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Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates fills the American dream, showing that individual responsibility helps little in the face of structural racism. 


The earthquake cannot be tried

In the wake of Ferguson and the many brutal police killings, Ta-Nehisi Coates highlights a key point in the American racial conflict: the struggle for narrative. The award-winning journalist and author's latest contribution in this fight is an 151 page letter to his son Samori, named after the colonial opponent Samori Ture. He wants the son to understand the land in which he is growing up, and teach him how to see airy promises and forgery of history. And he will not adorn his own version of the story: "The whole narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you really are," he writes to 15 year old Samori.

Radicalization and pain. Coates has come a long way from his childhood Baltimore, and recently won the cash-strapped MacArthur Foundations' "genius grant." He was born in 1975, but sadly did not notice much of the civil rights defenders' victories: Coates did not know a single white person until he started studying, and his upbringing was characterized by poverty and violence, as many of us know from the TV series The Wire og Show Me a Hero. Learning the street language and social codes was essential to protecting one's own body – and Coates learned early on that the black body is more at risk than the white one: "[...] the crews, the young men who'd transmitted their fear into rage, were the greatest danger. The crews walked the blocks of the neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power. ”These paragraphs made me think of documentary filmmaker Deeyah Khan and her film Jihad: A Story of the Others, where she emphasizes that radicalization is about pain. As I see it, the parallel between these two environments is that reckless behavior is experienced as the only way to pay attention to oneself.

The fraud of the dream. Reading and writing became a way out for young Coates in 90s Baltimore, but he experienced no support from the school system. The school seemed more meaningless than the street because "schools did not reveal the truths, it concealed them". Coates sees the school as an institutionalization of the American dream, and he believes that this dream is the biggest fraud the African American children are exposed to. The idea that everyone is a blacksmith of their own and can live in comfortable suburban villas with lawn and two freezers is built on the blood, sweat and tears of African Americans, from being transported as slaves from the beginning of the 1600th century to the present day. Engraved in the American soul is not the idea that "all men are created equal", but, in Coates's words: "black life is cheap".

The school seemed more meaningless than the street because "schools did not reveal the truths, it concealed them".

The passivity of forgiveness. The author finds no solutions in religion, and leans closely to Marx's claim that it is like the opium for the people. At the funeral of his Howard student mate, Prince Jones, he feels alienated when it comes to forgiving the cop who killed him, and the author suggests that Christianity's forgiveness principle can hold people back from activism and the quest for truth. Forgiving is an innovative act, being "twice as good", but the author does not believe in this well-used mantra, and it strikes him that "perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the the moment we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered ». In The Atlantic (the newspaper the author himself writes for), the reviewer follows up this point with an interesting discussion, in which he sets Coates' reflections on Barack Obama's.

Incarnate racism. Mens Between the World and Me Ranking the Dream as one of its main enemies, several of the president's works contain this very symbolic word. I haven't read Obama's books myself, but according to The Atlantic, great visions are emphasized, and one of his guiding ideas is that empathy can transcend racial divisions. Ta-Nehisi Coates never mentions Obama explicitly, but his book points in a different direction, less concerned with both visions and the possibilities of the individual. Not because individuals cannot make a difference, but because many do not have the opportunities that American society likes to represent them. He expresses that racism is structural and so historically and ideologically incarnate that it does little to talk about the morality of the individual. For him, terms like "black-on-black-crime" become a toxic jargon that places the blame in the wrong place – so discussions about who the racist in the room becomes are obscuring the deeper problem: that the American dream rests on a blend-white ideal with the black body as part of its down payment. Who kills who is not so relevant, but what makes the following facts possible: that every 28 hours a black person is killed by law enforcement in the United States; that six times as many blacks as white women are incarcerated; the unemployment rate among black people with disabilities is 74,1 per cent.
The list is both longer and wiser than this, and there are no big visions in the call to the son to fight against injustice. He says Samori must do it, but "not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life". The late hope is reflected in the earthquake metaphor he uses about American racial thinking: Because the whole country's history is built on it, the Dream itself, it is almost as immovable as a natural force. And for that very reason, one must also look beyond the individual's guilt and responsibility to fight this destructive force: "The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed."

According to him, the American dream is the biggest fraud the African American children are exposed to.

Humanism. I agree that political solutions are better than self-help, but it is not difficult to find objections Between the World and Me. In one of the meetings between the author and President Obama, Obama should have concluded with a friendly advice: "Don't despair." It's easy to sympathize with the president's good intentions, and if the racial problem is like a law of nature – shouldn't we then cling to the hope that there is a solution anyway? And isn't the fact that the United States has a black president a sign that it is moving forward after all? Furthermore, it may seem easy to present the problems without outlining a solution to them.
Despite these concerns, this is one of the strongest and best books I have read in a long time, and one reason why they do not weigh more is that this is a humanist rather than a political work. The humanistic impulse is to open up the political language and ask questions where it burns, get the individual out of the dangerous neutrality of statistics and not let other people's narratives define who you are. It undoubtedly manages Between the World and Me.

Note: The factual information is taken from Black Live Matters website. Black Live Matter is an activist group that after Ferguson went from being a topic peg to becoming a popular movement that is compared to Occupy Wall Street, and here is perhaps also the seed for a political solution. See also Ny Tid's article on the movement: «A radical people's movement». 


Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015

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