What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself."
A letter from a father to a son, explaining what it means to be black in America. It's not written for me, a white man lost in the Dream, but I need it, too. Maybe the most.
After the jump, my review.
This memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates is written in the form of a letter from a black man to his teen-aged son. It's like I'm eavesdropping on a private family conversation. The father wants to pass on his experience and knowledge to the next generation of black men. From Coates's experience, his son's very life is at stake.
Coates recalls his childhood in West Baltimore, his time at Howard University ("The Mecca"), and his young adulthood where he became a father and tried to become a journalist. Mostly, he explains what it means to be black in America.
He tells his son, "You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact." Whites may understand this in an abstract sort of way; blacks learn it from their earliest years and live it every day of their lives.
Coates explains his own strict upbringing: "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."
In contrast, Coates recalls seeing young white parents in public "lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs."
It's too easy to characterize this as a book on race or racism. Slavery, Jim Crow, police violence, all are ever present in Coates's narrative. Coates argues, matter-of-factly, "In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage." But he also claims that he has "not spent my time studying the problem of 'race'—'race' itself is just a restatement and retrenchment of the problem." Coates spends his life asking questions to better understand the full nature of the breach "between the world and me."
Coates isn't writing for white America. He isn't trying to change anyone's mind. And paradoxically that's what makes this book powerful and effective and essential to a white audience like me. Do I understand Coates's experience? Before reading "Between the World and Me" I might have answered sure, I understand. After reading it, I know for a fact that I don't. I can never fully understand it. I'm on the other side of that breach. But maybe "Between the World and Me" can help me appreciate how broad and deep and real that breach is.
"Between the World and Me" is available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library.