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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review: 'Between the World and Me'

Between the World and Me
By Ta-Nesihi Coates
July 2015
Speigel & Grau
ISBN: 978-0812993547

For his son, for himself, for anyone who recognizes the world as he sees it and for anyone who is part of that world, Ta-Nesihi Coates has written a masterful, deeply personal and profoundly moving memoir. Between the World and Me is structured as a letter to his son, a young man on the verge of adulthood.

Coates, a writer for The Atlantic who has been helping form a national conversation on the state of race relations and the state of blacks in America, takes readers back to what his Baltimore neighborhood was like. He describes the difference between his black blocks and the ones he saw on his television set. Those people on TV are living the Dream. Their white world is not his, even though they could be in the same city and are in the same country. Black kids, he writes, have to be twice as good to be seen as half as worthwhile. Many of their parents treat them harshly out of fear that they will step out of line. Coates could have died as a teen when another boy pulled a gun out of his coat pocket, but he changed his mind and put it away.

As he notes:
Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.

In college, Coates found his Mecca at Howard University. The glorious education he had there, in class and by meeting so many others, is brought to vivid life. Anyone who loved their time at university, who had the opportunity to know at the time they were learning about life and themselves, will enjoy this section. Coates does a marvelous job of depicting how important that time was to him, all the more important because it was Howard and all that represents. (Although Coates did not graduate but started carving out a career as a writer, the education he received there was fundamental to his joy in life and his continued search for knowledge. When Coates goes into a history book-recommending mode on Twitter, the depth of his knowledge is tremendous.)

Before the tragedy after tragedy after tragedy of the last few years, from Travyon Martin to Michael Brown to John Crawford to Jordan Davis (whose mother Coates interviewed and to which he took his son in a powerful passage) to Freddie Gray, and on and on, a fellow Howard University student was gunned down by a cop. This cop followed Prince Jones out of his Prince George's County jurisdiction and shot him.

The description of the man that the officer was looking for was 5 feet 4 and 250 pounds; Prince Jones was 6 feet 3 and 211 pounds. The wanted man had long dreadlocks and Prince Jones had very shortly cut hair. The officer drew a gun on Prince Jones but showed no badge. The officer claimed Prince Jones tried to run him over with his Jeep, the same Jeep his mother bought him for high school graduation.

The mother of Prince Jones, herself a doctor and the child of sharecroppers, references Solomon Northrup of 12 Years a Slave in her talk with Coates. And how Northrup's home and work and family did not matter when he was taken. And how, years later and under different laws in the same country, the wealth and respect she built up and the things she gave her children did not matter.

The structure Coates uses in what is essentially a long essay (the book is less than 200 pages) is similar to one James Baldwin used in addressing a work to his own nephew. Coates has been tied to Baldwin because of Toni Morrison's advance praise of this work, and both this work and Coates are now established in the line of black Americans writing about themselves and their society, and how that fits into what white Americans see of our society.

The title comes from Richard Wright's poem of the same name:

"And the sooty details of the
scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me ..."

The sooty details of what has happened to the man in the poem, to what happened black people, to what continues to happen to black people, and how their experience continues to be different from others in this country despite any laws, any cultural changes, are what keep Americans separated. Slavery was replaced by Jim Crow and has been replaced by housing projects, predatory loan sharks, voting laws, inequitable education and other shams.
But it's not just legal structures, or the way banks handle loans or companies hire people without "ethinic-sounding" names. White people still cross the street to avoid black men in suits who are still followed in stores. Black women are told by boutique clerks that they cannot afford pricey clothing. Black people who do not become shining models of making it (Coates calls them the Jackie Robinson elite) are told it's their fault, despite any obstacles in their way.
When Coates took his son to a movie on the Upper West Side and they were coming off an escalator too slowly, a white woman pushed the child for going too slowly for her. When Coates yelled at her for pushing another person's child, a crowd gathered and a white man got in his face and, when Coates dared to push him away, was told: "I could have you arrested." Coates writes he felt shame for endangering his child and himself by the act of standing up for them.

This is an essential point to this work. Because those of us who are not black cannot have the same experience, any of us who care about the state of the country need to find out as much as we can, to educate ourselves. This is an eloquent, thoughtful and honest work to use in the pursuit of knowledge that may, in time, become wisdom.

It is a point on which Coates frames this entire work. His thesis acknowledges that the powerful always work to keep those without power from gaining it. But America, he notes, was supposed to be different. America says so:

Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, ...

"I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.

Acknowledging that exceptional moral standard means recognizing that individuals operate under the burdensome belief of American exceptionalism. It also means that those who expound this belief in exceptionalism need to apply it not only to other individuals, but to the society as a whole. For in that application is the possibility of a new understanding of what means to have those sooty details affect every aspect of an individual's life.

He quotes Solzhenitsyn in this regard:

"To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act inconformity with natural law." Coates notes this is the foundation of the Dream that he refers to throughout. It's how a black police officer could shoot Prince Jones, how black officers could take part in Freddie Gray's death.

Coates says that he has continued his studies, in part, to try to find the right question to ask. The "gift of study", he adds, is "to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers." That questioning is a gift he passes along to his son and other readers.

The killing of Prince Jones, the murders that continue, the sorrow that Coates's son felt when learning that Mike Brown's killer received the same treatment as the killer of Prince Jones, form the backdrop to the final words Coates has for his son.

While Coates is reluctant to aspire to hope, expressing the need to be honest, one statement toward the conclusion of this work is something on which hope can be built:

They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.

Taking pride and celebrating that pride sounds like an honest way to live with eyes that can see into and beyond sooty details, not ignoring them, never ignoring them, because, as Coates tells his son:

...there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else's country, but in your own home.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

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