Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are indestructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.
This powerful passage is from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World and Me, which has been receiving rave reviews for its plain-spoken words about racism, violence and the black body, specifically those of black males. Mr. Coates, who just won the National Book Award, uses his book to speak to his son Samori about what he will have to face in an America that has raped and pillaged the black body since its inception. Slavery, racism, violence, redlining and other forms of marginalization have been most acute against blacks throughout American history and is still going on today. The most recent murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and others at the hands of the police have made news and opened the eyes of many who thought having a black president meant that racism was over. Those naïve souls watched as Mr. Garner’s life was literally choked out of him and then were unable to grasp how the same cop was able to walk free from that murder. But many in the black community were not surprised at all.
I took the time to read Mr. Coates’ book in a quiet place with absolutely no distractions. I did not want to miss anything and needed to make sure that each word, each syllable was absorbed fully. As I started reading, I was surprised to know that he and I grew up only an hour away from each other, Mr. Coates in Baltimore and me in Silver Spring. Our childhoods were very different, with him growing up in a tough neighborhood and me in the suburbs outside of D.C. I nodded when he talked about the PG County Police Department’s vicious and dangerous reputation for killing blacks at an alarming rate. But I lived in Montgomery County and didn’t have to worry about that back then. Both of us were, and still are, voracious readers and inhaled as many books as possible. But where we were the same—young, black, avid readers and very curious, is also where we were very different. We both took French in school, but where Mr. Coates thought the class was meaningless, I saw myself speaking French while drinking wine in Paris. His resentment of school was not one I shared. I loved school, especially my senior year when I was surrounded by a melting pot of students. I spoke up in class, argued with my English teacher about not reading MacBeth and was friends with the Goths, nerds and kids from other countries. Gunshots were something I never heard, except for the summer my grandfather showed me and my siblings how to shoot a rifle in Georgia.
As I kept reading, the differences between Mr. Coates’ world and mine seemed even more pronounced, which made it hard, at first, for me to relate to his feelings and experiences. I have been very lucky. Although I have seen racism, it has never been to the extreme that many of my friends and relatives have been exposed. I have never had a white person touch my hair (and, honestly, would be livid if they even tried it), nor been called the N word, at least not to my face. I have, however, been met at an interview by a white woman who literally gasped when she saw that I was black (and who also offered me the job on the spot afterwards, which I promptly, and professionally, declined). I have had white men hold doors for white women and then let them close in my face when I approached. Do things like this bother me? Of course they do. But I look at them as the white people who had the problem and not me. In some ways, my upbringing (and possibly a guardian angel) shielded me from the horrors that can occur in a black person’s life. But that has never kept me from knowing that atrocities like Eric Garner’s and Sean Bell’s murders could, and did, exist.
Between the World and Me is, for the most part, a masterpiece because it lays out on each page what many blacks feel, and fear, while living in America. We are still seen as Other no matter what we do. If we are successful, we are hated. If we are poor, we are hated. If we are outspoken, we are hated. If we want better schools, we are hated. If we want to work, we are hated. If we stick together and work to make things better for ourselves, we are hated (as evidenced by the backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement). Because we want to live our lives in peace and enjoy the same rights afforded to whites in abundance, we are hated. Mr. Coates voices these sentiments but also tells his son that all of these things and more may cause him to be robbed of his body. And that, unfortunately, is a sobering and all too real fact.
I strongly urge readers to pick up Mr. Coates’ book and read it. But read it with an open mind and heart. Read it if you want things to get better. Read it to your children. Read it with your children. But please read it.