As a parent, you will have many moments where you watch your child’s innocence fade little by little.
You’ll have to talk to them about the differences between boys and girls, the birds and the bees and – especially if you’re living in America – you’ll have to talk to them about school shootings, racial inequities, and deadly police altercations. The latter is where Between the World and Me begins.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, current author of the Black Panther comic book, has just witnessed his son’s heart fade after hearing the jury’s verdict for the police officer who killed Michael Brown.
Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed on Aug. 9, 2014, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. The shooting prompted protests that roiled the area for weeks. On Nov. 24, the St. Louis County prosecutor announced that a grand jury decided not to indict Mr. Wilson. The announcement set off another wave of protests. In March, the Justice Department called on Ferguson to overhaul its criminal justice system, declaring that the city had engaged in constitutional violations.
EXCEPT FROM “WHAT HAPPENED IN FERGUSON?” | THE NEW YORK TIMES
As a parent, Coates knows he needs to address the harsh reality of the world we live in and have a talk with his son that will forever change his world.
Between the World and Me is his open letter where he tries to comfort his son with realism to help him accept the reality of our world. He does it by explaining the history of the injustices, his own harsh experiences, and how he has managed to live with these truths.
The book is ripe with quotables (so many that I plan on shoving those great one-liners and paragraphs all throughout this review). Coates’ point of view is one he has pragmatically calculated and, even if you do not agree with him, you will understand him.
There are so many interesting ideologies to pull from this letter but the two I will focus on for this article are:
“Whiteness” as a social construct and why it is a detriment to our society
How the “American Dream” perpetuates injustices
The Detrimental Social construct
There is a school of thought that asserts that race itself is a social construct, meaning that humans thought up race as a guideline of sorts. But, it doesn’t really exist; it it just a hierarchical system.
This leads us to another equally important ideal, one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim. Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world — the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them — inevitably follows from the inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.
Between The World And Me | Pages 6-7
That is an ideology I am familiar with and have heard for a good portion of my life. However, whiteness as a social construct was something new to me, rather it was communicated in a way that was new to me.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is not the originator of this concept, as he himself points out, but he gave me my first introduction with Between The World And Me.
Difference in the hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible — this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.
These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white — Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish — and if all our national hopes have fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME | PAGES 6-7
Coates breaks down how the goalpost is constantly moved as society needs a new definition of the majority (white). When you look throughout history, as the majority population shrinks, the definition of “white” is redetermined. People who were Scottish are now just white. Jews are now just white. Etc. Coates argues this is done in order to keep society’s hierarchical structure. Apparently, capitalism only works if someone is being oppressed.
“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 reasons.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME | PAGE 42
Whiteness also serves another purpose: it gives somewhere to place the blame so that the American Dream (the Dream) can be preserved. America didn’t do it, whiteness of the past did.
This is why America vehemently fights against the acknowledge of systematic racism. To admit that there is racism, that there is wrong, is to admit the system if flawed. To admit that the odds are stacked, is to spit on the ideology of the Dream, as Coates refers to it. America views itself as as the superhero opposing all wrong in the Earth and providing refuge for The Dream. “One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.” [Between The World And Me | Page 8]
Accepting race as a reality and simultaneously allowing yourself to buy into the belief that you are white or other is what perpetuates inequality and injustice. It is the detriment of achieving the true dream.
The Source of Injustice
One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.
America is only great if there are no problems. That is the lie that we Americans have bought into according to Coates.
Because we want to believe America is so far ahead of everyone else, we ignore negative statistics rather than correct them. That’s why our poverty isn’t adequately addressed, why racism remains, why police brutality rampages so widely, and it’s why our education system still hasn’t undergone any significant changes.
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.
Fully 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the county. But it does not…
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME | PAGE 27
I had an elementary teacher I knew as a child that used to say, “If I gave you a brownie and told you it only had a little bit of poop in it, would that be okay? It’s just a little poop after all. No? Then don’t accept a little wrong.”
Why is America okay with eating brownies that have a little poop? We’ve gotten high off our own product: the Dream. We want to continue to believe in the Wizard and never look behind the curtain. There are layers and layers of curtains lined up to block the reveal of the truth. To collapse the Dream would be asking for anarchy, for upheaval.
Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME | PAGE 33
Our society wants to keep its order, even if that means eating a little poop.
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 voite; 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 world. I am conviced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME | PAGE 143
Americans don’t want to be human; they want to be great.
Though it seems like a lot, trust me when I say I only skimmed from the very top of this very deep book. If you would like a challenge of your perspective (or maybe even a verification) I suggest you read Between The World And Me.
It can be heavy at times and a bit much to digest but it’s worth the work to get through it.
Between The World And Me is the kind of philosophical pondering that makes you stare at the depths of the Matrix and wonder, “What if?”BUY BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME