When my oldest daughter was a teenager, she kept a diary. On several occasions, she left her diary in a place – where if I had chosen – I could have opened and read it. I was often tempted. Curious how she was navigating the world, what she was thinking and how she was coping, I tried to justify violating her privacy. Fortunately, I never opened her diary.
I say “fortunately” because, in reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between The World And Me, I realized the darker side of encountering someone’s inner thoughts and struggles. We may not like what we read. They may reveal less about themselves and more about us. Seeing ourselves through the eyes of another is almost always surprising and sometimes shattering. This was my experience in reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerfully written letter from a black father to a black son.
White people are not the intended audience of this book. That, in itself, makes it a rare read. In a nation built around white privilege, white people can nearly always expect to be included, if not the focus, in most writings. As a conversation between him and his son, Coates does not concern himself with the fragile sensibilities of white readers. He does not tone down his rhetoric so white people can hear and understand his opinions.
Coates is not concerned about white people at all, except as a danger to his son’s body. He writes, “I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I am unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.” Indeed, if there is one overriding emotion in this book, it is his justified fear of white people.
Like picking up a diary, much of what I read in this book was both surprising and expected. For the white reader, it both shatters our illusions and confirms our suspicions. What Coates writes, though painful to read, rings true again and again. People of color do not see white people as we see ourselves. More importantly, when we see ourselves through their eyes, what we see is often quite different than our imaginations. We are much uglier and crueler than we’d like to believe.
For this reason, Between the World and Me is not an easy read for white people. I read it in short snippets, putting it down when I read something disturbing about myself. And yet I tried not to become angry. I was the one eavesdropping. Whatever I heard in Coates’ words to his son could not be easily ignored. Like reading someone’s diary, you know the words to be authentic even when you wish them to be untrue. You can throw the book to the ground, rail at its author, dispute its claims about you and your motives, but you cannot ignore the reality that someone does not see you as you wish to be.
Coates challenges more than our individual illusions, he questions our national perceptions and the ways in which we see the American dream. Indeed, he argues this dream has largely been reserved for white people alone, that ignoring this history makes the offer of the dream to people of color ironic at best. He writes of white justifications, “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.” Coates explains to his son, and tangentially to white people, that there have always been competing American dreams; a white dream of power and domination and a black dream of justice and equality.
In describing the world his son must live in, Coates cannot afford to risk his son’s life with banalities and idealisms. These are the luxuries of white privilege. He speaks at length about Prince Jones, a young man with whom he studied at Howard University and whose life was snuffed out by a police shooting. This is no Horatio Alger tale where anyone can lift themselves from their bootstraps and achieve the American dream. Instead, it is a vivid reminder that people of color can play by all the rules, obtain all the symbols of affluence, achieve educational and professional success and be at the cusp of a vibrant life, but have all of that robbed from them in a moment, simply because the system needs to periodically demonstrate its power. This is the story his son must understand.
Coates writes, “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. 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. 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.”
It was paragraphs like the one above that often forced me to lay down the book, to mourn with Coates and his son, to acknowledge how differently they must live in this world we share. Again and again, he told his son things I wanted to deny or diminish, but I could not. For I understand his fear more than most white people. His words are the warnings I must pass on to my black daughter, painful though they will be. Indeed, those conversations between her and I may be more painful than that of Coates and his son. At least, he was able to stand in solidarity with his son, facing the dangers and risks together. When I talk with my daughter, I will be one of the people she must fear.
I’m not certain I can recommend Between The World and Me to my white friends and family. Without the reality of having a black daughter, I wonder how I would have heard his words. Would I have dismissed him as an angry black man? Would I have given credence to his fears and anxieties? Would I have felt the need to defend myself and my whiteness? I worry white people don’t know how to read a book that isn’t written for them. This is the most discouraging aspect of what Coates writes. If white people cannot read a book without themselves as the center, what hope is there of creating a world where they are not?
I will try to believe what Coates writes, “You must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.” If a black father can persevere in the midst of such ambiguity, the least I can do is join him.