“I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life…”
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I finally got around to writing up my thoughts on this book and let me say that it took me a long time because I just couldn’t figure out how I felt about it. There are parts that I loved about it and parts that genuinely just left me feeling a bit lacking…. At the start I was blown away by the writing style and how poetic it was. But by about halfway through that same poetic nature started to wear down on me, because it’s hard to sift through the poetry to get to the point. And this book, as a nonfiction opinion piece, felt like it was supposed to have a point.
Between the World and me is a nonfiction book that is very loosely written in the style of a letter. I say loosely here because Ta-Nehisi Coates essentially uses the act of writing to his son as a springboard from which to introduce the points that he wants to write about. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his fourteen year old son, talking about the dangers of inhabiting a black body in a still-racist society. The novel explores various moments of ‘realisation’ or reflection in Ta-Nehisi’s life, points in his life that have shaped his opinion on various matters to do with racism. He seems mainly to be discussing the question of why racism exists in the world, what the concept of race even is, and what aspects of our culture as it stands still perpetuate that racism. So very dense topics, obviously, and probably fitting that it was such a densely written book!
I watched a few interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates on this book. And one of my favourite quotes from him talking about this book was “There is a certain aspect of African American life that is beautiful, that is dense, that is complicated, that is layered… and our view on the world, our view on our country, deserves to be represented.” And I just thought that quote was so powerful and so perfectly summarised much of what this book felt like it was about. This book was full of reflections and viewpoints that painted a really vivid portrait of this is what it’s like to live life as a black person, these are the kinds of things you have to think about, these are the questions you consider as a black person. And because that’s a perspective and an experience that I will never know personally, it struck me as a very important book for that reason.
SPOILER FREE SUMMARY
“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.”
“The streets transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beat-down, a shooting or a pregnancy.”
“When our elders presented school to us they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”
“… what was the source of this fear? What was hiding behind the smoke screen of streets and schools? And what did it mean that number 2 pencils, conjugations without context, Pythagorean theorems, handshakes, and head nods were the difference between life and death, were the curtains drawing down between the world and me?”
“… a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.”
“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
“The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom…”
“I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.”
“Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.”
“When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best – it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the real world.”
“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.”
What is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s opinion on the ideal behind the American Dream? Do you agree with this?
What did you make of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s allusions to ‘streets and schools’ and the role that they had in suppressing members of the young black community?
Do you think this book was intended to have a take-home message? If so, what did you think it was?
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