This book is 152 pages long. I marked 25 of them. This means that nearly one out of every six pages had something I needed to revisit, to think about, to quote, to write down, and to ruminate on. I knew to expect that this book would speak powerfully into the cultural climate we find ourselves in, and that it would examine how we got here. I did not expect to be literally unable to read it for long stretches of time. I could not bear to read more than about 30-40 pages at a clip, my brain needs time to process.
Between the World and Me is DENSE, in the best possible way. I had to read slowly to fully grasp what Coates was saying, all while nodding along. Sometimes it felt like all I did while reading this is was nod my head and mark more pages. Mr. Coates wrote this book as a letter to his son following the failure of those responsible for Eric Garner’s death to be indicted. As Mr. Coates describes it, this is the first time his son truly lost the hope that the fair and correct thing would be done, and it devastated him. In order to speak to that pain, he began to write. In doing so, he talks about how this country can let the killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and so many others go unpunished. How we have let the black body be worth less than the self-image of those who think they are white.
“… 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. The destroyers will not be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And the destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, 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.” (9)
Starting back with his own youth in Baltimore, Mr. Coates traces how he learned about the system that our society has created, where his body, and those of other black men and women are worth less. How we live in a society that is deeply entrenched in racial disparity, but no one will claim responsibility. How there will be much expected, but not much given to a young black man. And perhaps more importantly, how the Dream of being white has defined the underclasses throughout our country’s history. This book is powerful, and raw, and in many ways painfully eye opening.
“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. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a number of educators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good Intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.” (33)
I should mention what I have alluded to before in other reviews. While I’m a white middle classed educated lady (until I start cursing a blue streak) I grew up in a highly diverse area, and attended high school with a nearly 50% drop out rate which was over 90% black. For those reasons, and for a nearly quarter century friendship with my best friend, I am perhaps more familiar with some of the data about what the Dream does (nearly 60% of black young men who drop out of high school will end up in jail, for example). As a student of history I am also aware that the definition of ‘white’ has been evolving and continues to evolve (it wasn’t that long ago that the Irish and Italian were not considered ‘white’). But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t more for me to see, to hear, and to think about.
“Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.” (60)
But where I think this work has the power to be most compelling is the conversations it can start. I want to buy this in hardback so I can press it into the hands of everyone who needs to read it in my own life.
“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. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic – an orc, troll, or gorgon. “(97)
“The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transforming into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.” (98-99)
I’m going to be done here. There are so many more quotes I’d like to share, but you need to read this book. Then let’s chat.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.