Such a hard, beautiful, and important book! Highly acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me as a letter to his son, and last week it won the National Book Award for nonfiction.
Coates did not write this book for white readers (or as he says, "people who believe they are white," quoting James Baldwin). But that's exactly why we should read it. It's brutally honest, raw, and gut wrenching. He doesn't mince words, and he doesn't sugarcoat history or reality.
"I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner chocked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone's grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy ... The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include frisking, detaining, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible."The book brought me to tears several times...when Coates arrives at Howard University and feels comfortable in his own skin for the first time...
"There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were the high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses."...or when his friend, Prince Jones, is killed by police for the crime of driving while black...or when a white woman rudely pushes his son and he feels helpless to defend him...or when he takes his son to preschool for the first time and wants to warn him not to be so happy and carefree...
“But now I understand the gravity of what I was proposing—that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children, I am ashamed."This idea, of parenting a child while knowing that you cannot fully protect him...of knowing that Prince Jones' mom gave him every privilege she could, yet all it took was one racist act to destroy everything...this realization of how many white male privileges my sons have that Coates' son does not and will never have...this brought me to tears several times while reading this book.
“So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to 'be twice as good,' which is to say 'accept half as much.' These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile."
I've observed black friends parenting their children in a way that is much stricter than my own, and Coates articulated why that is:
“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know...black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered...I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made...later, I would hear it in Dad’s voice—'Either I can beat him, or the police.'"
I attended a well-attended book discussion about Between the World and Me this week at my church. Although everyone liked the book a lot, one woman said she was troubled by the anger in this book...because she believes that anger doesn't get you anywhere (e.g., look at the Islamic State). I can understand her perspective, but I can see both sides.
I am not by nature an angry person, but I understand the anger in Te-Nehisi Coates' soul. I think we need anger at injustice to move forward. We need the nonviolent Martin Luther King Jrs as much as we need the Malcolm Xs. We need the Sandra Blands, who was a Black Lives Matter activist before she was killed, as much as we need the Maya Angelous. And Oh My Gracious God, do black people ever have the right to be angry.
This country was built on their backs, woven with their arteries, and yet we continue to have racists like Donald Trump claim that racism no longer exists...and fail to understand why Black Lives Matter. We have people use the word "thugs" or decry "black-on-black crime," which Coates says is like shooting a man and then shaming him for bleeding.
And I cried when I read about Coates' son giving up his hope for the first time:
“That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 P.M. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, 'I’ve got to go,' and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you."This knowledge that it was no use to comfort his son, because he couldn't give any comfort. Damn straight he's angry, and he has a right to be. No more sugarcoating. We all need to wake up.