Friday, January 20, 2017

Coates - Between the World and Me

Seeking to understand the political and social dynamics we are experiencing in the U.S.A., U.K. and elsewhere in the world led me to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me (2015). This is an elegantly written book by an African American author who has gained wide recognition for his deep descriptions of the influence of race in America. I needed the personal approach Coates took, written in the form of a letter to his son, primarily because the white privilege that I enjoy makes it nearly impossible to have a deep and full understanding of what Coates describes.

Coates started by saying that race is the child of racism instead of the other way around. In essence, the need to name others as different and thereby characterize or discriminate was the starting place for what American society has come to understand as race. This compulsion to define created ‘a Dream’ that orders the way we interact across groups, creating expectations both within and between groups. “The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” (33% through digital text)

Raised in Baltimore, discovering the rich diversity within African and African American culture at Howard University (The Mecca), and exploring the metropolises of Chicago and New York, Coates concluded that he was part of a society “that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you (his son) with the club of criminal justice.” In his view, this reflected either a failure to deliver on good intentions or was evidence of the sinister intent that allowed violence in schools, in communities, and in gangs (11% through digital text).

Ultimately, Prince Jones, the privileged son of a female physician and admired by Coates during his years at Howard University, brought Coates to understand the deep vulnerability of his own son. Followed by a police officer across several jurisdictions with no justifiable provocation, Prince was shot to death when he stepped out of his car at a friend’s home; the investigation of the shooting cast more questions on Prince’s character than on the police officer’s judgment. The necessity for a Black father’s discipline of his son was thus underscored in devastating ways - either discipline into submission or sacrifice to the streets and law enforcement officials. The Dream could seemingly only be achieved by telling “black boys and girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’” (59% through digital text)

A question Coates repeatedly raised was “How can we escape the Dream that confines, limits, and imposes a certain lifestyle seemingly without option to fashion a life that is unique to ourselves?” Eventually Coates began to see argument and disagreement, and the ultimate discomfort they bring, as providing light to the shadowed path of personal fulfillment. Only by questioning could he pursue a unique and freeing way of being in the world. This questioning included rejecting a Dream of needing to be, talk and think as if he was white.

Coates’ book is not easy reading. Some of the images and dynamics he describes are unfamiliar or disturbing. More importantly, embracing the impact of what racism has caused hurts, it hurts because we are all complicit in what people of color experience in America. With imperfect understanding, my empathy has improved, a path toward the changes that must eventually come if we are to live in a more just and compassionate world.

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