Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau, 2015)
What are the big take-aways?
A shattering memoir on race relations in the form of a letter to his teenage son following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown – the unarmed black 18-year-old killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 – Between the World and Me intimately describes Coates’ experience of growing up as a black man in America.
Coates refers to race as a social construct, with Caucasians – whom he calls the Dreamers – being the “new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white” (p.7), at the top of an American societal hierarchy that is destructive in its hypocrisy. From page 8:
The new people are not original in this. Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.
Coates urges his son to see the bigger picture, including the very fragile delusion of “the people who believe that they are white” in their idea of their place in the hierarchy, and their unrestrained and doomed exploitation of others and the Earth.
Why do I like it?
I like Between the World and Me because it is an act of leadership: it is a choice to influence the purposeful behavior of others toward realizing a vision for the future. I am a Dreamer who is heart-broken and aghast at the extent of racial violence in this country, and especially at the complexity of its inter-relationship with the criminal justice system. Ever since my awakening to it with the assassination of Trayvon Martin – the unarmed black 17-year-old shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida in 2012 – I have been seeking opportunities for reflection and insight into these dynamics, mostly from mainstream journalism.
My mother read Between the World and Me as soon as it came out, and when she recommended it to me, I balked because I was fearful of the reported brutality of Coates’ autobiographical narrative. But as a result of this summer’s events, with the backdrop of so much disturbing political rhetoric in the U.S. presidential election, I decided to read the book and also join a discussion group among Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program alumni that was courageously initiated – in another exemplary act of leadership – by a black wife and mother to a black husband, daughter and son. My desire is to learn how to respond, as a Dreamer, to Coates’ advice for his son (p. 151): “And still I urge you to struggle…But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field of their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”
In what situations would this be useful?
Reading and contemplating this book would be useful to any person of any race who is sincerely interested in exploring the nature and origins of their conscious and unconscious biases, as well as the impact on others of the racial, economic, and other societal privileges they may or may not have been born with or acquired. To my mind, this type of inquiry is a right, a joy, a struggle and an obligation that comes with being the leader of your own life.
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
Check out this article from the Greater Good Science Center, “How to Stop the Racist in You”.
Also, I highly recommend this “On Being” interview with Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, Cheri Maples and Larry Ward entitled “Being Peace in a World of Trauma,” recorded at a mindfulness retreat attended by agents of the criminal justice system.
As for readings, Between the World and Me is full of references to thought leaders and writers which might pair well with it. (The book’s title itself is a quotation from Richard Wright’s 1957 work, White Man, Listen!) Other pairings might include Coates’ memoir about his father and his childhood, The Beautiful Struggle, from 2009 (Spiegel & Grau), and his landmark article for the Atlantic in June 2014, “The Case for Reparations.” Recommendations that I have received, but not read yet, include The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Cornel West (The New Press, 2012), and Waking Up White by Debby Irving (Elephant Room Press, 2014).
P.S. Personally, I am also interested in learning more about David O. Brown, the Dallas police chief, who – in my view – has deftly handled, with remarkable wisdom and extraordinary leadership, the fatal shooting of five officers there last month by Micah Xavier Johnson. (Brown himself lost a son at the hands of law enforcement after the son killed a police officer and another person.) There is an excellent New York Times article about Brown here.