The next book on my non-white-male reading list (click here for more on that) is Between the World and Me. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic who writes primarily about race and the struggle for racial justice in the US. And he’s a powerful and talented writer – Toni Morrison has called him the intellectual heir to James Baldwin.
And Morrison is right when she calls this “required reading.” The book is constructed as a long letter to Coates’s teenage son, attempting to explain the experiences, the history, and the struggles of being black in America. And I’m writing this blog from my perspective of being white in America, about which I’ll just say briefly that my perspective is that more whites need to be aware of the kinds of things that this book talks about.
Most of what I could write would not do him or the book justice, but I will say that his perspective was eye-opening for me. I’d come to understand that my experience as a white American is different than for Americans of color; that I’ve had advantages and privileges in our systems of economics, criminal justice, education, etc. But Coates elucidates those differences in ways I’d never heard before, but which ring true. He writes throughout about his and others’ bodies – black bodies – communicating how visceral, how physical, racism feels. He also writes of the pervasiveness and constancy of fear that racism engenders in people of color. And when he speaks of racism, he doesn’t mean somebody calling him a slur, or some other individual act (although there is that too; one of the most powerful parts of the book is a story he relates about an older white woman who shoves his then-younger son on an escalator) – he is diving deeper, into historical, structural, institutional racism that has existed since before the United States existed, and persists to this day.
A few examples – the practice of redlining, in which city officials and real-estate salesman collaborate to keep blacks ghettoized in home-buying and -renting. Police violence, as told in the story of Coates’s college friend who was murdered by a police officer. The education system, in which schools are not so much places to learn as places through which to either “escape” from the streets or rubber-stamp failure to escape. These are structures that exist, and that we whites (whom Coates refers to as “Dreamers”) choose to ignore, so that our version of the American Dream of equality and equal access for all can continue to exist in its mythical perfection.
It turns out this book is not just a letter to his son, but also a letter to us Dreamers, – especially those of us who, as he puts it, “think they are white.” Towards the end of the book, as he is reflecting on the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, he writes:
Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.”
And so he calls us Dreamers out, and warns his son (and us) that it is the Dreamers’ responsibility to help bring about change – for people of color, yes, and for all of us, because we are all bound up together. In closing, Coates speaks to his son:
I do not believe we can stop them [the Dreamers], Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca [the cultural heritage of Howard University, Coates’s alma mater]. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.
After reading this, it’s my hope that we Dreamers, we whites, have as much courage, insight, strength, and grace in our part of the struggle as Coates has in his.