Friday, July 31, 2015

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I began to plan my vacation reading a few years ago because of my issues with timing. I sometimes have to plan my reading deliberately, making sure to read x item at a certain time, however my free reading has, for a long time, been random. A review, a friend’s suggestion, a $1 find at the thrift store was all the planning needed for a book. The things I read had little to do with each other or with what I was doing at the time. Reading is an escape for me, why would I ever need to connect it to the harsh realities of life?
Then I had two very bad vacation reading experiences. The first as On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It was the next book on my list, something I’d bought and had been meaning to get to. I had a long summer of travel planned. Perfect no? Not for travel abroad. I spent 6 weeks traversing England and Ireland, reading the quintessential American travel book. The experience was so jarring that I can remember, neigh on 10 years later, looking up from that book on the train in Ireland, as the gentle sloping fields passed by, how incredibly badly timed this book was. How the juxtaposition was like nails on a chalkboard and being severely annoyed at my idiocy. So much so that I picked up an assortment of Irish history books in Galway.
My second experience was my first time in Hawaii. My parents had booked the trip, I believe, my junior year in college. We were very lucky to go, and our cousin allowed us to use some of his points to let us into a very nice hotel-resort just north of Kona, on the Big Island. I think it may be the nicest hotel I have every stayed at, and certainly a gorgeous resort. There is actually a river that runs through the various buildings on the property and one must take a boat down the river from the opulent lanai that serves as the front lobby to the building where your room is. It was marvelous. What did I end up reading? The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. Instead of luxuriating at a resort I could never afford, I spent the entire time railing against the bourgeois in the way that only a ridiculous 20 year old can. Loudly and with little understanding or forethought.
I tell you this for a few reasons. Firstly, I now theme my vacation reading accordingly and try to pick out an appropriate tome. And secondly, to illustrate how truly special Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is. It’s rare that I get to read a book that brings together so much of what I am thinking and feeling as well as what is happening in the world today.
Before I commence the review I have to say how lucky I was to get a hold of an Advance Reader’s Copy from my friend’s over at The Book Frog. It was sitting on the top of a stack of copies and I couldn’t leave it.
I have been trying to describe Between the World and Me, and I will try to do my best. Coates is describing the breach between himself and the world, and much of that breach is made of up issues of race. One part memoir, one part history, and one part progressive politics, Between the World and Me has become, for me, a wonderful extension of Black Lives Matter.
What I loved about this book is that it is intensely personal, recounting tales from Coates’ youth in a tough Baltimore neighborhood, and it is written as a letter to his son. Coates’ tells these intimately personal stories, but then weaves the stark racist history into them. One passage has Coates’ recalling the Chicago projects his visited with his wife but then links this visit with both the history of redlining and the way the ghettos have a way of keeping people from ever getting out. “In Chicago the plan was executed to perfection. The city erected a wall of projects, a border meant to keep some people in and some people out. And under this atmosphere, desperation took root and deprivations multiplied. The ghettos are public policy, and the children who die there, who so often die by each other’s hands, are the necessary result of government planning.” This passage is haunting. And not because of Coates’ writing, which is marvelous, but because this is a stark and accurate description, based on historical facts, of the state of the black community in the US. That is what the entire book is like.
Coates’ writing is, at the same time, clear and sharp while being lyrical and melodious. It is hard to describe. Take these lines, they are a few pages apart in the text. “The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American Dream.” And “You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold.”
These line hammer home a few things for me. Firstly, I think they are the most beautiful descriptions of the odious practice of slavery, and somehow, despite their beauty, they make slavery that much more terrible. The visceral images of the body drive home the human cost, the truly human destruction. But as you see an individual in these lines, a person with hands, eyes, feelings and family, you also see how vast this structure was. There are 38 million black people in America today and most of their ancestors were brought here, enslaved, for the economic benefit of others. This was a huge, massive, business enterprise, as efficient as any factory today, that made many people very wealthy and many more left dead and maimed.
The other thing I love about these lines is how they address privilege. I get that privilege is not fun, or easy. I get that it makes white people upset, and I get that it is hard to understand. Most people today do not feel their connections to the past, let alone the transgressions of an ancestor from 150-400 years ago. It feels distant, and ancient, and it feels like a t-rex in the room. No sudden movements, no acknowledging it and perhaps we can make it go away. It’s an incredibly human impulse. But I love here that Coates’ is not blaming, I never felt blamed. As if he says “YOU MARY, you did this!” But I felt complicit. And I think that is best description of privilege. It’s not that most people actively worked towards this racial imbalance, it’s not even that they ask for it. It is a heritage that comes, unasked, on all Americans. This dark inheritance can never be expunged solely by ignoring it. That is how it has been able to pass to us after all of these years.  It must be fought, and allies need to recognize their privilege, firstly, and then work to dismantle it.
The entire book is like this. I think it is a marvelous, heartbreaking, and much needed work that addresses so much of what is happening for black America today. It feels so cutting edge, so on point, so apt to what life is like today. It’s really a marvelous book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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