The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World & Me (2015)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for the The Atlantic, received numerous awards last year for his ground-breaking cover story, “The Case for Reparations.” His much-anticipated Between The World & Me is a 152-page letter to his 15-year old son in the grievous aftermath of the Michael Brown non-indictment.
His son left the room that night and wept. Coates couldn’t bring himself to assuring him that it would all be OK. So he wrote an exposé of the American Dream and how it was, and continues to be, built on the backs of black people. It turns out America isn’t that exceptional after all.
The advice he offers his son refuses both the compliant personal responsibility of “being twice as good” (the Jackie Robinson option) or an all-out freedom to rage against the System (the Michael Brown option). Coates’ route is a hard-nosed triangulation of these two options, soaked in fear, anger, wisdom and nuance. “Each time a police officer engages us,” Coates implores, “death, injury, maiming is possible.” This is simply not something a white father ever has to share with his teenage son.
After surviving the fear-stained streets and schools of West Baltimore, Coates got saved at Howard University, or an aspect of it that he calls The Mecca, described as “the dark spectrum on parade” and “the vastness of black people across space-time.” He learned the old fashioned way: by checking out three books a day at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and taking vigorous notes in his composition notebook. After all, Moorland had it all: “virtually any book ever written by or about black people.” This, no doubt, has deeply influenced both the substance and style of his writing.
He eventually dropped out and moved to New York with the mother of his son who financially supported him while he was “trying to be a writer.” He recounts numbingly watching the destruction of 9/11 from his rooftop with his son. Now, Coates is not only a bonafide writer, but perhaps the writer of the season: of that time in history when mobile phones are virally capturing the violent truth of what black America has known all along.
For Americans who “believe that they are white,” this season is a wake up call, another opportunity to join in the struggle to make “hope and history rhyme,” as Seamus Heaney penned a couple generations ago. The Dream, though, has taught white folks like me, mostly reared in the suburbs, to reject notions of “privilege” and “supremacy,” dismissing these supposed killings as figments of black paranoid, imaginative hysteria.
But now brutalities and fatalities are exponentially exploding all over our home feeds: one after another after another. This all prods those of us who “believe that we are white” to make a commitment to become allies.
Coates’ Between is all Malcolm and no Martin, shunning the church-infused Civil Rights heroics of the 50s and 60s. There’s no room for the divine in his worldview. It is a work void of constructive elements. He mentions “the movement” but doesn’t spell out what it might look like on the ground or how an organized community of struggle might provide hope and nurture along the way.
This autobiography is another reminder of just how much most of us are freelancing: a lonely road that magnetically pulls us towards narcissism, apathy and cynicism. It represents the opposite of a covenantal Beloved Community, the road less taken committed to cultivating a robust prophetic imagination and a rigorous personal inventory. Between is vintage Ta-Nehisi Coates, tilting overwhelmingly towards raw emotion, away from a disciplined path owning and addressing deep personal pain and trauma.
The vital gift of this work, however, is that Coates does not waver with his prophetic assessment of American empire and its (white) Dreamers:
Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more.
He continues a page later:
It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately the Dreamers themselves.
For radical Christian disciples who also happen to be white, Between The World & Me is a rich autobiographical narration of the imperial Dream. It is authentic, adamant and, fortunately, accessible. It is most certainly not written for white folks, but “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” As we are fed and enlightened, we humbly admit that we will never fully understand the black experience, stripped of privilege, saturated in pain.
Between is a sacred devotional for the Journey, to regain our sight on this road to Damascus (via Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and Charleston) as we confess and confront the fact that the Dream we’ve “earned” has been possible only because of the Nightmare inflicted upon black bodies. Silence is compliance is violence. At the end of the day, we are either activists or inactivists.
Ultimately, this impressive work is a timely and terse reminder that to be both radical disciples and white in 21st century USAmerica means that we must never stop repenting and resisting the ever-present white supremacy that crowds our consciousness and scaffolds our socio-economics.