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Between the World and Me: Be Ready to Be Changed

An earlier post described my journey of coming to recognize the privilege I have unwittingly enjoyed all my life. A second post invited people to read two books that might help them better recognize their privilege. In response, a former student of mine, Faith Juma, wrote an excellent article about the way that the lack of representation she experienced in the church while growing up informs the way she teaches Sunday school now. In this last post in the stream, I’ll recommend a third book, one that can jar white folks like me into an uneasy awareness of the privilege we enjoy and almost certainly take for granted, privilege unattainable to fellow citizens.

In the passionately written, challenging, and painful book Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, we get to read over the shoulder of an African-American father trying to protect and prepare his teenage son for the life he will have as a Black person in the USA. It is a harrowing read for white folks, but it will likely come across to most African-Americans as straightforward, insightful advice. This book has been referenced in several “how to learn about contemporary racism and white privilege” kinds of articles. It belongs in these articles – and in our libraries. White people, if you want to love your Black neighbors, I recommend this book. We have much to learn.

White people, if you want to love your Black neighbors, I recommend this book.

The anxiety and pent-up rage the author demonstrates here bubble up from the long history of the treatment of Black people since the days of slavery, but the book doesn’t focus on that history. It focuses instead on the author’s own upbringing in the Black ghettoes* of Baltimore. He recounts seeing a young teenager killed by another young Black man for a perceived slight and points out that this was always the possibility he and others faced. In recounting how this could be the case, he ends up unmasking the frequently heard clamor about “Black-on-Black crime” so readily shouted by opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement. He argues that crime arises too readily from the pressure-cooker in which folks in Black ghettoes live.

Coates found a brave new world when he enrolled in Howard University, a historically Black institution, where he encountered other Black people from around the USA and the world. The challenge to learn about Black history led him from sophomoric confidences to nuanced appreciation for the complex ways that history had unfolded. The privilege of writing for the institution’s student paper led him outside his own frustrations, to learn how others viewed the world in which they were exploited and taken for granted – and opened doors for him to pursue a career in journalism and freelance writing. (He is now a national correspondent for The Atlantic.) But his awareness of the dangers for Black people in the USA never deserted him – and became even more intense when he had a son.

This book was birthed by Coates’ attempt to respond to his fifteen-year-old son’s shock when the police who had killed Michael Brown were not charged with any crime.

This brief book offers striking observations on how his parents raised him, with their fear for his life and future, and Coates’ concern for his own son. Though he no longer lives in the inner city, the way he advises and counsels his young teenage son in this book reveals the danger of life in the USA for Black people no matter their neighborhood: “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered” (82).

This book was birthed by Coates’ attempt to respond to his fifteen-year-old son’s shock when the police who had killed Michael Brown were not charged with any crime. He had stayed up until 11pm to hear the outcome. When it came, he said, “I’ve got to go,” and rushed to his bedroom -- where Coates heard him crying. It is painful to read how Coates felt he had to respond: “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” (11). This book is the attempt to interpret what it means to live as an African-American in the USA. For those of us who are white, the description he offers seems bleak; for the Black people with whom I have spoken, it is accurate.

Be ready to be changed, or don’t read it.

Coates notes that his parents did not encourage him to find solace in religion. He respects those who embrace faith not as an opiate but as a strength, although he has not been drawn to it himself. But it would be a mistake for us who profess faith to use his lack of it to deflect the burden of what he writes here. His is the elegantly, powerfully expressed experience of life as a Black person in his own country – an experience mirrored in the lives of African-Americans who regularly engage in worship.

Coates is a gifted writer who crafts memorable sentences and conjures up images that profoundly capture his insights. In its own way, this book is deliciously written and needs to be savored. But this is no pleasant snack: it will make demands on your cultural digestive system. Be ready to be changed, or don’t read it.

*We have chosen to use the word “ghetto” in this article to reflect the word that Coates himself uses. To read Coates’ description of the policies that led to the creation of ghettoes, read this Atlantic article


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