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<anon I1="BLANK" I2="BLANK">I. . . . we sprawl in gray chains in a place full of winters when what we want is the sun Amira Baraka, "Ka Ba" Son, Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week. The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America's progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history. There is nothing extreme in this statement. Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. But democracy is a forgiving God and America's heresies--torture, theft, enslavement--are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune. In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth," he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant "government of the people" but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term "people" to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America's problem is not its betrayal of "government of the people," but the means by which "the people" acquired their names. This leads us to another equally important ideal, one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim. Americans believe in the reality of "race" as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism--the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them--inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men. 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 this new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white. These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white--Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish--and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I cannot call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies. The new people are not original in this. Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names. But you and I have never truly had that luxury. I think you know. I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone's grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible. There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing--race relations, racial chasm, 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. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body. That Sunday, with that host, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about "hope." And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you. That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, "I've got to go," and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn't hug you, and I didn't comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself. This must seem strange to you. We live in a "goal-oriented" era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live--specifically, how do I live free in this black body? It is a profound question because America understands itself as God's handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men. I have asked the question through my reading and writings, through the music of my youth, through arguments with your grandfather, with your mother, your aunt Janai, your uncle Ben. I have searched for answers in nationalist myth, in classrooms, out on the streets, and on other continents. The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment. And I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such. It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world. They would stand on the corner of Gwynn Oak and Liberty, or Cold Spring and Park Heights, or outside Mondawmin Mall, with their hands dipped in Russell sweats. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered 'round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T‑shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a catalog of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired. I saw it in their customs of war. I was no older than five, sitting out on the front steps of my home on Woodbrook Avenue, watching two shirtless boys circle each other close and buck shoulders. From then on, I knew that there was a ritual to a street fight, bylaws and codes that, in their very need, attested to all the vulnerability of the black teenage bodies. I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew, the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies. I saw it in the girls, in their loud laughter, in their gilded bamboo earrings that announced their names thrice over. And I saw it in their brutal language and hard gaze, how they would cut you with their eyes and destroy you with their words for the sin of playing too much. "Keep my name out your mouth," they would say. I would watch them after school, how they squared off like boxers, vaselined up, earrings off, Reeboks on, and leaped at each other. Excerpted from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.</anon>
Reviews provided by Syndetics
Kirkus Book Review
The powerful story of a father's past and a son's future. Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son's life. "I am wounded," he writes. "I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next." Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. "I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked," he remembers, "but powerfully afraid." His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, "had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people." He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand "that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white." Coates refers repeatedly to whites' insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now "that nothing so essentialist as race" divides people, but rather "the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do." After he married, the author's world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America's exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that "race" does not fully explain "the breach between the world and me," yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by "majoritarian bandits." Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live "apart from feareven apart from me." This moving, potent testament might have been titled "Black Lives Matter." Or: "An American Tragedy." Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
New York Times Book Review
FOR THE PAST several years, I've greeted Ta-Nehisi Coates's essays and blog posts for The Atlantic with nothing short of gratitude. As an African-American, he makes me proud. There is no other way to put it. I do not always agree with him, but it hardly matters. In a media world populated with pundits, so-called experts and public intellectuals driven by ego and familiar agendas, Coates's voice stands nearly alone - a black man raised in the streets of Baltimore who narrowly escaped the violence that lurked around every corner and dodged the clutches of the prisons and jails that were built for him, and who now speaks unpopular, unconventional and sometimes even radical truths in his own voice, unfiltered. He is invariably humble, yet subtly defiant. And people listen. So when I heard that Coates had been inspired, after rereading James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time," to write his own version for the current era, I was overjoyed. As a civil rights lawyer, activist, legal scholar and mother of three black children, I could not wait to read what Coates had to say to black young people at this moment in our history, a time when many are struggling to make sense of how frequently black lives can be destroyed legally through incessant police violence and mass incarceration. I imagined that Coates's new book would make plain for young people what is truly at stake in the struggle and disabuse them of the prevailing myths that breed complacency, defeatism or inaction. That was what "The Fire Next Time" did for me many years ago (and still does, every time I return to it). I had to read "Between the World and Me" twice before I was able to decide whether Coates actually did what I expected and hoped he would. He did not. Maybe that's a good thing. "The Fire Next Time" was first published in 1963, a time when the prevailing racial order was being challenged by young activists on a scale and with a fervor not seen since the Civil War. The first several pages of the book are styled in the form of a letter to Baldwin's 15-year-old nephew, offering advice about how to navigate the world he has been born into with black skin. Baldwin implores his nephew to awaken to his own dignity, humanity and power, and accept his responsibility to help "make America what it must become." "Between the World and Me" carries a very different message, though it is also written in the form of a letter to a black teenage boy. The boy is Coates's 15-year-old son, who - like Baldwin's nephew - is trying to make sense of blatant racial injustice and come to grips with his place in a world that refuses to guarantee for him the freedoms that so many others take for granted. "I write you in your 15th year," Coates states in the early