I’ve been hearing buzz about Ta-Nehisi (pronounced Tah Neh-hah-see) Coates’s work for a few months now, so I decided to “read” his book Between the World and Me (2015) by listening to it while driving to and from school. It is a heavy book, one that I wish I had been able to take notes on and markup, but because I was driving I couldn’t. I had to settle for sighing and thinking and guilt and compassion bubbling up inside of me all at the same time. I even felt a little anger.
Between the World and Me is an indictment of the myth of the American Dream, and Coates wrote it as a letter to his teenage son. Through the writing, he explains to his son the complicated nature of race relations, particularly from an African American perspective. He explores what it means to be an American and just how much we have to work on as a nation in order to assuage marginalization, racism, class warfare, and hatred.
I was most moved by his idea that the “American Dream” has been built on the backs of black people. He’s right. If I examine my privilege, as a middle class, educated white woman, I have much to feel guilty about in terms of using the bodies of others, without regard or notice, to gain and maintain my position in society. I like his ideas of bodies as central to domination, as the research I do from a feminist and gender studies position often examines how power relationships usually involve controlling women’s bodies. My dissertation is about women’s experiences in the workplace, and as I attempt to revise the chapter on power and the system of the workplace, I realized that what we learn about power is that it attempts to control bodies; for women in the workplace, this looks like sexual harassment, comments about the pregnant body, a lack of promotions for women simply because they “might” have children, and treating maternity as a sickness. I have much work to do on this particular chapter, but as I read Coates’s work, I realized just how important bodies are when it comes to influencing and controlling others.
Coates examines this through the penal system. His observations about this reminded me of Foucault‘s theories about power and the history of the prison. I have a friend in a Ph.D. program at Clemson who is focusing his research on prisons, so I’ve instructed him that Between the World and Me is a must-read. While I said this because of his research interests, I will reiterate that this book is a must-read for everybody. I see it as especially important for those of us with an abundance of privilege, those of us who “think” we are white, as Coates would say, as we have much to think about when it comes to struggling for equality and including those who are different from us.
I felt moments of guilt and anger while reading this book. The anger was cathartic, and only reaffirmed to me just how much work I have do to in terms of accepting and loving those who are different from me. It reminded me how much work I have to do in shattering the illusion that I am somehow white, and that such whiteness somehow makes me better than others. It doesn’t. If you need to check your privilege, read this book.
A large portion of the book is devoted to describing the killing of Prince Jones Junior, a young black college student who was shot for “driving while black.” Coates details the story in detail, and visits Jones’s mother to learn more of the story. It is heartbreaking, and guiltily, part of this quality stems from the fact that Prince Jones was educated from educated and wealthy parents. However, such killings should be just as mourned when the young dead black man is uneducated or not socioeconomically advantaged. Coates mentions some of the other recent incidents, such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner. He is outraged by the environment that has led to the fear of and killing of black men.
As others have noticed, Coates is the James Baldwin of our day. He is direct. He is piercing. He is honest. He is sharp. He is smart. He tells it like it is. He doesn’t waver. He isn’t careful of others’ feelings. He’s strong. He’s real.
I’m better for having read this book. I need to read more.