built upon violence and upon the enslavement and oppression of others. He cannot be ignored.

Coates’s main focus is on what it means to have a black body in America today, an exposition that really opened my eyes. Reading this, I realized that I have little experience with the fear of inhabiting my own body. Although as a half-black/half-Mexican person I am an obvious minority, I realize that I often pass merely as “other” and am not always immediately identified as belonging to a specific racial group. I have no experience with police officers profiling me because of my brown skin, of being expected to be “twice as good” but only “accept half as much,” of seeing such a strong disconnect between what I see on TV and what I see in my daily life. Don’t get me wrong – being biracial comes with its own set of issues, but I do not have to answer for the wrongs of all other biracial people, as Coates informs his son he will be made to do for all those who inhabit black bodies.

I was recently in a discussion where I found myself pressed to define what “race” is – while I agreed that it was arbitrary, I argued that its arbitrariness did not mean that it could not be escaped or that it was without meaning. I continued to question that – what it means to be one race or another, why it makes such a difference in our country – and then I came across this:

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… But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

I had never thought about race this way, that it is not some amalgamation of ancestry and nationality, but a product of domination and oppression. Where I would be hard-pressed to define what “white” is – European ancestry? Fair skin? American born and raised? – Coates goes on to further define “white”:  

‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief that in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.

What is most impressive is that in asserting that racism binds “white” people, so too does Coates admit his own capacity to hate in order to belong:

I am black, and have been plundered and have lost my body. But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder, maybe I would take another human’s body to confirm myself in a community. Perhaps I already had. 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 a tribe.

(Emphasis mine.)

We must be careful not to fall into the trap of hate as retaliation, as a form of creating our own sense of belonging. This applies not only here, but in so many racial, religious, and gender discussions today. One group seeks to differentiate themselves from another and, in doing so, oppresses them and robs them of their rights. It’s a vicious circle and you must wonder if it’s one we can ever escape.

I could say so much more about Coates’s attempt to explain to his son what it means to be black, but I fear I would never stop writing. I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking about this book and the complex message he is trying to impart. All I can do is stress how important this book is for all Americans today. Regardless of the color of our skin, we need to hear, to understand, to do better. Reading this book is one way we can start.

{Winner: National Book Award for Nonfiction 2015}

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4 thoughts on “38 Between the World and Me

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