Ta-Nehisi Coates. The name connotes images of African skies splashing orange across the desert at sunset, inflaming what remains of the day with their last refractive stand, of the freedom and danger of the wide open plains where life is lived uncensored and unhinged, of big game and big game hunters, and of rainforests, humid, dark and fecund, where thousands of species grow and thrive. Life lived so close to the earth can be harsh, feral, even violent. It takes a rugged individual to survive. There are light years between that golden continent and the one where our African-American brothers and sisters now reside, having arrived so many generations ago, displaced against their will and all codes of ethics and morality, light years between nature’s violence and that of man, yet rugged individuality is still a necessity if one is to survive.
Between the World and Me is one man’s tale, a gritty, clear-eyed look at race relations in the United States. Written as a letter to his son, Coates rails against the violence of white society against the black body, offering no shortage of examples — victims like Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray or Philando Castile — victim’s stories of violence that often result in death if you’re black, acquittal if you’re white. Coates’ conclusion? Despite landmark cases and laws written to address the obvious, the fear and hatred and disparity between white and black America continues unabated. Being black means that the act of stepping out your door becomes an act of bravery where a typical day can turn into tragedy because of a bum tail light. Being black means not having sovereignty over your own body, your soul, maybe, but not your body. The sometimes terror, and often heartache that Coates feels, not so much for himself, but for his son, living in a country where black lives don’t really seem to matter escapes like a mist from the pages of the book, making me want to weep in solidarity and in shame for a country that treats its children this way, and for my own kids growing up in a nation so divided. As parents, we’d do anything for our children, but Coates maintains that if you’re black, no matter what you do it may never be enough.
Coates talks about Howard University as a mecca for the black body, a place of safety, identity and discovery for African-Americans. He met his wife there and came into black consciousness there, too. I can only imagine that if there was a one single place in the whole of the country where I felt safe and free to be myself that I may never want to leave that place, but Coates did leave and has found ways to navigate life despite the constant worry that things could always go horribly wrong. Still, it takes a rugged individual to step out the door.
How did America get here? Well, the thinking that allowed slavery in the first instance has never really left us. Imagine watching your father go off to work and not knowing whether he’d be coming back, taken by a random act of violence. It’s a sobering thought. Every white person I know would be uncomfortable in a room of all African-American folks and yet my black friends do it all the time without fear or complaint, like scouts sent out to chart a course. Except most explorations are followed by rapid expansion and integration while the black movement into a white society has been blocked along the way by laws and regulations, fear and ignorance, and violence, violence, violence.
While I don’t believe I’ve been turning a proverbial blind eye to racism in our society, I realize now I’ve been naive. The ancestral entrenchment is much greater than I would have guessed with hate being passed down from generation to generation without any clear understanding of why. People hating people because that’s what their people did. My Greek grandparents fled Istanbul in the early 1920’s (when it was Constantinople) to avoid being exterminated along with the Armenians and they hated the Turks because of it. Luckily, all I have is the story without the hate. On the contrary, there are dozens of examples worldwide of people sharing the same soil, but not the same ideals: Shiites and the Sunnis, the Hutus and the Tutsis, Indians and Pakistanis, Bosnia, and today, civil war in Syria, forcing Syrians to flee in massive numbers or possibly die, a mass migration that has forced other countries to become involved. Yet, the world still spins on its axis even in the face of such monumental injustices piled up like waste in a landfill, difficult to sort out with any certainty.
Here in the U.S., years of overt and silent conditioning has systematically sought to exclude people of color — from the best housing, the best schools, the best choices — and government’s attempts to fix the problem with affirmative action have not always been successful. We all thought that would work until it didn’t. You can’t legislate a change of heart and you can’t throw money at something and expect it to fix itself. There needs to be counseling, and dialogue and a lot of interaction from both sides and we’ve got very little of that going on with no real plan to start soon.
Between the World and Me is visceral yet hopeful, honest yet purposeful. It’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’ story, but we in the U.S. all know this story because we are part of the creating, the telling, the watching, and the living. We can no longer sit in the audience and watch the story unfold. It’s time to demand better programming. Perhaps our children, with their multinational friends who sometimes look like attendees of a U.N. Conference, will grow up color blind with an idea of how to begin the healing process. In the meantime, we can help them get there. Let’s change the channel and shift the world.