Between the World and Me/Ta-Nehisi Coates: My Book Club of Two

Monday, November 23, 2015

I bought two copies of Between the World and Me, the Ta-Nehisi Coates National Book Award winner, this famed letter to a son. One for me and one for my nephew Owen, with whom I stood, not long ago, on the Yale campus during commencement. We were there in celebration of Owen's sister. The crowd had settled and was waiting. During the pause a near stranger accosted first me and then (this was my fault) Owen with her singular world view. It was hard, she said, to be a white man in today's world. It was hard. In fact, it was terrible.

Politely, with economical urgency, my nephew offered his perhaps not. Perhaps being a white man in this world is not the hardest thing to be. Perhaps, he said, laying out the logic.

I love my nephew. He teaches me many things— Rubik's cubes and emoji and a recipe for tortilla soup. But I love most the conversations between the funny stuff, the glimpses of serious that we allow ourselves, the guy he was at Yale that day, dissuading Privilege from her ideas about wronged privilege. And so I bought me a copy of Coates and I bought Owen a copy of Coates, and I suggested that we together read.

"Book club of two!" Owen declared. Indeed.

Between the World and Me is fearless in its construction, damning in its accounting, a sandblasting of "Dreamer" ideology, a history of racecraft. It is deliberately bold, self-awareishly extreme, the sort of testimony that rocks readers from a long sleep:

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 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.
Body is the word here. Living inside a black body is the question, the experience, the theme, the springboard from which Coates tells the story of his own coming into awareness as a quester, as a young man whose father beat him so that he might be strong, as a Howard University student who left the classroom for the library and found his heart inside The Mecca, as a friend whose friend was wrongly gunned down, as a father, as a husband, as an excursionist to Paris. Yes, Paris, beautifully rendered here.

Bracing and blunt, Between the World and Me is a missile launched toward the heart of comfortable ideas. It is a cry out from a place of long darkness:
Do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. 
But here in these pages readers will also find the salve of knowledge, the power of curiosity, and the potentiality of language—learned and deployed.
I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts. Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions—beautiful writing rarely is.... Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.
Dear Book Club of Two member: I want to know your thoughts.

Dear World, Dear Privilege: We are standing on the precipice. Narrow, excluding points of view will not, cannot save us.


Linda C. Wisniewski said...

I found this book stunning. What if white America could just shut up and listen/read /pay attention?

Sarah Laurence said...

I love that you're reading this with your nephew. I'm reading it with my husband, sharing one copy. We visited a bookstore without realizing we had the same book on our list. They had one copy in stock. I might have to find a second copy for our son. It is powerful.

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