“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

Sometimes one’s opinion does not matter. It’s not important how much you wish to enter the conversation or how salient or brilliant you think your comment is, you are encroaching on territory that does not belong to you. As a member of an oppressed party, nothing enrages me more than when “outsiders” decide that they are experts on the subject and tell me how I should feel, how I should respond, or how I should engage with the world around me. All too often we enter a dynamic or conversation fully and entirely ignorant, and instead of entering respectfully and with a desire to learn, we do so with such a victimized, thin-skinned, or, worse, violent attitude that we turn the situation back upon ourselves. I use the first person plural because I am guilty of it too at times, more than at times, often. Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me was an extremely convicting experience. I would like to think that in some respects my eyes have been open to society’s sins and errors and that I approach every day with a desire to not add to the sorrow and filth that pollutes it. I have made sure to never find myself in groups that could be described as homogeneous. I have made my job and my research to look into and study and learn from other people, other cultures, other groups that society has decided that are different from my own. I have tried to listen and learn and not interject. And yet I have failed, I continue to fail, I will fail again. I fail to recognize when I benefit from a privilege that not always am I aware of. While reading this book my eyes have been opened even more and I feel like I am just a little more prepared to understand or at least attempt to. This book has led me to rethink my thoughts on violence and its role in our world and within certain communities. It has led me to change the way I feel about one’s body, how it moves in the world. It has changed how I feel about my position and role in the world, even when walking down the street. I hope that I was receptive to everything that Mr. Coates was describing in this beautiful letter to his son. His lamentations have been heard, and I agree with what Toni Morrison wrote on the book jacket: “This is required reading.” So I am not going to write anything more. In the spirit of learning and listening and not making this post all about myself or how it made me feel, I will let the author’s words take it from here, where I will report all the passages that I highlighted throughout this learning experience that was reading this book.

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-Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names. [6]

-Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism-the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them-inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men. [7]

-America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. […] there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and ti ignore the great evil done in all of our names. […] And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. [8-9]

-There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. [10]

-I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believe it would be okay. [11]

-America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men. [12]

-When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. […] The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T-shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a catalog of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired. [14]

-And I knew that my father’s father was dead and that my uncle Oscar was dead and that my uncle David was dead and that each of these instances was unnatural. [..] Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns. […] All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit. […] We, the children, employed our darkest humor to cope.[…] We were laughing, but I know that we were afraid of those who loved us most. […] To be black […] was to be naked before the elements of the word, […] The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us. [15-17]

-Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies. [20]

-No one survived unscathed. […] the young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage, were the greatest danger. […] They would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies. […] their mission […]: prove the inviolability of their block, of their bodies, through their power to crack knees, ribs, and arms. [22-23]

-I have no desire to make you “tough” or “street,” perhaps because any “toughness” I garnered came reluctantly. [24]

-When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Fully 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. [26-27]

-Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out. [28]

-Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream. [33]

-It was human for the enslaved to hate the enslaver, natural as Prometheus hating the birds. [36]

-“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power 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. [42]

-the history books that spoke of black people only as sentimental “firsts”-first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor-always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit. Serious history was the West, and the West was white. […] We were black, beyond the visible spectrum, beyond civilization. Our history was inferior because we were inferior, which is to say our bodies were inferior. And our inferior bodies could not possibly be accorded the same respect as those that built the West. […] the larger culture’s ensure of black beauty was intimately connected to the destruction of black bodies. What was required was a new story, a new history told through the lens of our struggle. [43-44]

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-Perhaps being named “black” had nothing to do with any of this; perhaps being named “black” was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned object, object turned to pariah. [55]

-I am black, and I have been plundered and have lost my body. But perhaps I too had the capacity to plunder, maybe I would take another human’s body to confirm myself in a community. […] Hate gives identity. [60]

-I would watch how black people moved, how in these clubs they danced as though their bodies seemed as free as Malcolm’s voice. On the outside black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by the guns, which were so profligate; which could be raped, beaten, jailed. But in the clubs, under the influence of two-for-one rum and Cokes, under the spell of low lights, in thrall of hip-hop music, I felt them to be in total control of every step, every nod, every pivot. [61-62]

-all are not equally robbed of their bodies, that the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I could never truly know. [65]

-I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an undefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. […] Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains-whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains. […] You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. […] Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance-no matter how improved-as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. [69-70]

-I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful-the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you-the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold. [71]

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-You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies-the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects-are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated hearts that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs. [78-79]

-According yo this theory “safety” was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value. I understood. What I would not have given, back in Baltimore, for a line of officers, agents of my country and my community, patrolling my route to school! There were no such officers, and whenever I saw the police it meant that something had already gone wrong. [84-85]

I kept thinking about how southern Manhattan had always been Ground Zero for us. They auctioned our bodies down there, in that same devastated, and rightly named, financial district. […] I had no formed any of this into a coherent theory. But I did know that Bin Laden was not the first man to bring terror to that section of the city. I never forgot that. Neither should you. [86-87]

-All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, door undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile. No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. […] It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments. [90-91]

-But the price of error is higher for you than it is for your 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 (“You are gonna die tonight”), with Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd. [96]

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-A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself, and in America, these precipitating chapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals. […] But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic-an orc, a troll, or gorgon. […] There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally. In the era of mass lynching, it was so difficult to find who, specifically, served as executioner that such deaths were often reported by the press as having happened “at the hands of persons unknown.” […] This is the foundation of the Dream-its adherents must not just believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgment of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. The mettle that it takes to look away from he horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. 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 our country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. [96-99]

-Here is what I would like for you to know: in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body-it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor-it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible-that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit fit not steal away on gospel wings. [103]

ta-nehisi
Ta-Nehisi Coates

-I have not spent my time studying the problem of “race”-“race itself is just a restatement and retrenchment of the problem. You see this from time to time when some dullard-usually believing himself white-proposes that the way forward is a grand orgy of black and white, ending only when we are all beige and thus the same “race”. But a great number of “black” people already are beige. And the history of civilization is littered with dead “races” (Frankish, Italian, German, Irish) later abandoned because they no longer serve their purpose-the organization of people beneath, and beyond, the umbrella of rights. [115]

-I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do. In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after. [120]

-Some of us make it out. But the game is played with loaded dice. [124]

-As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guest room, their finished basement. [131]

-Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource if incomparable value. [132]

-They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. [149]

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