pages. "And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.... I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself." One of the great virtues of both books is that they are not addressed to white people. The usual hedging and filtering and softening and overall distortion that seems to happen automatically - even unconsciously - when black people attempt to speak about race to white people in public is absent. But here we reach a fork in the road. Baldwin, in writing to his nephew, does not deny the pain and horror of American notions of justice - far from it - but he repeatedly emphasizes the young man's power and potential and urges him to believe that revolutionary change is possible against all odds, because we, as black people, continue to defy the odds and defeat the expectations of those who seek to control and exploit us. Coates's letter to his son seems to be written on the opposite side of the same coin. Rather than urging his son to awaken to his own power, Coates emphasizes over and over the apparent permanence of racial injustice in America, the foolishness of believing that one person can make a change, and the dangers of believing in the American Dream. "Historians conjured the Dream," Coates writes. "Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories"; Dreamers are the ones who continue to believe the lie, at black people's expense. In what will almost certainly be the most widely quoted passage, Coates tells his son: "Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body - it is heritage." Little hope is offered that freedom or equality will ever be a reality for black people in America. "We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own." If his son held out any hope that the emerging racial justice movement on the streets of Ferguson, New York City or Baltimore or beyond might change hearts and minds, Coates seems determined to quash it. "Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: To awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white ... has done to the world. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness." Still, Coates urges his son to struggle. "Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom.... But do not struggle for the Dreamers.... Do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves." He says this even as he notes that the Dreamers are actively building the deathbed for us all. Technology has freed the Dreamers "to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself." I will confess that after the first reading of "Between the World and Me" I was disappointed. Initially I was enthralled by Coates's characteristic brilliance and insight, as well as the poetic manner in which he addresses his son. I found myself highlighting so much of the text it seemed the whole book was gleaming yellow. But by the end, I was exasperated. Under what conditions could Coates possibly imagine that the Dreamers would wake themselves up or learn to struggle for themselves? When in the history of the world have the privileged and powerful voluntarily relinquished their status or abandoned the tactics that secured their advantage, without being challenged, fought, confronted or inspired to do so by some remarkable example? As Frederick Douglass observed long ago, "Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will." On the second reading, my frustration diminished. I came to believe that the problem, to the extent there is one, is that Coates's book is unfinished. He raises numerous critically important questions that are left unanswered. The biggest question for Coates is rooted in the hidden connection between the American Dream as lived in the suburbs and the violence that ruled his daily life growing up in Baltimore. "Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets. But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day. And I was such a curious boy." As Coates grew older, attending high school and later Howard University - his personal "Mecca" - the questions sharpened and evolved. When a college friend, Prince Jones, was shot to death by a member of the Prince George's County Police Department, Coates was overcome with a rage that radicalized him, and new questions flowed. The political apparatus that conspired to deprive Jones of his life was run by black people, a fact he struggled to understand. "The officer who killed Prince Jones was black. The politicians who empowered this officer to kill were black. Many of the black politicians, many of them twice as good, seemed unconcerned. How could this be?" Reading the book the first time, I imagined that Coates would eventually answer these important questions for his son. He would spell it out - make it plain - the way he does so well in his essays, arti- cles and blog posts. He would carefully define the Dream and delineate the difference between the nearly universal dream that parents have for their children - the dream of good heath, security, quality education and the opportunity to fulfill their potential and make a meaningful contribution - and the insidious Dream that is destroying the lives of children in Baltimore and threatening human existence on the planet itself. I imagined that Coates would explain what it means, exactly, to choose the Struggle over the Dream, and why so many black people, like those in Prince George's County, find themselves lost in the Dream. READING THE BOOK the second time, I held no expectation that the big questions would be answered. I knew they wouldn't be. It seemed that Coates was doing for his son what his own father had done for him: demand that he wrestle with the questions himself. The second time around I could see that maybe, just maybe, this is what is most needed right now - a book that offers no answers but instead challenges us to wrestle with the questions on our own. Maybe this is the time for questioning, searching and struggling without really believing the struggle can be won. And yet I cannot pretend to be entirely satisfied. Like Baldwin, I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral; we must believe it is possible. Believing in this possibility - no matter how slim - and dedicating oneself to playing a meaningful role in the struggle to make it a reality focuses one's energy and attention in an unusual way. Those who believe we are likely or destined to fail - because the Dreamers hold all the power and our liberation is up to them - can easily tell themselves they are "in the struggle" when they show up at a rally with a sign, or go on Twitter or Facebook to rant about the police, then do no more. When meaningful change fails to come, they can say, "We tried, but of course nothing happened." But those who are in it to win it, and who believe in their own power and understand their responsibility to use it wisely, cannot so easily lie to themselves about the utility of random or halfhearted gestures of resistance, rebellion, organizing or consciousness-raising. Greater precision of thought and action is required. Coates clearly knows the importance of avoiding vagueness or generalization about critical aspects of black experience. In one of the most moving passages of the book he reminds his son: "Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own; whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods...." He goes on to describe, in stunningly sensitive detail, what slavery means for this particular woman born in a country that celebrates freedom and yet will whip her, rape her and sell her children from an auction block. He admonishes his son that he "must struggle to remember this past in all its nuance, error and humanity." Over the years, Coates has repeatedly taken President Obama to task for speaking in the most general terms about what is needed to remedy what ails ghettoized communities, while speaking with great specificity about the alleged moral failures of black people. It seems highly unlikely, in view of all this, that Coates does not appreciate what is lost by failing to describe the Dream with particularity and by declining to offer guidance to his son about what it means, exactly, to embrace the Struggle at this moment in time. Surely the Struggle must mean more than questioning reality at every turn, if there is any hope of breaking once and for all the history and cycle of racial oppression in America. Perhaps Coates hasn't yet discovered for himself the answers to the questions he poses in "Between the World and Me." But I suspect that he is holding out on us. Everything he has ever written leads me to believe he has more to say. He may imagine that we are better off figuring out for ourselves the true nature of the Dream and what it means to be engaged in meaningful Struggle. But I believe we could only benefit from hearing what answers Coates may have fashioned for himself. Whether you agree or disagree, one of the great joys of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is being challenged in ways you didn't expect or imagine. MICHELLE ALEXANDER is the author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."