Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A Book Review by Terri White
BACKGROUND OF SLAVERY:
From my research years ago, I discovered that historically, slavery was a booty of war. It had nothing to do with one’s skin color. However, after the Industrial Revolution, wealthy businessmen created slavery based on one’s skin color and began calling themselves “white”, and Africans “colored”, denigrating them to the shackles of slavery to be bought, sold, raped, and beaten. All this to advance themselves economically, politically, and socially – on the backs of Africans.
This new view of personhood remains today as we still identify ourselves by these false labels. Government, school, and business forms continue to include racial identification. Affirmative action is solely based on one’s skin color.
I forced myself to finish this book because I want to understand how people think. Coates, raised in the 80s and 90s, highlights his mental processing of the plight of black people in the U.S.A. He’s angry. However, to his credit, his anger fueled his journey to understand, and eventually, his search softened him - somewhat.
To grow up in the horrors of an inner city black ghetto is perhaps the worst of the worst – the prevailing fear that seeps in all the cracks and soaks into one’s very psyche. Perhaps it’s even genetic. The home provides no sanctuary either, for fear rules there as well. There is no safe place.
No safe place even if you were raised in a gated community, traveled to Europe, and attended private schools. You could be stopped and brutally murdered for no reason. No justice. An innocent, young black man named Prince Jones, raised in a wealthy family, experienced just this in the 90s, and that injustice continues to dog Coates to this day. So this underlying fear is the profound theme in his book.
Why? Because Coates grew up in one of the most brutal inner city ghettos in the country – Baltimore. In the 80s and 90s. It shaped his whole outlook, causing him to frame all those who “think themselves white” into one clump. No one escapes his anger. To him, we are all guilty. Even if my ancestors arrived post-Civil War and settled in rural Minnesota, I am guilty. To the end of his book, I am still guilty.
Although he raised his son in a gentler time and in ethnically diverse NYC, Coates fears for him. He fears for all blacks in our nation. In fact, he concludes that “those who think themselves white” are self-destructing because their whole American Dream is based on a lie – slavery. That their entire lifestyle is founded on the backs of black slaves.
I find his conclusion too sweeping, too general. Nevertheless, he is conditioned by his upbringing in the Baltimore ghettos during a brutal era. He still looks behind his back, still believes that every white person has it in for him, and still believes all of our society is set against him. Is it a victim mentality or just a base fear from his upbringing? Either way, it’s conditioning.
How can I fault Coates even if I can’t relate? I was raised in a safe, loving environment. I’ve never looked behind my back. I’ve never worried if someone was out to get me because of my color. We are all conditioned.
What launches us beyond our upbringing, though, is whether we ask the right questions. Whether we venture beyond our family upbringing. Only then can we find the real answers to our societal dilemma – whether it’s those “who think themselves white” or those who do not. Will we let our safe or fearful childhoods influence our quest to find answers? Will we sequester ourselves in our little pockets of society and never venture out?
Surely Coates can only speak for himself. Millions of blacks have experienced a myriad of experiences in the U.S.A. If you ask any black person on the street regarding their views about living in our nation and in their communities, you will receive as many different experiences. Not all angry. Not all hopeful. Not all fearful. Not all satisfied. Not all unhappy. It all depends on one’s upbringing and the community in which one is raised. No one black person can speak for all. That is obvious by the many opinions in every sector of life.
In the end, Coates offers no solutions and certainly no hope to his son, which I find tragic. Because without hope, we have no future. But Coates, still in his 40s, is young yet. There are many more thought-miles to travel, many more conversations to share, many more books to read. Hopefully, before he reaches my age (72), he will be carrying a torch of hope. So here’s to hope, that transformative beacon available to all humans.