There’s a line from Lindy West’s Shrill that really resonated with me, in her case about her disillusionment with comedy, “Feminism is really just the long slow realization that the things you love hate you.” There’s truth to that for pretty much any intersectional thinking, and Between the World and Me is basically Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking directly to his teenage son about his long slow realization that the same is true of anti-racism.
His long, slow realization is that the Dream (capitalization his) of white picket fences and 2.5 kids and fireworks on the Fourth of July requires that we all pretend that the bad stuff isn’t in our nation’s collective closet, even when the literal skeletons continue to spill out of it. He writes of being a college student at Howard University and being pulled over by the area police shortly before a classmate was murdered by an officer claiming he tried to run him over in his Jeep (a spurious claim given the officer’s previous suspension for lying). He writes about relishing black history while simultaneously grappling with it arguing with itself. He writes about what to say to his teenage son when yet again, the current power structure is valued more than the life of another black boy who could be him.
I’m doing a bad job when Coates’ own words are so beautiful:
“You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”
And finally, as a rebuke to me personally, who has a hard time reading books like this in part because I feel helpless to change the power structures that perpetuate violence against the marginalized:
“The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”
I guess that all I can do is follow Coates’ advice as a person and a parent.
“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”