Between the World and Me - 2015 Reading Challenge
I've gotten really into podcasts lately, including This American Life, a long-standing radio show with more than 500 episodes. I recently listened to an episode about status changes, and one of the producers talked about his friendship with the suddenly famous author, Ta-Nehisi Coates. I hadn't heard of him before, which I will blame on the fact that I'm not living in America right now, so my knowledge of new books is largely limited to Australian fiction and non-fiction.
When I heard the description of Between the World and Me, I knew I had to read it. It was one of those times where you just have to have the book -- right now. So I walked down to the closest bookshop on my lunch break at work and bought this surprisingly thin memoir that has caused such an incredible stir, particularly in the USA, but also internationally.
First, let me say that I'm slightly cheating on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist, because at least so far, this book hasn't won the Pulitzer. It has, however, won the National Book Award, which I think is a big enough prize to warrant the switch out on categories.
As my regular readers will know, I'm currently writing a novel set in Texas dealing with wrongful imprisonment, the broken justice system, and death row. It's impossible to write a book like that set in a place like Texas without talking about race. As a light-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed American who doesn't really know too much about her ancestry other than the fact that it's European, you can imagine that writing about the trials and everyday difficulties of being a person of color is challenging and a little scary.
But, considering my first novel takes place through the eyes of a 17-year-old boy and a 70-year-old man, I'm not one to back away from a challenge.
I knew I needed to read Between the World and Me because I have had so many doubts about how to respond to all of the violence and police brutality against black people that has become so commonplace in the news that we hardly even talk about it anymore. With all of the horrific things that happen in our world every day, along with our constant exposure to ALL OF IT through the wonders of social media and the internet, it's becoming more and more difficult to truly care when bad things like this happen.
But I don't want to stop caring.
Ta-Nehisi Coates' beautiful, lyrical memoir -- a letter to his 15-year-old son, in fact -- is easily my favorite read of the year. I folded down the corners of so many pages that almost half the book is bookmarked. Coates has a way with language that is visceral, poetic, and best of all -- memorable. He speaks to his son with compassion, raw honesty, and all the fear that goes along with being a parent to a black child -- fear that is completely foreign to someone like me.
All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.
If I could, I would use all 800 words of this review just to quote this book. I don't think I can quite explain how important I think it is for every person to read, every person in the world that is by no means post-racial like so many still somehow think. Coates writes with empathy and quietly simmering rage. He holds nothing back, describing the atrocities committed against the "black body", and also going into careful detail about the historical need for people of my skin color's need to believe they are white, when really, we all come from the same ancestry thousands of years ago.
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming "the people" has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible -- this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.
All I can say is this: I thought I knew something about race and race relations in the United States before I read this book. I know now, having read it, a little bit more -- and I know that before I read it, I knew very little, if anything at all.
Coates refrains from spitting on white people or blaming all his problems on them. He does not teach his son to hate "the people who believe they are white." He simply lays out the facts of his life, the markers throughout his past that have made him who he is, and pours all his love and hopes and fears for his son into 150 pages of gorgeous prose. It's a book unlike any other I've read before, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Feature image credit: Dorret / Flickr / 2015