Between the World and Me

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’ve had ample opportunity to think about race and racism in my life. Growing up with an Asian face in a mostly-white town, my otherness was something that was consistently reinforced by my classmates, whether it was the revulsion I heard about the nori in my lunch as a kindergartener or the beatings I took in high school from kids who called me a chink. By the time I reached adulthood I had a lot of opinions about race and racism, and I thought I had good reasons for them. I thought I understood these phenomena. I was wrong.

The most insidious deception that life shows us is that, having lived, we know what life is like, that we understand the world. But this is a lie. The truth is that the world is big and life is varied, and in our short, narrow existences we see only a very small part of it. Experience, the thing that is supposed to bring us wisdom, the kind of knowledge that most of us exalt above all others, is a trap. It lulls you with the supremacy of your own story, but does not and cannot show you the things to which you are blind.

Over the past year or so I have been revisiting many of my thoughts and assumptions about race (and gender and class and privilege and bias of all sorts), poking at the edges to try to find where I am limited, considering the core to try to see how strong it really is. What I’ve come to is this: the single greatest barrier to social, political, and economic justice is the essential solitude of human existence, the fact that we do not and cannot truly know the living of someone else’s life.

But if we are incapable of literally seeing through another person’s eyes, we nevertheless have the opportunity to come close by means of communication. Through writing, speech, art, one person can show herself to another, and by opening ourselves to the possibility, we have the chance at something like communion. This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates does with his remarkable book Between the World and Me.

Between the World and Me is written as a letter from Coates to his son, Samori, one in which he lays out his hopes and fears for the kind of man that his son will be, and in which he tells the story of his own journey to manhood, growing up as a black boy in Baltimore. Taken solely on this level, the book is still powerful, because the impulse to teach one’s children and to be known to them, to have them see how you became the person you are and have them understand, surely this must be universal. As compelling as that narrative is, though, the true impact of this book comes from its ability to show Coates’ world to the rest of us.

Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom of Virginia Commonwealth University pointed out in one of her reviews of this book that the struggles that Coates describes, ones which I found so viscerally gripping, are ones that are hardly unfamiliar, let alone shocking, to most black people in America. In many ways, she says, this book is really written for a white audience. Or, to put it as Coates so often does: people who believe themselves to be white.

And here is the most dismaying thing about this book: that the people who would most benefit from reading it most likely will not do so. Or, reading it, will reject it. It is impossible to read this book as anything but an indictment of an America that is blind to both the historical scale of its racism and the ways in which that racism continues to be perpetuated to this day. The most natural thing to do in the face of criticism—especially unexpected criticism, or criticism that feels undeserved—is to defend oneself. I have spent so much of my life examining and re-examining myself and my beliefs, constantly digging and scratching to try to discover my own foibles, and yet often in the course of reading Between the World and Me I found myself automatically beginning to argue with Coates, to try to find the holes in his reasoning. But it was wrong of me to do that.

Partially it was wrong because much of the book is Coates describing his own life, which is to say, the things that he experienced and how they affected him; how can I meaningfully argue that he didn’t experience what he says he did? But more than that, it was wrong because the only reason I really had to argue was that it would allow me to feel good about myself. This is important: if the only time we will accept an argument is if it makes us look good, it means that we hold ourselves completely immune from criticism, encased in the armor of our own ignorance. This isn’t to say that we must accept any criticism without challenge, but I believe that it is our responsibility to always begin by asking, honestly, whether this criticism may be valid.

Coates, himself, knows this sort of reaction well enough:

But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.

Think about the lengths to which we all go to be able to think of ourselves as good people. Listen to the parents’ voices in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s revelatory recent episode of This American Life . “This is not a race issue,” one mother shouts. But if it is not a race issue, then what is it? The word “racist” has become so evil in our minds, so tied to images of lynch mobs and burning crosses, of the slaveholder’s whip and of fire hoses turned on peaceful protesters, that most people will twist and contort themselves to avoid having that label applied to themselves. But what is the difference between racism and something that just “happens” to be functionally identical to racism, to have the exact same outcome as racism? There is no difference, and we are all complicit. As Coates puts it:

Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream.

That last phrase, “the Dream,” is something to which Coates refers over and over again throughout Between the World and Me. In America, of course, when we speak of dreams it’s hard not to think of the “American Dream,” the aspiration to be found in the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger. But Coates isn’t talking about goals or the future. When he speaks of a Dream, he’s talking about a fantasy which does not reflect reality. Something in which we can only live by keeping ourselves insensate to the waking world.

It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all of the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

The Dream is safety. It is the belief that hard work always pays off. That any of us pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, unhelped and unbeholden to anyone who came before or after. That we are the unconquerable masters of our fates, captains of our souls. “People who believe they are white” can live in this Dream; people who are told they are black may not.

(I wondered, at times, whether Coates would think I believe myself white. I do not, nor do white people, and yet I grew up believing I could get ahead by my own efforts. I believed so because I was told so by the adults in my life, some of whom had, in their youths, had their livelihoods confiscated and their bodies imprisoned by a government that assumed they must be enemy sympathizers. Do I believe myself white? No, but who is to say that one day people who look like me won’t do so? As Gene Demby wrote last year for NPR’s Code Switch blog, the definition of “white” at one time didn’t include Jews or Italians or Germans or Irish. Perhaps some day it will include Asians.)

Coates offers no easy answers, no happy endings. He rejects comforting platitudes and myths. He refuses to speak about abstractions like rights or souls; racism is not merely wrong because of ideals, but because of the effect it has on the body. The body is fragile and breakable, and most importantly, it is singular. He implores his son to remember that each of us has only one life, and when it ends, a universe ends:

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. That is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Ultimately, though he finds nobility in the struggle to understand, to see, to live both unencumbered and unshielded by any Dream, Coates cannot offer his son any hope that through their own efforts, black people might achieve equality. For that to happen, the Dreamers would have to awaken to the real world, to reckon with the true scope of what racism has wrought in this country, what it continues to create. Each of us has to choose to open our eyes, to be willing to challenge our assumptions, to confess our sins, and then translate that awareness into action. I don’t know how to make the world a better place, what policies must be enacted or what reparations might be made. But if, as I suspect, it is blindness that keeps us from acting, then one place to start might be to read this book.

Started: 7/30/2015 | Finished: 8/10/2015

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