Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a powerful and passionate book. As a white person in America, it was at times difficult for me to read. I found myself whispering I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry over and over. How do we make things different? What can I do? And at other times, reading the words of a black man talking about how white society does whatever it can to control his body and lets him know regularly that his body is not his own, I thought, yes, I understand from my place as a woman in a patriarchal society what it means for the culture and the law to always be trying to control your body. The control comes in different forms, but I too know what it’s like to walk down the street and be afraid. And so Coates’s book had the curious effect of making me feel guilt and sympathy and anger in repeated waves of various intensities.
Between the World and Me is a “letter” Coates wrote to his fifteen-year-old son. It is inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time, a book about what it means to be black in America. Certainly a great deal has changed since 1963 but so much remains stubbornly the same. I got the impression at times that Coates felt like nothing would ever change, that we will never see an end to racism, while at other times, especially when he was reflecting on his son’s life and experiences and how they have been different from his own, Coates seemed hopeful in a clear-eyed there is still much work and struggling ahead sort of way.
In thinking about the book and how I should read it and understand it, the best approach was to just listen. Don’t try to say, it’s not like that; don’t even think about suggesting things aren’t that bad. Don’t argue or judge or dismiss. Don’t compare my experience of oppression with his in order to determine who is worse off. Don’t go to an insensitive place and think, I have a black friend so I can’t possibly be racist. Don’t get defensive and definitely don’t try and claim I am not part of the system.
It is not always easy to listen, to refrain from Yes, but… I think I managed pretty well. Being open to Coates’s experience was unsettling at times. I caught myself thinking at one point when he was talking about slavery that my ancestors came to America after the Civil War, none of them owned slaves, my family had no part in it and can’t be blamed. But that is beside the point, isn’t it? While my ancestors may have had nothing to do with slavery they certainly reaped the benefits of a country made wealthy by the work of slaves. And they were definitely not immune from participating in casual and thoughtless racism.
It is hard to shut up and listen and not try to exonerate oneself, to think other people are like that but not me. When you grow up and live in a racist society, especially when you grow up and live with the privileges that come from white skin, you are not free from prejudice, I am not free from prejudice. And it hurts, I don’t want to be a “bad” person. And that is good. Because that is the only way we can move as individuals, as a culture, as a country, through prejudice to a society that is as free and equal as it imagines itself to be.