Between the World and Me

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.

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21 Responses to Between the World and Me

  1. It is a rare talent Ta-Nehisi Coates has for writing so beautifully about such tragedy. You also write eloquently on this subject, Teresa. It’s good to know that you’ve been giving a lot of thought to systemic racism. My family has lived in Inkster, Michigan for nearly 50 years and is the only white family on the block. We have seen systemic racism inflicted on our town in a variety of forms, including the gerrymandering that has isolated our city and separated us from the civic life of our neighbors and cut us off from the taxes paid by the factories where our residents work. This historic and systemic racism has resulted in a town that remains racially segregated and disparately funded today.

    • Teresa says:

      People like to imagine that racism is a thing of the past or just an individual phenomenon, but it’s not. I have a book on my stack right now called The Color of Law, which is all about redlining and government segregation and its legacy. It’s sobering stuff.

      • Yes, hopefully all the good reviews and attention given to The Color of Law will make people more aware of this issue. Our city actually experienced something worse than redlining. Part of our city was actually taken from us in 1960 by the neighboring all-white city of Dearborn Heights. This astounding annexation of our industrial zone was fought all the way up to the Michigan Supreme Court, but the courts ruled against Inkster every time. Though they probably wouldn’t get away with something like this now, that doesn’t help with the fact that we are still feeling the effects of this act from 57 years ago, and the loss of our industrial tax base. I will be posting on my blog excerpts on this subject from my recently-completed, not-yet-published memoir, America’s Most Violent and Inspiring Town.

  2. Yes, I very much agree that talking honestly about race has to be part of the solution. ONE SMALL PART, since if dialogue alone were enough we’d have been sorted out years ago. But I feel like white America has spent so much time and energy trying to minimize the impacts of racism (both on black folks and, you know, on US) and locate it safely in the distant past, that it’s salutory to have to think about that history in a serious, critical way.

  3. Hi again, Teresa. One of the things I find most interesting and valuable about the section you quote is that it addresses the problem of a female slave, and yet you say the book is for Coates’s son, or is addressed to him. There’s an unacknowledged conflict often in civil rights in which women in general and black people in general find themselves competing for public attention and so forth in their struggle to get their rights. At the turn of the 19th century, there was a conflict between the feminists of that time and Frederick Douglass, and some of the feminists decided to waive their right to go first and let Douglass speak first at some important convention or other, so that black people’s rights could be addressed. There were people who noted a sort of historical repeat in this situation in the election between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and women who asked (pertinently or not, since civil rights should automatically be rights for everyone), “When is it our turn, with all due respect?” I find it especially nice that Coates in this quoted passage addresses the rights and life of a black woman in his book to his son. It’s fair for both sides, who should be allies, and are only pitted against each other by the selfishness of the system.

  4. cactusunicorn says:

    As a young person, I feel racism is rapidly growing. Even with the existence of the web, it just gets worse through offensive and unintentional remarks. This post is informative. You’re amazing <3

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t know if it’s getting worse, but it does feel like we’ve taken a few steps back in recent years. But there are things that people said openly when I was growing up that I mostly only see people say online now. I think people know better now. They just don’t always act better.

  5. You’re right, it’s tough to write about this book when so much has already been written. I remember being particularly struck by Coates’s attention to the black body, how systemic racism and the legacy of slavery did bodily harm. I remember the tragedy of his friend who was shot, Prince Jones, and his mother trying to grapple with the absurdity of it all. It’s a marvelous book and I wish I could make everyone read it. Framing it as a letter to his son made me think about the privilege my own son will have just by accident of his skin color. So now it’s up to me, and all his readers, to DO something with this new awareness.

    • Teresa says:

      The whole discussion of his body was so interesting. I was struck by how his lack of religious faith made some of the Civil Rights rhetoric of the past seem empty to him. Of course, bodies should matter and be protected, even for those who believe in an afterlife. But I hadn’t really thought about how that difference in belief might affect people’s willingness to put their bodies at risk. I appreciated that he interrogated those leaders and his own thoughts about them.

  6. Stefanie says:

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts! I think Coates does an excellent job of writing about his experience and opening up space for discussion on race in America.

  7. Christy says:

    I had recommended it wholeheartedly to people at my (mostly white) church. My pastor loved it and others loved it, but others found it too negative – that lack of solutions, I guess? I was so surprised. But when I read it the second time, Coates’ concluding lines about how “they made us a race. We made ourselves into a people” struck me as where his hope lay. I speculate that because that hope doesn’t have anything to do with white people, I guess it’s why white people may not see it when they read it. I know it struck me on my second time reading it, not my first time.

    The passage that you quote is such a good one. On a similar theme, I had highlighted his passage “The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine.”

    • Teresa says:

      Ooh, yes, that’s a good point about the hope not being about white people. I know he’s talked about how he wasn’t writing for white people when he wrote this. I wonder if that, too, brings some of the sense that he’s being negative. He doesn’t bother talking about the white experience or try to protect white feelings.

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