“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and I have to agree with Toni Morrison’s review that this book “should be required reading” — for black and white people alike. Coates paints a powerful portrait of his life as a black man and the never-ending fear and mistrust–of the police, of the ghetto, of white people–that constantly accompanies those who inhabit America’s black bodies.
This beautifully written, gut-wrenching book is a letter to the author’s son, who is 15 years old and upset about the lack of criminal charges for the killer of Michael Brown. Coates writes about this unfairness and the full weight of having a black body, what it meant for him growing up and what it means for him now as a father. Though his son was raised far from the mean streets of Baltimore where Coates grew up, he knows even that doesn’t protect him from the harsh realities of a white man’s world.
“You know now, if you did not know before, that 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 mot 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 the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detaining, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. All of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”
I have been doing my best to educate myself on race but it wasn’t until I read this book that I felt like I got an actual glimpse of what racism does to a person. I felt Coates’ fear for his life as a child in Baltimore and realized that the biggest danger to my body growing up was horseback riding. I, like most of you, do not know what it is like to memorize which streets to avoid in order to survive. Like you, I was taught that the police were my friends–there to protect my safety–and not to cower in fear at their presence. When I was ten, my chief concerns were building forts and playing softball–not whether or not I would make it home from school alive.
One of the central themes of the book is the killing of Prince Jones, a fellow student at Howard University, who was gunned down–unarmed–after police misidentified him and followed him in an unmarked vehicle at night. Coates sits down with Jones’ grieving mother and writes:
“She alluded to 12 Years a Slave. “There he was,” she said, speaking of Solomon Northrup. “He had means. He had a family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act. It’s all it takes.”
Coates refers to white people throughout the book as “Dreamers”–or those living the American Dream (or illusion thereof). It’s not a comfortable book to read for us Dreamers–there were times when I wanted to scrape the white off my skin in shame. Confronting racism is never going to be easy, especially when you have benefitted–no matter how unwittingly–from it. It’s true that you and I did not create this racist world. We had no say in slavery. But we do have a say now. We have the power to own racism and to change it.
This book is written for the Black reader, but there is so much to be taken from it if you are white. We need to wake up to the fact that our dreams have been built on the back of Black bodies. Is this shameful to admit? Yes. Will it make us feel badly about all that we have because of it? Probably. But we must. We simply must join the struggle for equality, even if by simply owning up to the role that we play in a system that is so drastically unfair.
As Coates writes, “Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.”