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Friday, February 26, 2016

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me is a book-length essay that has been a publishing sensation, winning all sorts of awards. It is a clear-eyed look at what it is like to be black in America, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the form of a letter his son.

No sensible person can disagree what Coates lays out: "'White America' is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). but however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it 'white people' would cease to exist for want of reason."

But I find his putting white people in quotes interesting, as is his frequent use of the phrase "people who believe they are white." As someone who believes he is white, I'm not sure what he means by that. Does he mean that I am not literally white, in that my skin color is more like a mixture of pink and ecru? Or that there is the probability of other races in my DNA? Perhaps this is the key: "The new people were something else before they were white--Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish--and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again." But what, exactly? "Perhaps they will truly become Americans and create a nobler basis for their myths."

Coates grew up idolizing Malcolm X, and says not a word about Martin Luther King, which I'm not bringing up as a condemnation (surely King is white America's favorite black person) and went to Howard University, which he calls The Mecca--no Harvard or Princeton for him. There is something prickly about Coates' argument, as their should be. People who believe they are white should feel slightly uncomfortable reading this book.

What's infuriating is that Coates even had to write this book. It comes on the heels of the struggle for racial justice in the U.S. seeming to have made no progress, where "journalists" say that Santa Claus is not white and organizations like Black Lives Matter are seen as something evil and that the clear advantages of being white are downplayed or even denied. Coates names the names that prove it still can be deadly to be black in America--Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and a name I did not know much about, Prince Jones. He was a friend of Coates from Howard, who was gunned down in cold blood by a Fairfax County policeman back in 2000. The policeman was never charged, let alone indicted, but was found negligent by a civil court. Coates interviews Jones' mother in a somewhat tense exchange. There are too many mothers out there in similar situations.

Coates makes many strong statement and refutations of coded language, such as "'Black-on-black crime' is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel. And this should not surprise us. 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, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return."

From where we sit now, it looks bleak, and Coates is no optimist. When children are shot down by police how can we be? But let's all hope that for Coates' son life will be different.

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