A review of by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me by Sophia Sanchez
The Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves to be free was issued in September 1862. It could be brought to full effect across all American states only with the end of the Civil War three years later. The issue at the heart of the war was the question of slavery – whether it could continue or not. And yet, the images that are brought to my mind when I think of the war are not of black people laboring for the benefit of someone else, but of white soldiers on horses. It brings to mind the names of white generals on either side and that of a white president. Lincoln’s victory over those who sought to oppress other human beings often felt like a real-life “good overcomes evil” scenario. It counted among America’s best moments, and as one of its defining ones until I read Between the World and Me.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book swept away all such notions that were ingrained in me. It revealed to me how well everything that the black body has endured, and continues to endure, has been erased from public consciousness. The visceral experience of slavery has mostly been hidden or played down. In the mainstream media, it is only trotted out to add color to historical scenes and to be displayed as something that strictly took place a long time ago in history, detached from contemporary life.
The Numbing American Dream
Coates blows away this comforting illusion. He writes to his son not just to recount how the black body was manhandled once upon a time in history, but to tell him how it continues to be subjected to that brutal treatment today. In fact, he says that that cruel mistreatment is not an aberration or marginal behavior in America; rather, that it is as American as apple pie. Slavery was a foundational feature without which the country would not be what it is today. And the “destruction of the black body” is absolutely essential to maintain the status quo. The extra layer of danger today lies in the insidiousness with which it is done.
Besides apple pie, a concept most widely associated with America is the “American Dream”. Everyone knows of it, and everyone may have their slightly personalized image of what their ideal Dream would be. But a common thread in all is the white picket fence and everything it stands for – the idyllic suburban life of economic prosperity and success as advertised on countless sitcoms through the latter half of the 21st century. A predominantly middle-class white Dream. A Dream that allows people to claim to be free of racism as they “do not see color”, even as the color of the bodies that are regularly battered and murdered by the police, and that fill jails is starkly evident to the awake. These bodies are in fact the sacrifice the Dream demands to stay alive.
And it is this Dream that provides cover for the destruction of the black body today. By becoming the seemingly innocuous goal of the majority of the population, it convinces them to don rose-colored glasses, blinding them to the reality of their surroundings, and continuing to keep the black body vulnerable.
Destroying the Black Body Today
Slavery may be over, and civil rights may have been granted. But that’s all paperwork. The black body is far from out of the woods yet. Events around us, on the streets, and in the headlines serve as daily confirmations of how vulnerable being black makes you in modern America. Fear is a pervasive and constant presence in the black community. It is what fuels the anger and violence that erupt every so often on street corners, leaving in their wake death, more fear, and fodder for the oppressors.
The duty of oppressing the black body has been passed from the slave owners to the state. At every turn, it has utilized its power to fulfill this responsibility – from Jim Crow segregation to redlining to voter disenfranchisement. However, without a doubt, the most violent and visible form of oppression today is police brutality.
When Coates wrote Between the World and Me, he listed names of young men who’d been gunned down in the streets by police while black and unarmed: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and many more. The book also came at a time when people were awakening to the realities of the racial violence perpetrated by the police. Protests swept the country and the Black Lives Matter movement was born. Anger was evident but also tinged with the hope of reform.
Fast forward to half a decade later, and the list has only grown longer. George Floyd’s murder may have directed the world’s scrutiny towards America’s “heritage” of destroying the black body. But that scrutiny barely reined in the ferocity with which police forces dealt with those who came onto the streets to resist.
Concurrently, black bodies continue to be used to prop up the American economy just as they had been under the yoke of slavery. This method of destruction was sharply outlined by the Covid-19 crisis last year. Black bodies were disproportionately placed on the frontlines of the fight against the virus as essential workers, increasing their risk of infection. And this risk climbed higher as governments pushed to lift stay-at-home orders and re-open the country amid a still precarious and dangerous situation once studies and reports confirmed the greater vulnerability of black and other communities of color compared to the white population.
Living in a Black Body
Coates never holds out false or uncertain hope to his son. In fact, he frankly expresses his lack of hope that the white population under the influence of the Dream is likely to voluntarily give up the rights it has claimed on the black body. That would be the wrecking of the constructs that define them as ‘white’ and give their existence meaning.
As disheartening as such a hopeless worldview may seem, its accuracy cannot be challenged when parallels with today’s situation can be so easily picked out when reading a book such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which was published over fifty years ago. It features a Kafkaesque plot that follows a young, well-educated black man’s journey from high hopes and ideals to a literal hole in the ground as the reality of his social “invisibility” as a black man is revealed to him in the segregated South, and then more drastically in the bright lights of the supposedly enlightened New York City.
However, it is also not despair that Coates is offering his son. The solution he presents to the question of how to live in a black body in America is resistance and struggle. He hands down to his son the legacy of other great black leaders and writers, like Malcolm X and James Baldwin. As painful as black history may be, black culture is vibrant and resistant. The pride in this culture stems from the struggle that was poured into it right from the beginning of European colonization.
To remind his son of this struggle, Coates named him Samori, after Samori Toure, the founder of the Wassoulou Empire in West Africa, who fiercely resisted French colonization, and died in captivity. He hopes that Samori will embrace a life of struggle, which is the heritage of the black body, just as destroying it is America’s heritage.
As a child himself, Coates witnessed the sparks of street violence firsthand. A boy barely into his teens posturing with a gun sharply brought him face to face with the reality of the violence of the world he inhabited, which was far removed from the world populated by happy white families that he watched on TV. Years later, the same realization was made clear when he was threatened with the police by a white man, as he tried to express his anger at his son being pushed by a white woman. And again when he visited Dr. Mable Jones after her son, Prince, a fellow student of Coates’ at Howard University, had been gunned down by the police. On the surface, she had achieved every kind of success that the Dream promises – born into poverty, she had fought her way up to become a successful doctor, and provided her children with the very best – but it did not protect her son from the bullet fired at him for being black. Incidents such as these awakened Coates to the actuality of his existence as a black man, and the inevitable need for struggle. And being awake is a far more desirable state to him than one steeped in the blindness and fragile, false comfort offered by the Dream. It is the only possible way he sees to be able to live in the black body and to keep his sanity.
About the Author
Sophia is an online ESL/EFL instructor and a passionate educator. She found her true calling — teaching — while she was juggling writing and a 9-5 desk job. When she is not busy earning a living, she volunteers as a social worker. Her active online presence demonstrates her strong belief in the power of networking. If you want to connect, you can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog Essay Writing and More.