I have a lot of thoughts about Ta-Nehisi Coates new book Between the World and Me, a pseudo-memoir written to his son about being young and black in America, and they’re not quite organized in my head, but with a little help from Otis Redding swooners and a homemade cup of coffee sans sugar, I think I can do it a bit of justice.
I was introduced to Coates when I came across The Case for Reparations his long essay in The Atlantic. I immediately wanted to handle him in the classroom, but the essay is quite long and it doesn’t excerpt that well. It comes as a whole piece, and thus he wrote it as one. “The Case for Reparations” shows Coates’ distinct writing style, but also shows his knowledge on his subjects and his desperation to share this knowledge with the American community (if now, we can call it that).
At the time that I was reading this, one of my Mother’s good friend’s sons was accused of a crime he didn’t commit. This boy, a shy, six-foot-four black boy, who tries out for the high school basketball team every year, but never makes the team due to his inexperience with AAU or paid-basketball leagues. Shy is actually an understatement. Here is a boy who looks down when he speaks to adults, the word “sweet” sings home on every school report card, and covers his mouth when he laughs at my dad’s one-liners.
And he was accused by a gaggle of women in their apartment complex of harassment, yelling sexual slurs at women on the sidewalk, and invading their personal space. Much like the woman harassed in NY (on the fifteen minute video of mostly black males), these women were sure the man was tall, and black. The two defining factors in their minds. He was questioned by the police in front of his mother. He teared up and pleaded with his mother to believe him around the kitchen table where she had worked hard to raise him on home-cooked meals and morals. She heard, “Mommy, Mommy, I didn’t do this.” Just a seventeen year old boy who still used “Mommy” when talking to his mother, and eyes full of innocence. This is, again, a boy who hasn’t had a date in four years of high school because of his utter bashful.
Three rounds of police questioning. A line-up. A trip to a police station.
And it took one single blind woman, harassed by the culprit, to break the fears of (I assume) every black parent and say, “No, no, it couldn’t be him, because this man has an accent.”
An accent. From a woman who cannot see.
One defining factor. One defining factor from the woman who couldn’t claim that the man was tall, or the man was black. One defining factor that four other women had somehow missed in the cat calls.
This is America, every single day.
And this is the story that Coates is trying to portray in his essay Between the World and Me. Without blaming the people “who believe they are white,” Coates takes the reader through a personal history that expands to a larger history of American culture and how it has reacted to the body (and arguably the mind) of the black American male. He says, “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.”
And this Dream is the point of the book. Living up to the Dream. Experiencing the boundaries of the Dream. Breaking the barriers of the Dream. Malcom Xing the Dream. Martin Luther King Jr. having a Dream. Dreams dying. Dreams being shot by dirty police officers who are following the Dream given to them by a society that has built the Dream on the very principles that break the Dream over the back of day Dreamers.
I teach the American Dream in my American Literature classroom. I teach it as something that is conceivable but not always available to every American. I teach the Dream with Raisin in the Sun because it is the best example of a family that can high five the dream with the tips of their fingers, but the Dream moves, the white neighborhood watch tries to talk them from the Dream, the son tries to explode the Dream, the daughter tries to escape the Dream into her African ancestry, the mother believes in the Dream and then she hangs curtains to cover the view of the broken Dream.
And then there is Travis Younger. A boy who is too young by society’s standards to be eligible for the Dream. But the Dream makes him ask his Momma if he can push carts after school for extra change. The Dream makes him see the fear made anger in his mother and father’s tension. The Dream makes sure his grandmother makes his bed so he doesn’t grow up too soon.
The Dream is already manifest. The Dream is already showing him that because he owns a black body that he is breakable.
“You preserved your life because your life, your body, was as good as anyone’s, because your blood was as precious as jewels, and it should never be sold for magic, for spirituals inspired by unknowable hereafter. You do not give your precious body to the billy clubs of Birmingham sheriffs nor to the insidious gravity of the streets. Black is beautiful–which is to say that the black body is beautiful, that black hair must be guarded against the torture of processing and lye, and black skin must be guarded against bleach, that our noses and mouths must be protected against modern surgery. We are all our beautiful bodies and so must never be prostrate before barbarians, must never submit our original self, our one of one, to defiling and plunder” (Coates, 36).
And is this what we teach our black males in school? Coates says “The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests.” This classroom where Texas classrooms can claim that the Civil War was not an act of keeping slavery as a business trade. Classrooms where Republicans can claim that same war was over “States’ rights” and not the buying and selling of black bodies. Classrooms where teachers can decide just how much education is good enough education. As a high school English teacher, I know that we haven’t moved away from one education for all. As much as I would love to see education individualized for the student, literature studied through the eyes of just one pupil based on their interests and expanding those interests, it’s just not what is happening in America right now.
Because when black males came into my classroom, I saw what Coates describes, “The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world…with their hands dipped in Russell sweats. I think back to those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T-shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a catalog of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired. I saw it in their customs of war” (Coates, 14)
And Coates is a generation ahead of my students. Coates describes the boys of his childhood as the boys who walk into my classroom everyday. Now it’s Lebron and not Russell. Now it’s chains and not rings. Now it’s sagging and not slouching. But it’s all the same. In a generation of young black males, the same fear grows suddenly large against a world where judgment and ownership has always been the Dream.
I dedicate myself to this cause in my classroom. My classroom will not be a jail of interests of my choosing, but a field of interest growing.
It will be what Howard was for Coates. “A Mecca” of knowledge, and discovery. I will give each child a name to live on and not a body that houses fear. This was my favorite realization from Coates’ book. He only names the deceased. Never does he name his son, never does he name his wife, Prince has a clear name, a clear story, a heated intervention to the reader that only the named black bodies, only the black bodies that have proven owned will get a name. This is how they earn their name.
This can no longer be okay in America. We must give everyone a name. We must complete the story that Coates cliff-hanged. We must not let black be synonymous with lower class, with darkness, with evil, with anything that can be less than because black is what holds up a sky of dead stars, and I refuse to see any of my students live a life where every corner is a death wish, and every badge is a death warrant.
Black. is the only reason we can see lightening. The only reason that stars can be seen like sugar in the sky. The words on a page that make me both more human, and more capable. A black body is beautiful, matters, grows strong and meaningful, makes a difference, doesn’t need to live in fear, and is a body of worth in society. When we can live in a world that doesn’t stark contrast us into categories, and a world where no color is synonymous with damage, then Coates and I can both live in a world with no in-betweens.
If America claims to be the number one country in the world (just the fact that we see ourselves as competition with the world is kind of disgusting in this conversation), then why is Coates able to see alleys in France as walkways and not darkness where his body will be mugged? Action > Intentions. It’s time, America. And it’s time for this book. Toni Morrison says it’s required reading, and Toni Morrison is the sole reason I believe the old dead white man’s canon is wrong.