Some Reflections After Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me

There is the strong feeling you get when you read something that you believe to be absolutely true. This strong feeling is even deeper when that true thing you read is something you had not before realized or recognized. In this moment of reading, the dots are connected. What had been a series of disparate points in chaos – a collection of events, problems, items, artifacts, events – become a constellation that makes sense.

I suppose that the great philosophers of the human race are the people who are able to recognize these constellations. More importantly, they are able to present them in a way that is compelling, simple, and concise.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent work Between the World and Me connects the dots. It is a letter to his teenage son, and it is both profoundly personal and vastly national. To me, a white reader, he illuminates parts of the American black experience I never could have known. He also proposes a reexamination of the very framework of American history that the majority of us learn in school. To Coates, America is not exceptional; it is flawed, broken, and has relied since its inception on the control and of black people. Coates uses the term, the “black body,” to a large degree. A proclaimed atheist, he sees no redemption in peaceful resistance to injustice. He finds no martyrdom in the heroes of the civil rights era or in those black people killed unjustly today. Rather, he is concerned with the protection of his son’s mortal black body above all else, and attempts to explain this concern as it is compounded with his fears, challenges and experiences. Coates’ language is brilliant, vivid, and heartbreakingly personal.

Unlike Coates, I come from people to whom he refers as the “Dreamers.” In his construct, Dreamer refers also to the elusive American Dream. The Dreamers are the people “who need to believe that they are white.” We are the people who have been exonerated, who have been protected. We are the ones who walk and talk without fear. We are the ones for whom the American system of benefits has been made. Is it a mistake that many of us live in orderly suburbs, attend safe schools, and maintain our wealth? Is it a mistake that we have been trained since birth to believe that we are white based on specific physical characteristics?

One of the more compelling ideas Coates delivers is regarding the fluidity of the construct of race: “white people were something else before they were white – Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish – and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths.” (7). I would like to believe that our construct might change again. It was not long ago that my mother’s mother and father saw themselves, first-generation Polish Americans, as separate from the Italians who lived down the street. It was in recent history that my father’s mother and her sister were taught German by their parents. To me, European heritage is a pastime that other people engage in. I am white and I don’t think much about the meaning of this identity.

Here’s where I get a little more personal:

It was shortly after the Eric Garner and Michael Brown decisions in December 2014 (no indictment for the police officers who killed both men) that I was having lunch with a friend who mentioned how tired he was, as a black man, of explaining and discussing issues of race in America. He expressed that for him, our national conversation no longer hinged on black people leading the discussion. Instead, white people needed to have a coming to terms about what it means to be white. The idea struck me as very important. All I could envision was that to be white meant to be “default” and to enjoy privilege. I believe that Between the World and Me helps me to understand my identity a bit more.

You don’t have to be politically aware to be cognizant of the fact that there is a current of dissatisfaction in America. This dissatisfaction shows itself through many symptoms: with the calls of #BlackLivesMatter and the #AllLivesMatter retort, with acrid debates over immigration, with mushroom clouds of Internet comments and back-and-forth insults, with natural disaster, drought, and impending climate change, with unsustainable war, Washington gridlock and corporate control, and, most of all, with numb indifference. You know there is dissatisfaction. You have a choice in how you deal with this satisfaction. Through engagement? Through political action? Through a regime of self-preservation? Through willful ignorance?

My own usual choice has been to investigate and engage with this dissatisfaction. In the past several years, as police brutality, climate change, migrant crises, and rising economic inequality have come to the fore in my own media space, I have attempted to go through an awakening. This isn’t exactly new for me; I have always been critical of the status quo and have a tendency to question the way things are done. However, in the past few years, the scant sure footing I felt in my pride as an American after September 11 has continued to erode. What’s resonated with me most has been exposure to knowledge about systematic policies of inequality and environmental abuse throughout America. Just as Citizens United stripped our government of democratic credibility, exposés on the history of urban planning policy have undermined notions of equality and fairness. Repeated attention to police brutality cases alongside the uncluttering of data concerning America’s own archipelago of prisons have exposed rampant injustice throughout the land.

Until several years ago (perhaps as late as 2009?) I felt that I was a good white person who tried to do my best to be nice to everyone. Underlying this “goodness” was the belief that I had nothing to do with past injustice. My ancestors didn’t take part in slavery. While there was unfairness in the world, I was not responsible for it, and when it was delivered to someone it was probably just bad luck. This state of thinking fits into Coates’ idea of a Dreamer.

Over the past several years, my Dream state has been pulled slowly away from me. I’m not exactly sure why this is so. Perhaps it is because in 2009 I made a decision to work towards becoming a full-time musician, an occupation which demands that you listen and empathize. Or perhaps it is because I married a man who is not from my economic or racial background. Our conversations naturally drift towards race when it echoes through the news and on social media. We ask one another, “What do you think about the Trayvon Martin decision?” or, “Did you hear about Sandra Bland?” We are bothered by it. And we talk about it.

It isn’t an enjoyable process, waking up from one’s excellent Dream. All my life I have been told that I am exceptional, preordained by a supernatural power with superman hair and Paul Newman eyes. The world is my oyster and I can have all the pearls, I am told. Yes – that is true. But at what cost? And to whose disadvantage? Recently I’ve grown exceedingly conscious of being a part of a system that favors my phenotype appearance over others. My husband and I use it to our advantage. If we want to get good customer service I always do the talking. My big blue eyes, cheerful smile, and up-and-down quintessential American English always do the trick. My husband half jokes that talks like me just so that he might be seen by the same people who see me so easily.

I posted on Facebook shortly after the Charleston AME shooting in May. Here is what I wrote:

Guilt is the wrong word. Shame. That's more what I feel.

I am ashamed of us. That we keep letting terror happen. That we allow so many guns to proliferate throughout our nation. That we change to slowly.

I am ashamed to be White, as long as White supremacists believe they represent me, as long as I am afforded more privilege that others simply because of the way I appear, and as long as our use of language segregates adjectives and nouns according to race.

Some of my friends said that my statement resonated with them. Others shared that they thought my shame was not productive; it seemed that to them, just to be cognizant of my privilege is enough. I’m not so sure. I don’t know what to do now that I am waking from the Dream, but I know it’s necessary to be more than cognizant.

Between the World and Me resonates with me. It astutely and intelligently connects the dots of experience and provides a framework through which to see the injustices of which we are aware. It does not present a solution. But it does give a glimmer of hope. At the end of the work, Coates urges his son to hope and pray for the Dreamers. “The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.” (151) I do believe I have learned this. I just don’t know what comes next.