Racism has and is a very serious problem that many people in America face. I can look at my own skin and know that no oppression and bigotry will be bestowed on me because of my whiteness. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a book, Between the World and Me, in the form of a letter to his son. In this letter, he describes the hardships and emotions of going through life as a black man. Coates does this in hopes of making a safer and less painful experience for his son in his life rather than the things Coates went through. Although he knows that he cannot stop the world and its hatred, he does this to prepare his son for the obstacles that will be lined in his path through life.
One of the most prominent themes in this book is “the body”. Coates breaks up his work into three parts and the first part is the most in-depth to explain the black body. The book starts out with a radio show where the broadcaster asked him about his body. He knows that she did not directly ask him about his body, but he interpreted it differently. He says, “Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence” (Coates, 5-6). This question to him allows him to flow into a stream of consciousness. He is kind of dumbfounded by the question because it has such an obvious explanation. America was founded on slavery, violence, and abuse. It is said to be this country of freedom and expression, but to only those that were specified without thinking other were excluded. For example, the whole idea of America’s right to vote was with the idea it would only be white men. Women were not seen as people who did more than care for the children and the household. Black people at this time were already part of slavery and segregation and were not even seen as people. They were another part of the family to some slave owners but still were treated and belittled because of their skin color.
Coates also goes on to talk about all of the killings that he saw when his son was 15 years old. He says that the police were in the mindset to kill their bodies. The people who did the killings would go free and would usually get a pension rather than consequences. He says to his son after hearing that Michael Brown’s killers would go free that, “This is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it” (Coates 11,12). Coates tells his son that he cannot tell him that he will be okay. He knows the way the world works and that their bodies are targets. It’s like going into a forest and being forcefully dressed as a deer and praying that you don’t get shot. He believes that being in the skin that you are in makes you destined for bad things, but all you can do is hope that you’re alive at the end of it all.
Fear is a strong emotion that Coates resonated with at the early age of five. He recalls watching people in his community on his front steps and how the rituals, bylaws, and codes that they follow. They toughened up quickly and had the armor to protect whatever their emotions couldn’t. He talks about their puffy coats and hands in their pockets while standing at corners. There were girls with big earrings and even bigger laughs who treated people who talked poorly on them. These people knew that on their streets they would be champions of their own lives and live in their bodies, but he could also see the fear of them stepping out of it.
His family also gave him a firsthand look at how powerful this emotion could be. A lot of his family members were deceased which isn’t the most uncommon thing, but their deaths were all unnatural; assuming they were murdered. Coates talks about all the beating he has seen and received from loved ones. He remembers a time he slipped away from his parents in a park and how once they found him he was punished. Coates says:
“Later, I would hear it in Dad’s voice – ‘Either I can beat him, or the police.’ Maybe that saved me, Maybe it didn’t. All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit” (Coates, 16-17).
Black parents may have seems like these monsters that beat their children, but they used them as a sense of tough love. They would rather inflict this pain on their child than have some stranger do it for them. Coates never knew if it was the right thing for them to do and whether it actually helped him or not, but just to know he is alive must be something to show for it. It was a way to really enforce discipline to not only their loved ones but people who actually wanted to do harm to them. If you ever were to step out of line or raise your voice then that might be the trigger to end the black body.
Coates remembers the time in 1986 when a gun was drawn on him by a boy. The boy was reassured by his friends that he did not need to shoot. Coates knew from that day that he was truly part of these theories until he was the one that brought his body in the hands of this young boy. From then, he was always thinking of the people that he walked with and how slow or fast he walked. He was sure to always smile and act “whiter” in hopes that his body was undetected. Coates knew he was always a target and tried his best to put on a façade and this is what he hopes to teach his son so he doesn’t become a victim of all of the awful things bestowed upon the black body.
Coates talks about schools and their black history months of how they praised the people who fought with nonviolence and how their bodies were beaten, bruised and buried. He wondered why they showed them this and even more why there was just a month to torture them with their history although much has still been the same since then. The streets and the schools were both body snatchers in their elements. Slipping in the streets cost your body and slipping in the schools got you suspended and handed back to the streets. The schools tried to justify it with good intentions, but it was not the case. A metaphor that I really liked in the books reads, ’Good intentions’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.” (Coates, 33). The intentions of the white people were to silence the blacks and not worry about them. They decided to let their own kind handle one another while the whites rose higher and higher on the hierarchy scale. The dream is what white people achieve and what they think black people want to stop them from doing. Their “good intentions” are an excuse to destroy the black body and take any happiness away from them.
This book describes a lot of experiences that Coates has faced and his interpretations of everything that he has been through. It is a very unique read with things I knew to be true but couldn’t quite write or fathom into words. Of course, I have never experienced any of these hardships to do so, but he does it so beautifully and strongly. He shows that the fight for his body will never be over even after he has lived his life. There will always be judgment and oppression on millions of other black bodies until the idea of race and racism is completely unheard of. The lesson that he teaches his son is to know that his life and his body are precious. Not only to himself but to the world. He communicates his ideas through this letter for his son to have a better life in this black body of a white world that they live in.
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