But all our phrasing- race relations, racial chasms, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy- serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.
The first time I cried at a novel, I was fifteen years old and reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
This was, I realize now, the result of a special sort of privileged naiveté. I was a fifteen-year-old white girl in a WASP-y as hell town in southeast Massachusetts, and Beloved was my first real, gut-wrenching exposure to the horrifying assault of black bodies that was slavery and racism in America.
I say privileged naiveté intentionally, because that’s what it was–I went fifteen years without seeing racism as anything other than a concept we learned about in history and reflected on during Black History Month, and as I think back now, I can’t imagine a greater privilege than to soar so easily through life, blissfully unaware of the discrimination and abuse still happening around me. My experiences with inequality were based on gender and sexuality and religion–being the queer Jewish girl who was the face of the queer student alliance gave me some recognition, and not all of it friendly–and these gave me empathy, but not understanding, not truly.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me was not written for me. This book is a deeply personal one, written while race relations (that term again) were–are–tense and unsettling in the United States. A litany of names memorials across the country, and it seems like a new hashtag is born every other day–#iftheygunnedmedown, #ifidieinpolicecustody, #sayhername, and the one that started it all, but still rings on so many empty ears: #blacklivesmatter. Coates frames this story of understanding what it is to live in a black body in America as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, who left the room after hearing the Michael Brown verdict, who waited to see justice done for Trayvon Martin and instead saw his killer walk free, who is growing up in a world with a black president and Beyonce albums and social media empowerment but who still has a target painted on his back for no reason other than the shade of his skin.
I spent a long time sitting with this book, trying to find a way to write about it that felt genuine, that didn’t feel like I was co-opting another person’s story or words. I’ve had Between the World and Me on my shelf for some time and was waiting for the right time to read it, and chose to pick it up as part of my decision to read only books by black authors in February. Because what better time to read this text than during Black History Month, right?
The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But 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 have to make peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold.
As white children, we get the privilege to grow up learning about racism as a construct and a concept, something washed down the drain of America’s less savory past along with slavery and segregation. We get to learn that the police are the safe people we run to if we lose our parents in the grocery store, that anything is possible if we just believe in ourselves, that the world is full of opportunities that just need to be seized. Even now, after years of working to educate myself about intersectional feminism and the multiple, intersecting ways that institutional powers inflict harm on black and brown bodies, I still find myself struggling to step back, to keep from crying out defensively (because #notallwhitepeople, right? except yes, all white people), to instead listen to the words being spoken by the activists around me, those who are sometimes kind enough to let me come to their spaces and listen, and to understand that other times, most times, I am not welcome.
Between the World and Me was not written for me, but I needed to read it. Toni Morrison, of Beloved fame, calls this book “required reading,” and I truly believe that she is right. This book should not be required reading for Black History Month but for all months, all days, all years, by all peoples but by white people–or people who believe themselves to be white, as Coates more accurately phrases it; those of us who are recognized and borne up by systems of whiteness–most especially.
In this book, Coates talks about his childhood, about his college days, his young adulthood, his life as a friend and a partner and a parent and a son. He talks of the fear that he saw in the parents who beat their children, because the beatings would come from them or the police, and better it came from them. He talks of the fear he feels for his own son, who lives in a world of stop and frisk and twelve-year-old boys gunned down by police for playing with toy guns in parks.
This book made me cry in a way that Beloved didn’t, in a way that clawed my soul. The raw emotion in this book doesn’t take away from the urgency of it, but it wraps the message in a sort of emotive beauty that pulls you in from Dear Son to I saw the rain coming down in sheets. This book holds you by the heart and doesn’t let you go, doesn’t let you breathe, because every paragraph deconstructs the world of whiteness and shapes the world through black eyes, takes individual stories and sets them against generalizations and voices. This book is 9/11 and Malcolm X and Black Lives Matter, but it is also a white woman who pushes Coates’s son on an escalator, steps taken onto The Yard at Howard University in D.C., the blood of his friend Prince Jones spilling onto the ground and taking with it all the love that had been poured into his body throughout his life.
When I was fifteen, I read Beloved, and I cried at the idea of racism, but still thought it was over.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this book for his fifteen-year-old son, who saw himself in Michael Brown, in Trayvon Martin, in Tamir Rice.
Required reading, Morrison writes.