As protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement continue around the globe, I think we are all asking ourselves tough questions about what is needed to heal the racial injustices in our world, and in particular here in the United States. I don’t have the answers, but luckily we live in a world filled with books, and books are filled with answers and insights. So as my nation grieves the loss of more black lives, lives that were murdered by an authority sworn to serve and protect; as people take to the streets in the fight for equality, braving police brutality in the midst of a global pandemic; as we collectively ask ourselves “How do we fix this extensive, systemic, overwhelming problem of racial inequity?”; I offer you one of my main sources of solace and hope – books. Books are beacons in a bleak world. They give readers a window into multiple worldviews, building empathy, and understanding.
If you follow me on Instagram, I reposted a few of my favorite books by black authors last week (Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Just Mercy, and Becoming). Today, I want to talk about the much loved bestseller Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Since its release in 2015 this books has been highly revered and reviewed. I believe it is one of the most important books to read right now.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me as a letter to his 15 year old son after he saw his reaction to the murder of Michael Brown, and the news that the officers responsible would go free. What follows is an epistolary coming-of-age account of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ own experiences as a black person growing up in a rough Baltimore neighborhood, his transformational time at Howard University, the early days of his writing career, and his reflections on fatherhood.
After witnessing his son’s disappointment over the outcome of the Michael Brown case, Coates writes with uncompromising honesty:
“And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a domain whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible”.
This book pulls at the heart, but it’s not sentimental nor particularly tender. For as much as this book is a letter between father and son, it is just as much a hard-hitting denouncement of the U.S.’s construct of race and the systemic injustices against black people from slavery to present day. Coates writes with an exceptional strength of prose that conveys authority and experiential wisdom.
Because every word is purposeful, every page penetrating and astute, it’s difficult to determine which parts to highlight. One theme that particularly stuck with me, though, was Coates’ continued reference to the “Dream”, which he describes as:
“…perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies”.
Coates describes watching TV as a boy, trying to reconcile the narrative of that Dream with the reality of his own neighborhood which looked so vastly different. The Dream is an idealized chimera that Americans uphold to the detriment of people of color, particularly black people. He concludes:
“The mettle that it takes to look away from the 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 your 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. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind”.
This book is a call to all of us to remain vigilant, and to recognize the illusory, dream image of American life that benefits some while oppressing and murdering others. This book offers its readers a means of reflection and inspires action. Ta-Nahisi has a way of getting right to the heart of things, and I hope everyone who has not done so already reads this book.