Published by Spiegel & Grau, 2015
A little over a week ago, to the incredulity – now labelled arrogant – of the liberal media, and in opposition to the will of over half of the nation’s citizenry, one of the most dangerously careless and flagrantly self-interested individuals known to the 21st century was elected into the highest office of the United States of America. This blusterer of bigotry; this alt right champion; this pussy-grabbing white nationalist dreamchild – soon to be hailed *chokes* President Donald Trump – is predicted to plunge the nation into a four year chasm where hate-speech is permissible, assault is a bragging-point, power collects ever more about privilege, and the ugly breach between white and non-white America grows even more vast. Fear of what the new Presidency will mean is flooding the nation like its own natural disaster.
Reading Ta-Nehisi Coate’s Between the World and Me, it is as though the book has accrued new, unasked-for weight since it was published just over a year ago. Using a epistolary device inspired by and invoking James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time (anointed by Toni Morrison as apt, and criticised by others as temerous), Coates addresses the work not to a generalised white readership (which as an Atlantic reporter, he is accustomed) but to his son, then 15 years old. The Dream, he tells him, is both seeded into the bedrock of American consciousness, and inherently corrupt. It is the glorified myth – uncoupled from justice, and the opposite of ‘innocence’ – which both enables and depends upon the enslavement, rape, and plunder of the black body by those who “believe they are white”. Here, he rightfully calls out race as an invented category. But since America has bought into the lie (and ‘bought’ here is not used offhandedly, given how lucrative slavery was as a system), racism remains a visceral, ever-present, ineluctable reality. This was true for his own life, growing up in the streets of Baltimore, where fear was the naturalised medium in which all movements were constrained. This was true for Prince Jones – a Howard College friend, who did everything an American Dreamer should but was still pillaged, and the officer who killed him returned to the streets. And this will be true in his son’s life, states Coates, yet to unfold.
Again and again, Coates returns to the black body as the site upon which all forms of suffering are ultimately enacted and felt, and which is key to comprehending the ‘logic’ of white supremacy. Suffering, he reminds us, must not be abstracted. In one of the most moving passages of the book, he commands his son never to forget the particularity of black people’s history.
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 (69).
Following this comes a second, equally crucial injunction: never to accept the ‘redemption’ narrative and its presumptive march towards freedom. “The enslaved were not bricks in your road… They were people turned to fuel for the American machine,” he writes. “Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance – no matter how improved – as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children” (70).
Everything in the moil of history and future is, in other words, extremely precarious. And for the historically oppressed, “the dice is loaded”. Candidly, he admits to his son (and by deliberate incidentalism, us) that his words do not contain any message that would be described “uplifting”. There is no dismantling of the Dream, and there is no reconciling it with black lives. Instead, there is only struggle – and the sharper, richer relationship with reality Coates believes its bequeaths. “Struggle is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of the world under your control,” he writes. It is a searing honesty of opinion, enfolded in a father’s urgent love. Quietly, defiantly, unyoked from any outside social agenda or hope-propelled tradition of African American literature, his novel has been considered by some almost radical.
Though his flowing, poetic, erudite tenor was praised across the board, upon Between the World‘s release more than one reviewer was taken aback. The grimness of Coates’ vision – his insistence on the permanence of injustice, on the impossibility of overcoming, on the frailty of the individual black life against the ‘heritage’ of white America’s entitlement to black bodies – was felt to be not only disappointing, but disquieting. How could he renege on hope, and at such a crucial time? Is it not possible, Michelle Alexander wonders, to “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 destroying lives”? How could he position his people so frankly in American society’s “essential below”? At the juncture of writing, Darren Wilson had just been acquitted of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin had been gunned down in Florida in an act of racist vigilantism; Eric Garner had died in New York from the pressure of a policeman’s hands round his neck. Civil unrest and protests were fanning their flames across the country.
“The reason why you can’t say there isn’t hope is not because you are living in a dream or selling a fantasy, but because there can be no certain knowledge of the future,” wrote UCLA Professor of African American Studies Melvin Rogers in a reader response for the Atlantic. “Humility, borne of our ignorance of the future, justifies hope.”
As we edge closer towards an America under Trump, hope for a more equal and peaceful nation seems flimsier than it has for decades, and the struggle more pressing. What I don’t believe, however, is that Between the World and Me retroactively vindicates – or should retroactively vindicate – the naivete of hope, absurd though it may seem. I’m put to mind of comedian Dave Chapelle’s monologue, guest hosting for the first SNL show after the nation’s verdict had rolled in. “I’m wishing Donald Trump luck,” he concluded. “And I’m going to give him a chance. And we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one too.”
…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. (8)
There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely en enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing – race relations, racism 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 always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body. (10)
I knew that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not. I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach. I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between that other world and me. And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle by body and achieve the velocity of escape. (21)
The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing. And it became clear that this was not just for the dreams concocted by Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that i had concocted to replace them. I had thought that I must mirror the outside world, create a carbon copy of white claims to civilization. It was beginning to occur to me to question the logic of the claim itself. (50)
Poetry aims for an economy of truth – loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts… Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justifications fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life. (51)
The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance – no matter how improved – as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. (70)
…Black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colours. Even the Dreamers – lost in their great reverie – feel it, for it is the Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they ear before dying. We have made something down here.We have taken the one-drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. (149)