Between the World and Me

I've finished Book 1 from the summer reading list, and as soon as I finished it, I realized that I need to read it over again. It's dense. It's intense. It's elegant. It's difficult. It's convicting. It's eye-opening. I feel like I was only really able to digest about a fourth of it during my first read. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes the book as a letter to his son. In the beginning of the book, he talks a lot about his experience growing up in West Baltimore and how he learned the laws of the streets. I think this part of the book stood out to me the most, as it reminded me of so many of the young boys I've taught over the past two years. 

Coates says, “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. No one survives unscathed. And yet the heat that springs from the constant danger, from a life-style of near-death experience, is thrilling. This is what rappers mean when they pronounce themselves addicted to “the streets.” or in love with “the game....” The crews walked through the blocks of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power.”

I have seen this attitude in many of my students. And I wish I had read this book sooner. Not to give my students excuses, not to condone their behavior, but to understand where it may be coming from. To understand them, their experiences, their lives, in a way I feel I did not while I was there. 

I dare you to read this book and still believe that police brutality does not exist, that it is not racially driven. Coates says,

“The police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority...resent the people trying to entrap your body...turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable.”

And sadly, he is right. We have seen too many black men killed on the streets of America and too many police officers not facing consequences. Coates shares the story of Prince Jones, a friend of his from his days at Howard University, who was killed by police, and how the police officer who killed him was allowed to go back to work. There was no justice for Prince Jones. For Michael Brown. For Tamir Rice. 

I think the most raw part of this book, is how Ta-Nehisi Coates continues to refer to black bodies. Everything is about preserving their bodies, protecting their bodies. As I read, every time Coates mentioned "bodies," I felt the gravity of his experiences. It wasn't just his life. It was his body, the physicality of his experience here on Earth. He speaks of racism as a visceral experience. As a white woman, I can talk about race and theorize about race, but I can do all of this from the comfort of my suburban home within "The Dream." I will never experience the raw emotion of racism. Those actions of racism will never be committed against me. I do not live in constant fear of my body being destroyed or taken from me by the police, by peers, by anyone based on my race. 

And that, friends, is privilege. To be able to speak of race and not experience to race. To have grown up in the safe suburbs instead of in the ghetto of a city. To know that I would have a way out. To be relatively certain that I will live to be 20, 30, 40, 50. 

Read this book. Read it again. Examine yourself as you read. Coates does not tread lightly through the issues that plague our country. He is unapologetically fierce in his discussions. And this is exactly what we need.