I’ve never walked by a police officer and felt fear for my body. I’ve grown up “white,” in a “white” suburb, attended a “white” high school and gone to a “white” college where reading James Baldwin was seen as some great act of diversity. I knew and know all of this. I know that I can walk into the lobby of a building and enter the elevators without checking in with doorman.
I’m part of The Dream that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in Between the World and Me, the 150-page book addressed to his 15-year-old son, Samori. To describe what Coates does in 150 pages as enlightening is unfair. It imagines that I can fully comprehend and digest the fear he lives with as a black man; it supposes that I can understand what it means to have an ideal world out of my reach and built upon the bodies of me and those I grew up with; it suggests I know what it means to be diluted into nothing more than race.
To say Between the World and Me is powerful is an understatement. Again and again I was made to think with a story or idea, which were made all the stronger by the frightening ease with which Coates translates experience into text. This book that says, “racism is a visceral experience,” that says that white people “are, like us, a modern invention,” (10, 7) is something special. Like the current wave of police brutality, many of Coates’s ideas are not new, but they are from today, existing in now and speak to a world that too many people – myself included – are not looking at.
What sold me most on the need that everyone read this book is two-fold: Coates’s acknowledgement that this is the American experience, and his approach to gender. Late in the book, Coates speaks of traveling to Paris. “France is built on its own dream,” he writes (127). Coates does not take on the entire world, but the world that he and his son and his wife and his friends live in.
Coates writes to his son: “The women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you will never know” (71). Again, Coates does what impresses me most: he does not speak for others; he doesn’t pretend to explore the experience of being a black woman. To put it poorly, he doesn’t bite off more than he can chew. But he still creates a vision that extends beyond him.
This book was not written for me. Coates is not speaking to me; he is not writing for my sake. To put it in his own words, he shouldn’t have to: “The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all” (151). But I – and many others I know – need Coates and need this book. Blinded by The Dream, we are incapable of learning the reality of our lives.
So go and read this book.