And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ second book, Between the World and Me, is a sobering account destined to be assigned as required reading in high schools for years to come. Inspired in part by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and news that the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, would not be indicted, Coates wrote this open letter to his fifteen year old son telling him of the world as he sees it, observing the ways someone with black skin must navigate this country lost in a Dream, in a system setup to easily and legally destroy the black body.
Winner of the National Book award for nonfiction (2015) and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction (2016), Between the World and Me is only 149 pages but it’s weight is beyond measure – prepare to highlight every line of this book as it pours poetic prose from a scared father with an urgent message for his son. Coates reflects on his childhood in Baltimore; dodging between education and the streets (both of which could claim his body); years spent studying at Howard University (his personal Mecca); the death of his friend and fellow Howard alumni, a well off, handsome, and educated man who was mistakenly followed and shot by an undercover police officer.
Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage… The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden.
One theme throughout Between the World and Me is the constant fear of losing one’s black body whether it be to street violence, police violence, failed school and justice systems, or the ghetto. Another theme is that of the Dream. This refers to a fantasy for and enabled by [those who believe themselves to be] white, and are mostly ignorant to their benefit and privilege as “to become conscious of their gains from slavery, segregation, and voter suppression would shatter that Dream”. This book is not an attempt to explain race issues to white people. It does not go out of the way to sugar coat, diminish, or make facts easier to swallow – it is a blunt account of an alternate reality that exists for black people as a result of the pursuit of this Dream. A dream that Americans strive for at the expense of others, and on an even greater, more terrifying scale than before as technology has freed the Dreamers “to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.”
By the end of the book it seems that Coates has no faith in eventual justice for all of this industrialized racism, so he offers no solutions to pacify the problem. Some might argue any solution he could pose would be a waste, since those with privilege and the means to enact change are unaware they possess it, and those who are aware are unwilling to relinquish it – overall his view of the future is bleak but realistic. Coates writes that as a child his parents pushed him to seek out and research answers on his own instead of taking “secondhand answers-even the answers they themselves believed.” Between the World and Me offers no solace to the questions it puts forth and, like Coates’ parents, pushes the reader to search for their own conclusions after the last page is turned.
Have you read Between the World and Me, or plan to? Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments section!