It starts abruptly. But perhaps that’s how Ta-Nehisi Coates wants it to be. We shouldn’t get comfortable. No part of this conversation is comfortable for anyone. He reads his words to us, but they are really a letter to his son. A letter that perhaps we all need to hear, because the way that black men are forced to talk to their sons about the world that we live in requires difficult conversations. These are things we are never told if we are white girls living in middle-class suburbia. We learn some of it by reading, watching TV and movies. We learn much more by being out in the world and interacting with people who don’t look like us. But even that is not enough. There are harsh realities to be faced. Coates’ narration is unrelenting. This is information we need. We have to focus.
We need to understand about Hate. Hate is what allows you to confirm your own identity – to separate you from that or those who are “other”. If you want to feel better than somebody, than some group, then you find the difference between you, and proclaim that “I am white and you are black and black is not as good as white.” It’s the easiest way to do things – draw a line in the sand. All those on my side are good. Everyone else is dirt. Before someone started making those separations, we were essentially the same. Yes, some of those differences were visible, but until someone says that one is better than the other, they are neutral.
The idea that white races disappear when they are no longer the lowest on the totem pole. The moment some other group of “dirty immigrants” arrived, they are elevated. Look at this in relation to ethnic foods – why does European food tend to be more expensive and any and all foods from “Non-White” regions? Because it’s not fancy food for fancy white people. How “In America it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage,” and so when it is no longer legal to own and thus destroy those black bodies, white people do it in the form of denying our fellow citizens the same things that we want and dream for. Even if we ourselves were not slaveholders, if our grandparents, great grandparents, great-great-great-great grandparents were not slaveholders, they lived in a society where they benefited from slave labor, or they aspired to a way of life that required slaves. They may have made a step up in the world by stepping on someone lower, and if that person was white, then maybe the next person down the rung wasn’t. This “American Dream” as sold to us on television, that’s the “height of American ambition” which is unattainable to most non-white people in the US because of the system that was created around it. “The dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves to understand that the field for their dream…is the deathbed of us all.” Needing to understand that white people who continue to build their success on the backs of the poor and the colored people of this country are making it so that no one else CAN have the “American Dream”. And maybe we need to learn that “the Dream” isn’t the same for everyone – maybe they don’t want the things you think they should want.
How “I knew I must survive more than for survival’s sake – I must survive for [my son].” And how slowly we need to learn to “come into consciousness” and be aware of the inequity that exists in the world. And maybe beyond that, to learn that we as Americans – black, white, somewhere in between – are not the only citizens of the world. Traveling may seem like a pointless luxury – Coates talks of taking a French class, but “regarding France as I might regard Jupiter”. When he learns about how travel opens the world of possibility, he is transformed. He experiences first alone, and then with his family the fear and thrill of being somewhere new and unknown. The real awareness of being a viewer, observer and translator of the world in view.
The lessons of this book are many. To sum them up would require a book nearly as long as the one that Coates wrote, which was itself perfectly concise. The audiobook is less than 4 hours long. The physical book barely more than 150 pages. It is worth every moment of your time and effort to find a way to read this book. It’s not a fun read, it’s not a happy read. It’s a necessary read, and will very possibly change the way that you think about your place in the world.
Details: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, published 2015 by Spiegel & Grau