Between the World and Me
This book cracked my heart open. Like tripping onto a back-alley scene I couldn’t un-see, it haunted me. But to be fair, I went out late at night looking for it.
Race relations are flaring and combustible. The media screams our failures at us, yet for all the noise, I have never felt more lost or outside any issue. Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives, All Lives—what are we talking about, I wondered? What’s true and what’s click-bait? Like a bare-faced cliff you can’t get a hook in, most of us give up and go inside to eat SpaghettiOs. But Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me kept riding the best-seller list, and I thought it might be a good place to start.
Secretly, I felt like a fraud for trying to scale the cliff at all, attempting to nod my head in sympathy and solidarity. Let’s be honest. When checking boxes for competitive college scholarships, I was “Hispanic” and “Native American” (it’s true, check my last name and tribal records!). But for the vital social task of dividing people into racial Us and Thems, I’m pretty sure I’m white. SO white. [Or maybe around 81%: while I do like hummus, pea coats, and pretending to enjoy classical music, I have not yet gotten an ironic tattoo. ]
This tight punch of a book bust open a door that I, quite frankly, have no guts to rap on in real life. As a “Them” to someone’s furious “Us,” I have felt at times an anger so strong that it might seem tone-deaf to request a coffee chat at this point. The rage within the race debate can be frightening, confusing, and almost numbing. So here’s why I love a book—I am free to walk through the front door of a person’s soul, sit down and hear his story. Coates’ elegant, visceral account of his experience as a black American surviving the streets of Baltimore swept me with the beauty of his writing and unsettled me with his pain. I didn’t come to this story as a race; I came as a reader.
Written as a letter to his teenage son, Coates unpacks his traumatic past and the years spent laboring to make sense of such brutality and fear. The driving theme of his discourse, the drumbeat thud, is the body. The body. The body, he declares, is all a man has, his highest gift and dignity. His fury burns against those who have enslaved and beaten the black body, and the vicious tentacles that still creep in “free” society. The intent of racist violence, he warns his son, is to “deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” His gripping and measured words describe the corruption in both the violence and its framing. “But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” His son will carry on the burden of living in a black body. “You are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you.”
This panic to protect the body is the product of a childhood smothered in dread from the Baltimore streets, and the fear that followed him home. He and every friend he knew were beaten with belts, whips, and extension cords behind closed doors, an almost paranoid response to the fear that fogged the air. The kids teased each other about the beatings, but “…the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit.” The homes were harsh, but at least there was a semblance of love; the streets were an unfettered war zone. “The streets transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beatdown, a shooting, or a pregnancy. No one survives unscathed.” The schools, which professed to offer a “way out,” were no refuge. “Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body.” The days were sheer survival. Coates learned to master the “language” of the streets to survive, bitterly aware that his people lacked the civic protection and safety that other classes seemed to take for granted.
The poverty and brutality of the streets is hard to comprehend within “civilized” society. But it is not, Coates writes, a function of African Americans being fundamentally savage or small-minded—it springs from a larger, systemic problem. The perpetual fear and poverty, he sees as a tool used by a society empowered to repress and pillage them still. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease….The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.” The threat to the black body is not random, an unfortunate accident. “And you know now [after Trayvon Martin], if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.” Repression of blacks, he explains, is a necessary element of The Dream—the fantasy world inhabited by “those who believe themselves to be white,” who need to believe “their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.” Two universes live side by side in Coates’ America, and the perpetual “harvesting” of black bodies through police brutality only affirm his sense of separateness and oppression.
That’s hard to process. I grew up white, but I lived on the streets for a hundred pages and felt the bitter frustration and fury in the BLM movement. Is it true, a skewed perception, dead wrong? It doesn’t matter—when someone tells you their story, you listen. I’m still chewing it, but dismissing the anger is too easy. Like the long line of victims in the Cosby case, when so many people are saying the same thing, it’s hard to believe something’s not going on. And I suspect it would do some of us good to open our eyes a bit more. However, as an 81% white person, I also get the reticence to peer too deeply into the inferno of rage, the throwing up of hands in a lightning-round game of “Not It.” It’s not easy to be lumped into a color group and told, in effect, “We resent you deeply, and we want you to fix this.” Oh well. This polished and alarming account was worth cracking my heart on, even if I see a pain, a poverty, and a social situation for which I have no answers.
I may not hail from the hood, but my soul responded to this story. I couldn’t get past the pervasive fear. I thought how human is this experience of fear: above all, the fear of Death, which, for all our best efforts, can reap your body at any time. I think many children feel the pressure of “survival,” too—maybe not the streets, or physical survival, which is desperate and not to be minimized. But many are the children powerless against forces that loot and pillage them. Joyce Meyer, my favorite Bible teacher, endured a childhood of repeated rape by her father. She survived, not unscathed, and struggled with strongholds well into adulthood. But she’s white. Is she allowed to relate to a black man grappling with his own scarred history of struggle and survival? I, too, tracked with Coates on a skeletal level. But in the face of his contempt toward the Dreamers, those who “must be white” at the expense of everyone else, I shrink. In his eyes, I would be a Dreamer, not a soul sister.
Coates also writes solely from a secular viewpoint; he declares emphatically that he has no faith. More than the injustices he has suffered, I feel for him most in this. “I have no God to hold me up. And I believe when they shatter the body they shatter everything…” Coates fiercely values the body and this life as the supreme good. If the body is all we have, every ounce of energy must be expended in securing and keeping it alive, every thrust of hatred aimed at would-be hit men. But whether through injustice or innocuous chance, we will lose our bodies anyway. You may buy yourself some years, but a life ruled by fear is not life.
The greatest slavery is to be enslaved by fear. And we’re all in chains. This world has bullied us, bludgeoned us, and made us afraid. We get addicted, or perpetuate the pain and the anger, but that’s coping, not a way out. There’s only one way out. Jesus Christ—whose body, incidentally, was reaped in his youth in injustice—gave his life “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” The fear of death is our heaviest chain, dragging heavy through the basement of every choice we make. So we grab tightly to life and demand payment from those who have wronged us, but it doesn't make us free. I would never minimize the deep and desperate injustice of slavery, the bitter aftermath, and the tragedy of the streets, but suffering and injustice are the fabric of this corrupt world. I hurt deeply for what Coates has suffered, but more deeply that he has no hope of overcoming the fear. Physical chains may be gone, but chains of bitterness and fear still lock him down. It is freedom from this bondage, not merely human reparation, that I would wish for him.
It is worth wrestling with this beautiful and heartbreaking book. The explosive minefield of this current issue can be daunting to delve into, but I was blessed by this author’s painful, angry, measured, and gorgeous black American history. And to the author, I would say: I don’t have answers, but I hear you. I’m sorry. And I pray for you, for all of us, healing and hope.
 “A white person getting a tattoo is a major step in their life as it presupposes that their taste at this given moment is good enough to sustain them for the rest of their lives.” https://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2009/02/10/121-funny-or-ironic-tattoos/
 Hebrews 2:14-15