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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Abeng Review: Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (@Tanehisicoates)

By K. Omodele @TheAbeng

"Americans believe in the reality of 'race'  as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism...inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other natural phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men. But race is the child of racism, not the father," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between The World and Me, which was released earlier this year by Spiegel and Grau.*

Ta-Nehisi's book is composed as a deeply emotive letter to his teen-aged son, Samori, in which an African-American father, in the wake of the Mike Brown killing, interprets his perceptions of America's fixation with the idea of "race" and this institution's impact on black bodies and psyches. The author sketches a portrait of how Dreamers (those deeply imbedded in "The Dream") casually regard the entrapment, violation and destruction of black bodies as unfortunate, but natural, events; then, he details the visceral fear black people live with in our own bodies, in our own homes, in our their own communities.
While Between The World and Me is lauded for its eloquent language, well-articulated self-awakenings and revelations, for me the genius of this Ta-Nehisi Coates's writing is his connectability.

Reading Between The World and Me is what it must feel like in a blues joint and realizing a singer/musician is actually harmonizing in the key of your life, riff by riff, tune after tune. When Ta-Nehisi instructs Samori that " are a black boy and you must be responsible for your body in a way other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you," I think many blacks in America nod their heads to that familiar beat. I remember spreading my teen-aged wings around Flatbush, Brooklyn, back in the days and my beloved Aunt anxiously running through her checklist each time I was about to hit the front door:
-"Be very careful out there!"
-"Remember, the Police don't like young black men in America. This country fears you."
-"Don't go out at night with that radio, you'll be a target for police and thieves."
-"I know this is how you all dress, but America doesn't know you like I know you; they only see you as a threat when you dress so."

But as a teen, I flexed invincibly, unconquerably, and even when I learned about Michael Stewart, Yusef Hawkins, and all them countless others, it still didn't sink in- I thought, 'Auntie must be paranoid, for real.' That's until I found out first hand, one night at the end of a DT** gun nozzle, that "stop and frisk" is a jeering understatement of how they kidnap our bodies during the process. We're captured, immobilized and chucked on walls against our wills, then physically violated by search without warrant. So that, many of us feel like criminals long before we commit a crime. 

Although Ta-Nehisi focuses on the specificity of his and other black lives ("Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own."), his personal truths ring with the universal- from his vulnerability during his brush with street life to the volatility of a routine traffic stop to his awareness and insistence that the consciousness of "children of Trans-Atlantic rape" must make us recognize oppression in the broader sense and empathize with others who are oppressed.

And so, the author relates his African-American experience (from Baltimore, DC, Chicago, Brooklyn) with the maata*** of the African Diaspora (making note that much of France's wealth "was built on the plunder of Haitian bodies, on the plunder of Wolof bodies...") while recalling how the Roma and their children who begged in Paris' streets were addressed with venom.

Between The World and Me is a cause and effect discussion of what it feels like to be inside a body that  has been  marginalized, exploited and disenfranchised; it is an emotional testimony to America's past and present; it is an indictment of systematic racism: school-, zoning-, social-, mass incarceration and prison-; it argues that black bodies matter despite the casual attitude of The Dreamers, despite the violence of attack dogs and lynchings and planned housing policies that created ghettoes that became killing fields. It is a narrative for us, by us, and of us- all. "This is your country," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates, "-this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it."


* an imprint of Penguin Random Howuse, LLC
**Detective; plain-clothes police
*** maata~ the struggle


  1. A very substantive work. It challenges us to an honest (self-) evaluation and to a concerned consciousness that exceeds the bounds of naked emotionalism and shallow reflection

  2. I give thanks for your insight. I am now reading one of his cover stories in "The Atlantic" about the Age of Mass incarceration


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