Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Reading Ta-Neishi Coates's "Between the World and Me" as a Privileged Middle-Class White Woman #SOL15

The Slice of life story challenge happens each Tuesday thanks to the generosity of the team at Two Writing Teachers. For more slices from this week, click here. 

The day Harper Lee's much anticipated, poorly edited Go Set a Watchman landed in readers' hands, a much more important book also hit the shelves: Between the World and Me by Ta-Neishi Coates. 

Public response to Between the World and Me has been overwhelmingly positive. Rather than review the book per se, I've thought about the book as a member of the white privileged class. Coates has written the book as a letter to his 15 year old son. The epistle structure personalizes the argument so that readers soon sense that they, regardless of race or gender, are glimpsing into something very personal and private. There is nothing pedantic about Coates's approach. He's telling his son a story laced with truths about life as a black male living among the white privileged class. 

Writing that phrase white privileged class I realize is itself a potentially polarizing phrase. White folks don't like to think of ourselves as privileged, as having opportunities minorities don't have simply because our skin is white. Myself included--especially because I grew up poor. Isn't economic class, after all, a more important criterion for determining success? Coates would answer "no," and I tend to agree. 

Simply, all that we have in this country we owe to the enslavement of black people for over 250 years. We don't acknowledge this. The recent debate about the Confederate flag's place in the history of historical artifacts has not only opened unhealed wounds, but it also magnified the false narrative that the Confederate states battled for states' rights. Here's Coates on the topic: 

Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains--whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.


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 claim our present circumstance--no matter how improved--as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.

Think about that for a moment. My story, the country's story, is inextricably intertwined with this narrative of enslavement. What would the country have been like without slavery? What would not have been developed? What literature would not have been written? 

I remember thinking about how the North benefited economically from slavery when I read Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time. It's an important point Stowe makes. Another point about which Stowe raised my consciousness is the systematic destruction of families we owe to slavery. 

Coates refers to the "ownership" of "our own bodies." To his son, and by extension to white readers, Coates says: 

You are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful--the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you--the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know....You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.

As a middle-class white woman, I know that when I'm stopped for a minor traffic infraction, my body is safe. I've never been dragged from the car, pushed to the ground, handcuffed, and carted off to jail. How often does the narrative turn to attempts to justify the death of a black person at the hands of police? I don't live with the fear that those hired to protect and serve me will take my body. Nor do white mothers typically need to explain this to their children as part of the rites of passage talks. 

Indeed, it's the way Coates writes about owning one's own body instead of losing one's life or dying that I find rhetorically compelling. It's as though he's saying that even though slavery ended over 150 years ago, black people still don't own their bodies the way white people own theirs. 

To illustrate his point, Coates spends considerable ink recounting the story of Prince Jones who was killed by a police officer, and Prince was an economically privileged college student whose mother is a respected physician. Still, Prince's body was stolen from him. 

I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth...The truth is that the police reflect America in all its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country's criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.

Indeed, the training police officers receive is increasingly grounded in the idea that a suspect is inherently dangerous, that the life of the officer is more important than the oath to protect and to serve. 

Coates acknowledges that the black male experience of having lost ownership over "our own bodies" isn't unique to black people. Blacks owned slaves in the Sahara; the Irish experienced losing their bodies, etc. Yet this does not diminish the impact of his argument. 

I've thought often about what it must be like to be born into a world that espouses a dream built on the ownership of my people's bodies. This is the legacy of being a black person in America. Coates speaks about "the dream" as being that of racial privilege. He does take a critical look at education, and as a teacher, it's hard to swallow but necessary to consider. 

We tell stories. They express who we are and what we believe. America is a nation of storytellers, but the winners, the privileged, the powerful determine whose stories get the widest audience: 

A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself, and in America, these precipitating chapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals.

One may not be a racist cut from the Confederate flag waving apologist cloth, but we benefit from social structures grounded and constructed in a narrative that denies our privilege. Coates tells us that "it is traditional to destroy the black body--it is heritage." But heritage isn't necessarily something good or positive to be coddled and protected.

When the story told dehumanizes and denies the subplots of exploitation and of body ownership, when the dream is one given birth by the nightmare of slavery and the snatching of bodies, we must acknowledge that our freedom, our successes we owe in large part to the forced sacrifices of black people for over 250 years.

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 vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. The 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. 

At the end of the letter, Coates challenges his son to struggle. Struggle to remember the narrative of his black heritage. Struggle to live within the systemic structures of white privilege. Struggle for wisdom and knowledge. 

We must also struggle, advises Coates. Struggle to understand that the dream on which we stage our lives threatens our world in ways we must acknowledge and fix. 

There is a vast gulf between the world in which a black person is born and the one in which white people are born, and this has nothing to do with economic class and everything to do with the story that fills the gulf. That's my reading of Between the World and Me, and as a middle class privileged white woman speaking between you and me, I now understand that in ways I didn't before peeking into Ta-Neishi Coates's letter to his son. 

*Watch an excellent interview with Ta-Neishi Coates on Democracy Now. In the interview, he shares a reading from the book.

Update: Minor editing to fix surface errors at 800 p.m. MST.


  1. Thank you for writing your thoughts about this book. You've made me realize even more how much I need to read this book.

    1. It's a very important book, perhaps more important for white people to read than for black people. It's the most powerful book about race I recall reading.

  2. This is such an important book, especially now. I heard him interviewed on Fresh Air and was so moved by what he had to share.

  3. This is such an important book, especially now. I heard him interviewed on Fresh Air and was so moved by what he had to share.

  4. I'm reading it now. I'm reading it slowly and working on taking it all in. I have no words...I appreciate your thoughts about this important book. Thank you!