Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Reflections on Between the World and Me

Our group met three times to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’s non-fictional account of growing up as an African-American male in America in the late 20 th century, written as an extended letter to his 15-year old son, Samori. This short work (152 pages), divided into three sections, details Coates’s childhood in West Baltimore, his experiences at Howard University, and his married life in New York City and travel to France.

Many people in our group were struck by or had directly experienced Coates’s articulation of the pervasive and insidious fear felt by African-Americans that their bodies could be victimized at any moment either directly by white society or by other African-Americans who had converted their fear into aggression. This fear is shown through Coates’s difficult navigation of his West Baltimore neighborhoods, his anger at the irrelevance of his schools to address this reality, and the experience of some African-American parents who exercise violence on their children in an agonizing response to their own fears of living in an oppressive society.

Earlier on in our discussion, we also tried to understand the meaning of the title – Between the World and Me. What is it exactly that consistently comes “between” the world and Coates? The most immediate response, of course, is racism, but Coates rejects this obvious answer and attempts to understand the roots of racism, ultimately seeing the human need to oppress and dominate others as giving birth to racism and other forms of oppression (socio-economic, gender, environmental, etc).

In addition, Coates’s desire to uncover the roots of racism is to disavow the belief that any essential human characteristics can be determined based solely on one’s skin color, which often becomes shorthand for the “innate superiority” of whites and the “inferiority” of blacks. Repeatedly Coates refers to those “who believe they are white” to articulate this sense of perceived racial superiority. He also uses the term the “Dreamers” to define a dominant white society that has built its success on the
oppression of others and then continually forgets this essential and ongoing injustice. Even though the work is highly critical of white society, the group also wondered why this work was so popular with white people and whether Coates was elivering a softer, more palatable message on racial injustice in this work.

The joy, wonder, and comfort of experiencing the diversity of black people that Coates’s feels at Howard University functions as a counterweight to dread and destruction of his upbringing. Many people in our group commented on this section of the book, many with first-hand experience of Howard. However, the tragic death of a Howard classmate, Prince Carmen Jones, at the hands of policeman (the second section of the book is framed by Coates’s experience of Jones’s death and Samori’s experience of Mike Brown’s murder) becomes ongoing evidence for Coates that no matter what black people do or don’t do, no matter what success they have achieved, their bodies are particularly vulnerable to a society that insists on racial differences and sees black people as a threat to its power and stability.

For a short work, Between the World and Me is incredibly dense and touches on so many issues relating to race relations in America and around the world. Our discussion also touched on so many topics that it is very difficult to do justice to the richness and variety of our three sessions. I will highlight a few that I recall below:

-The intellectualism of Coates’s parents and extended family (and then classmates and professors at Howard) that foster his desire to continually question his experiences and assumptions, even those that are favorable to African-Americans.

-Coates’s tension between wanting to communicate the history of African-American oppression in America and his own fears and experiences with racial injustice to Samori while also wanting to see him as a unique individual with an elevated socio- economic position and possibly different experience of race.

-The ways in which racial oppression and injustice are linked to and reinforced by the creation of an underclass by the capitalist system.

-The personal nature of this narrative that gives it such emotional poignancy. Parents discussed their own fears and hopes for their children and those who do not have children talked about the difficulty of bringing a child, particularly a child of color, into such a dangerous and discriminatory world.

-The question of how can schools more effectively address the issues raised in the book and to connect more meaningfully with the lives of students. Coates’s is highly critical of school’s superficial treatment of African-American history in the country and its sole focus on the non-violent approach of MLK. (Harold Jordon photocopied Coates’s Atlantic magazine essay “Non-Violence as Compliance” for the group.)

-The role of historically black colleges and the unique challenges that African-Americans face in choosing whether to attend institutions of higher learning in which they will be the minority or the majority.

-Coates’s refusal to be comforted by religion or trust that the Dreamers will awake, ultimately predicting environmental devastation predicated on the same fundamental need to dominate and oppress that motivates racial disparity.

{Charles Maurer}

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