“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Decades ago, for a short period of time, I dated an African-American girl named Terry who lived in a part of Los Angeles where white guys were not often seen. I always thought she was cute. Then she was treated for Leukemia with chemo and she lost her hair. Interestingly, after that I thought she was really cute. Maybe I had an Annie Lennox fetish or something. Who knows. But, enough with introductory babbling, here’s my point…
More than once, as I was getting into or out of my car – or walking down the street – someone would honk at me. I always wondered if I knew anyone else in town.
One day, as I was walking down the street with Terry, I asked her if she knew the people who were honking – or if she knew why they were honking.
She said: “Are you sure you want to know?”
I said: “Of course, why wouldn’t I?”
She said: “Those guys are honking at you because you are white – You’re a HONKY”.
I have always been proud of myself for my willingness to walk around a neighborhood where I really did not belong. But, I have to admit, I probably wasn’t very bright. The point is that I knew far less about LA African-American culture than I thought.
This brings me to my primary point. I thought I understood a culture of which I knew very little. I thought that my Jewish culture, also being one that had to deal with a history of racism through many centuries, made my culture similar to theirs. I thought I understood their culture. I understood nothing.
If you have a read my writing over the past few years then you realize that I believe myself to be one of the least racist, most culturally embracing, people around. In fact, I believe that I am often most critical of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the people who think they are white”. I generally like people of color more than those who “think they are white”. Yet, be that as it may, I have come to realize that I still know very little.
Enter Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Mr. Coates newest book “Between the World and Me” has blown my mind. I still know that I don’t understand African-American culture. But I also know that its cultural uniqueness really is (still) rooted in its history of slavery and discrimination. Gang culture, gun culture, fear of law enforcement officers, crack addiction, and a very deep sense of familial love are part of a culture rooted in constant threats to the ownership of ones own body.
Here are a few sentences that blew me away:
“Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.”
“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.”
“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.”
“So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”
“At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies—cotton—was America’s primary export.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates is not a religious man. He is not a Muslim or a Christian. He is a pragmatist. Coates views his body, his physical existence, as an end in and of itself. This allows him to to speak to us, through letters to his son, of a need to both take responsibility and to hold our government accountable for 2 centuries of treating African-American men and women as less human than their white-wannabe counterparts.
This is not just some excuse; it’s not something to be set aside as “changed long ago”. Just like my Jewish identity has roots in Egypt and I honor those roots beginning on Erev Passover tomorrow night, their African identity has roots in the slave trade and they have every right to say “no!” to setting those roots aside.
So, here’s the deal: Before reading this book I would not have agreed that the injustice of American slavery is still alive today. Now I do. I do because from Ta-Nhisi Coates I have learned the same thing I learned from wandering around the wrong ‘hood in Los Angeles nearly 4 decades ago. When it comes to the deeply rooted injustices that form the African-American cultural mind….
I knew nothing.
This is a book that we who are white, or who “think we are white”, simply must read.
“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me