As Toni Morrison said in her review of Between the World and Me this “is required reading.” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book is beautifully written in the form of a letter to his teenage son. Coates’ considers the state of race in America in a way that is unforgiving and honest and exactly the kind of way that is needed right now.
“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 the hierarchy. Difference in hue 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 those people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
The compelling prose may come off as stark at first but it serves to further prove his point. He speaks of his time growing up in West Baltimore in the 1980s, and that knowing and understanding the streets, and the schools, was vital to protecting his body , “but the laws of the school were aimed at something distant and vague” which is how school felt to him (and I think a lot of people can relate to this sentiment):
“I remember sitting in my seventh-grade French class and not having any idea why I was there. I did not know any French people, and nothing around me suggested I ever would France was a rock rotating in another galaxy, around another sun, in another sky that I would never cross. Why, precisely, was I sitting in this classroom?”
As Coates explains to his son about the fear that ruled his life growing up, how his parents tried to prepare and guide him for the worst of it, he says his Mecca was and always will be Howard University where he and many in his family attended, and where his father worked as a research librarian in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. This library “held archives, papers, collections and virtually any book ever written by or about black people.” He thrived amongst this knowledge, and literature as many who have spent time reading in and falling love with libraries in their life would understand.
It was here that he met many influential people, including his wife, who challenged and helped shape his views. When a friend of his from Howard was shot and killed by a police officer who walked free, just yards away from his fiancés house, it shook him and their community. He said to his son:
“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…It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of ‘race,’ imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods.”
If you find the book to be deeply saddening, disturbing and concerning, Coates’ has done his job in writing it. He is purposefully transparent as he writes “what it is like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it.” The entire time I was reading this book I was thinking that this is the kind of book I would love to see included in high school curriculums. I have no idea when or if that could ever possibly happen, but I just kept thinking that this is a book young people need, and would want, to read. Coates’ message is so important and I hope that many more people have the opportunity to read this book.
In the meantime, a great article by Coates and his interviews with President Obama.
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