An Unchanged Experience
Ta-Nehesi Coates' Between the World and Me takes me to a very uncomfortable yet beautiful place. Reading his book gave me goosebumps and it reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine after he was arrested. He shouted “You don't know what it's like out here for a black man!” As much as I can try to empathize with him, I can never walk in his shoes. I cannot always relate to his experiences. Between the World and Me was inspired by James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, one of my favorite books, which sadly still resonates with the Black experience today. Baldwin's words haunt me daily as I remember that "this innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish… You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you are a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity." This line is painful and it still rings true. Ta-Nehesi Coates writes to inspire young people to survive in a world where the Black Lives Matter Movement is challenged; to live in a world that questions the motives of the self-proclaimed racist Dylan Roof and the racially motivated murders of the members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is also written to his own fifteen year old son, who is coping with the blatant racial injustice that he will face in his life as young black man.
Coates tells his son the startling truth, “here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body —it is heritage.” This was proven true when Kevin Goldsmith read the autopsy of slain teenager Mike Brown as a poem. Black pain, black death, and the black experience in this country - in general - are always reduced. We are not allowed the right to have private suffering and private mourning, though we will allow a white male poet to benefit from our pain because of the hegemonic system of white supremacy, which forever prevails in this country - all while touting “liberty and justice for all”. He refers to his “performance” of the autopsy as a way of giving recognition to an American tragedy. He pretends that his white body is not a symbol of oppression, as well as ownership, of black bodies. I agree with Baldwin because “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Your life is never given the same value as others. I applaud Coates and his pessimism because, for a book like The Fire Next Time to still be relevant to racial injustice in 2015 is evidence that progress is a farce. He lacks the optimism found in Baldwin because he is faced with the harsh reality of the world around him: the world that strikes down black youth like Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, and Tamir Rice; a world that his son (who is also a black youth) must also learn to navigate; the world that spared no warning to Trayvon Martin's mother when they put up images of her dead son during the trial of his murderer; a world that took 30 years to bring Medgar Evers' murderer to justice; a world described by Benjamin as a “catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin,” never truly rectifying the initial race problem, though proclaiming today's race riots as some “new” kind of phenomenon; a world that tries to justify black death with "Black on Black Crime."
To yell 'black-on-black crime' is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding. ― (Ta-Nehisi Coates,
Coates continues to assert that his son (and other youths of course) must not treat the loaded history of slavery as some distant narrative that does not effect on the present: "you must resit the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. 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. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to clam our present circumstance - no matter how improved - as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this". His response to the history of slavery that has stained this country is both powerful and beautiful. We must not treat the legacy of slavery as the tales of old, the ramifications of the institution of slavery have resulted in establishing enormous wealth for this country (and abroad) at the expense of Black people. Slavery is an integral part of the present Black experience and we must not forget this. Nor shall we wrap up the entire experience of slavery and package it as "history" because it has greatly impacted our present because they are both inextricably linked to current disparities affecting the Black community such as wealth, education and housing. Nothing, nothing at all can reverse the horrors of slavery.
But race is the child of racism, not the father. ―( Ta-Nehisi Coates,
Coates ends the book quite abruptly for me and we are left with more questions, which for me is a good thing. We need to ask uncomfortable questions in order to ameliorate race relations in this country.It is the only way that anything is going change because if we continue to ignore race relations we will only exacerbate problem. I am ready to have "The Talk" and I hope that all of you are ready to join me at the table. I feel like the female perspective is often left out of this discussion and we cannot deny the intersectionality of being a woman and being black, so even though I don't know what it's like to navigate this world as black man, black men don't know what it's like for me, as a black woman. Tressi Cottom captures this perspective beautifully and if you're interested in reading further click here.
I feel like I am living in a constant state of deja-vu. Despite the fact that I did not experience The Civil Rights Movement, I can still feel it. On the anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that took lives of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, I feel it. When Nina Simone sings “Cant you see it?/ Can't you feel it?/It's all in the air/I can't stand the pressure much longer/ Somebody say a prayer,“ I feel it, I feel it now more than ever.