Saturday, December 26, 2015

book thoughts: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The backstory: Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

The basics: Written in the form of a letter to his teenage son, Between the World and Me attempts to answer these questions: "What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?"

My thoughts: Between the World and Me is a deeply personal, and deeply moving, book. Reading it while Hawthorne napped was such an experience I felt like when he woke up I was changed. My reaction to this book is incredibly personal. I cannot know what it is like to live in a black body or a male body. I will never stop wrestling with what it means to live in a white body at this time and place, and with certain privileges not afforded to all white women, let alone men and women of other races.

But my reaction to Between the World and Me was more of a parental reaction than a personal one. Because Coates writes in the form of a letter to his son, I found myself composing a letter to Hawthorne as I read. Coates tries to answer hard questions about living in a black body, while I wrestle with trying to raise an upper-middle-class white male to be aware of and acknowledge his privilege.

When I was pregnant with Hawthorne, I was convinced he was a girl. When we found out our she would be a he, an inordinate number of people said, "oh, good! Boys are so much easier." It's a sentiment I still don't understand. Do we live in the same world? I encounter sexism daily. How do you raise a good boy? How do you make a white son aware of his sexual, racial, educational, and socioeconomic privilege? How do you raise a feminist who will fight for social justice? I hope I do that. I strive to do that. I don't expect it to be easy in a culture that so easily normalizes sexism and racism and heterosexism. But, as Coates so eloquently attempts to explain to his son in Between the World and Me, he will experience pain and struggles my son will not. How do I make Hawthorne aware of these privileges? How do I make him appreciate these privileges but urge him to deny them for the greater good?

Very early in this book, Coates uses the illustration of how his reaction to the Michael Brown grand jury differed from his son. Coates knew to expect nothing to happen, but his son held out hope for justice. This illustration gives me chills. I want to live in a world, and raise my son in a world, where this story is an anomaly. But what good is my awareness? What good are my words? I have a benefited from an exclusionary system.

Favorite passage: "Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of "personal responsibility" in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of "intention" and "personal responsibility" is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. "Good intention" is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream."

The verdict: I agree with Toni Morrison's blurb on the cover: this book is required reading. I will hand it to Hawthorne one day and talk about it with him. It won't be the beginning or the end of the conversation, but I hope it will be part of his journey. It's a very different than Coates's son faces, but these journeys are part of what it means to live in this country.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 176 pages
Publication date: July 14, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Between the World and Me from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Follow Ta-Nehisi Coates on Twitter.

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