between the world & me: a book review


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“the only people i knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates was one of the most influential books of my year. It has been so relevant considering that it’s been a hard year for race relations, with dozens of highly publicized killings of unarmed black men and women, an outbreak of race related hate crimes in the wake of Trump’s election, and the rise of the Alt-Right/Neo-Nazi hate groups. As a white woman constantly surrounded by a pre-dominantly white community, I often hear negative rhetoric aimed at the Black Lives Matter protestors, intense animosity towards Colin Kaepernick, and a general sentiment of, “Racism is dead! Why are these people so angry?” Although I, personally, have never denied the existence of racism in today’s America, I must admit that I have silently and mentally belittled the voices of black outrage in my head. That is why I strongly recommend that every American read Between the World and Me. Whether you have doubts about the validity of the Black Lives Matter Movement or whether you are an ardent advocate for People of Color, this book is for any and for all. For how can I, a white woman, pretend to understand the plight of People of Color without reading their words and really truly listening to their voices? We must never ever speak for the experiences of those in whose shoes we have never walked.

Between the World and Me is a small book, only 150 pages long, but it is also a book of sprawling philosophical discussions, abstract ideas and richly figurative language. Addressed to his teenage son, this book is a philosophical exploration of what it means to Coates to be a black man and through writing, Coates attempts to answer the challenging questions of race to his son.

The book, for obvious reasons, cannot be succinctly summarized for it is rich in meanings and fraught with complex abstractions. However, the line that stood out most to me was Coates claim that as black men “our errors always cost us more.” I read these words and instantly, newsreels of hundreds of murdered unarmed black bodies flashed through my brain. Coates goes on to say:

“But the price of our 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.”

This paragraph was glaringly accurate and I could not help but think of a recent experience that I had at a Love Trumps Hate Rally in my hometown. During the rally, a young white man jumped on stage and put his hands on the woman who was speaking. He was almost immediately pushed off stage by the audience and was soon after arrested for resisting arrest. As this story was released on social media, a firestorm of criticism for Sander’s treatment erupted.

“How can you be arrested for ‘resisting arrest’?”

“Disgusting!”

“He was only exercising his constitutional right to counter-protest.”

As more and more people expressed their disgust for what they deemed unfair treatment of Sander, I could not help but realize a sickening double standard. When Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray were shot by the police where was this outrage? Instead this was the rhetoric we heard then:

“He shouldn’t have put up a fight!”

“No respect for authority!”

“He’s just a thug! He should have peacefully surrendered.”

There is a clear double standard in response when the perpetrator is a white man. Can you imagine how different the public reaction would have been if a young black man had disrupted a Pro-Trump Rally, put his hands on a white woman, and then tried to fight off the police? As we are well aware, people of color all around this country have been killed for much less. I found Coates’ words to be an eloquent (albeit painful) description of the disgusting double standard that I witnessed on the day of that rally.

Secondly, the most poignant aspect of the book for me was Coates discussion of his ever present fear. The fear he has for his own body, and also the fear he feels for his teenage son.

“And I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such.”

I read these words and wondered how I and people I know had ever questioned the fear that People of Color claim to experience. How often have I heard, “If he had only followed instructions, he wouldn’t have been shot.” There is a continuous dismissal of these legitimate expressions of fear by shoving law and order rhetoric down the choking throats of our black brother and our black sisters.

If you choose to pick up this book (and I hope you do), prepare to be emotionally and mentally bombarded with the hard truths of our black brothers and sisters experiences in this “free” country. However, even Coates’ beautiful prose and literary prowess will not distract you from the pain from which he writes. This book forever changed how I will listen to People of Color. It armed me to speak out whenever I hear condescending dialogue concerning the validity of these voices. And reading Between the World and Me enabled me to further my own understanding of the plight of the black soul in this country that we call “the land of the free.”


 

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