I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, who thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dress-making and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world—which is really the only world she can ever know—ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history.
So much has already been written about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his teenage son, Between the World and Me. Since its publication in 2015 it’s been declared essential reading in the tradition of James Baldwin. It is, indeed, an extraordinary book—thoughtful and angry and mournful and sometimes celebratory. I don’t know that I have much of value to add to the conversation about it, so I’ll just record a few things I found interesting.
One of the things that caught my attention, partly perhaps because I’ve been thinking about it a lot anyway, is the interaction between the individual and the systemic. Coates writes of his own personal experience, which is his and his alone, not necessarily representative of the experience of every black man or even every black man from Baltimore who went to Howard University. Every human experience is individual and unique, but each individual experience, each story we hear, adds to our understanding of the whole of humanity. It’s important to hear these stories.
From Coates’s story, we can see the value of books and learning and curiosity, curiosity that is sometimes hindered by schools that want to put everyone on the same path. We can learn why righteous anger feels more appropriate than calm surrender. We can learn what it’s like to feel danger from almost every front, and what it’s like to step into a world without that danger.
It’s important to remember the individuality of experience not just because we don’t want to paint everyone in a group with the exact same brush but also because it makes us more alive to injustice when we look at how it feels at an individual level. One of the reasons the quote I shared above struck me is because it paints a picture of an individual enslaved woman when so often history teaches about about “slaves” in a mass of bodies. Thinking about people as a mass of bodies makes it easier to think of them as commodities, as Americans did for so many years—and still do. It’s why, today, individual stories of people losing health insurance are important. These are people, not numbers on a balance sheet.
The stories Coates share are his own personal experiences, but they are also shared experiences. By learning how Coates feels about his life, we can understand how others might feel as well. And we can see how policy and injustice play out on the individual level.
I’ve seen some complaints that this book is short on solutions for the racial problems in the U.S. It’s true that there’s no five-point plan for ending racial injustice in this book. But I think the book itself is a piece of the solution. Part of ending racism is opening eyes and changing hearts and minds. Coates’s reflections can help do that. My main worry is that he’s speaking to the choir, but I suppose if each member of that choir learns to sing a few new lines from reading this, our combined voices can become just a little louder so that others will hear.