Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates - Between the World and MeI loved this book, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is definitely what I will be giving people for Christmas to help them understand #BlackLivesMatter and the experiences of those Americans labeled as such, as well as an understanding of America as it has rarely been taught, but which continues to shape our ongoing tragedy and all the hatred that exists.

…the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.

Once you cross the line to really feel this history in your stomach, it is hard to work through it patiently and rationally with others who aren’t there yet, especially if they really don’t want to see it. Because this is terrifyingly true:

But all our phrasing–race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, break teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

And at the base of all of it? White Americans have always had a narrow and limited view of who other ‘Americans’ were, when they said ‘we the people’ they did not ever actually mean all the people. My thesis worked this out at length, but here it is short and eloquent:

The question is…what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.

Our race is culturally constructed to be white or black, despite how deeply intertwined we two are. And white has been constructed to be “the people,” to take the land, to run the country, to benefit from all it can offer.

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive powers to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.

And on the other side of this privileged identity? There is so much in here that is deeply personal, deeply particular to a place and time, yet that rings true beyond it.

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.

***

When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Full 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the country. But it does not…

These Baltimore neighbourhoods, and neighbourhoods across the country, are part of the same process, formed and structured by the same forces of racism over many decades

And I knew that there were children born into these same caged neighborhoods on the Westside, these ghettos, each of which was as planned as any subdivision. They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are, all again, plundered of our dignity, or our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. … A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and tradition, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. “Black-on-black crime” is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.

And always the blame to be pushed away from policies and police, and onto Black people themselves:

Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson–not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you than it is fro you countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined–with Eric Garner’s anger, with Trayvon Martin’s mythical words…and Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd…

Away from whiteness, and all of its privilege, because this is a truth and a seeing that threaten:

This is the foundation of the Dream–its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honour, and good works…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.

This isn’t a particularly hopeful book, but there are ways forward. I loved this, the heart of politicization and popular education:

My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers–even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. that is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”–as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.

This is the way forward, but also means there is no one answer, no one way:

I had come looking for a parade, for a military review of champions marching in ranks. Instead I was left with a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.

There are lists of writers, lists of artists — I love lists:

List of writers: Larry Neal, Eric Williams, George Padmore, Sonia Sanchez, Stanley Crouch, Harold Cruse, Manning Marable, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Etheridge Knight, Sterling Brown.  Later on Thavolia Glymph.

List of artists: Bubber Miley, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, C.K. Williams, Carolyn Forche, Ethelbert Miller, Kenneth Carroll, Brian Gilmore, Robert Hayden.

And reading through them comes this realisation, which I too have felt with immense force though in a very different way. Here is the role of the activist intellectual: to face everything full on, no shrinking, no comfortable truths:

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this.

***

My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

A round up of a few of the other small things that I loved here — with many others left out in a short(ish) blog.

The riposte by Ralph Wiley to Saul Bellow after he described a Black writer as the Tolstoy of the Zulus:

“Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”

That is such an obvious thing that someone else needed to say it I think, for me to see clearly.

It was also strange reading this written by someone my own age, someone who shared the same music and wider context, and whose fear of physical violence from others I also shared. These things show how connected class and geography are to race, and thus aspects of life are often shared more widely. He wrote:

This was the era of Bad Boy and Biggie. “One More Chance” and “Hypnotize”.

I have never seen those words on paper anywhere. And this too struck me:

I found that people would tell me things, that the same softness that once made me a target now compelled people to trust me with their stories. This was incredible.

I know too much about being a target, though never one at the other end of a gun. But likewise people have told me their stories. I am grateful for my growing up, for how it has given me that. But those still aren’t pretty scars.

I also loved the acknowledgment not just of the material foundations of pain and violence in segregation and policy, but the global context in which struggle happens, the larger forces beyond our control that help movements to victory or defeat. This is a key lesson I too stumbled across through reading, and it requires an adjustment in your driving forces.

You cannot disconnect our emancipation in the Northern colonies from the blood spilled in the Revolutionary War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from slavery in the South from the charnel houses of the Civil War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from Jim Crow from the genocides of the Second World War. History is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.

There is this on the one hand, faced full on:

And I have no God to hold me up. And I believe that when they shatter the body they shatter everything, and I know that all of us–Christians, Muslims, atheists–lived in this fear of this truth.

But I loved too the gentleness and the celebration of what is best in us, the rich cultures, the layered knowledges, the complexity of our world whose beauty we all can share

And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds–the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched together into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us. I had read too much by then.

An uncompromising look at where we are, and the strength and beauty of those who have come before us and who fight alongside us to build the kind of world we want to see — this is where we need to start. Because our country must change inside and out, rather than continue to plunder the world and export its fears and horrors.

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