As the #Blacklivesmatter and #Alllivesmatter debate wages, I can’t help but think of the line from Animal Farm (that I first read at age 9, thinking it was a story about talking animals like Charlotte’s Web)—“All Animals are equal but some Animals are more equal than others.” What I think the #Alllivesmatter folks don’t get is that it’s precisely because ALL lives matter that the #Blacklivesmatter movement started because clearly, in this country, some lives matter more than others. It is within all this sound and fury (that definitely signifies something) that I began to read Between the World and Me.
In 152 dense pages, Ta-Nehisi Coates packs a wallop of concrete descriptions and thoughtful analysis intertwined with metaphors both beautiful and brutal. The overall frame of this short book is a letter/talk/lecture/confession aimed at his teenage son, raised in different circumstances than Coates’s own upbringing in Baltimore, but facing the same brutal truth that his body is an African-American body and so subject to forces beyond his control.
Early on, Coates argues that race in a construct not a reality, but the consequences of this construct are all too real:
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white (7).
This is a book that is really impossible to summarize but simply needs to be read. As a middle-aged, upper middle-class woman who considers herself white, it’s hard to read and not simply wallow in guilt for the unearned privileges of my “race” and class. However, I think the point here is it’s not about me. It’s about Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son and their world and I need to shut up and listen.
I checked this book out from my school’s library but I plan to buy a copy because I wanted to underline passages, talk in the margins, and simply mark things to come back to think about more. I’ve got tickets to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates speak as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival next month and I’m both dreading and looking forward to the experience. Reading this book made me feel a lot of things but it also pushed my brain to see things from a different angle—to see the constructed nature of things that sometimes feel absolute.