Last month I learned of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s powerful book, Between the World and Me. My friend Cristina spoke about it as we began our Conversations about Race. This was my first introduction to the Atlantic national correspondent.
Part memoir, part history lesson, Coates writes a book-sized letter to his teen-aged son about being a Black boy and surviving growing up to become a Black man in America. It’s a reminder and warning to his son and other young Black men to be vigilant. Jeopardy is close at hand, eminent, in the form of racism.
“Racism dislodges brains, blocks airways, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.”
The incident that occurred last week with the 16-year old Black boy being taken down in Stockton, California, illustrates Coates’s words. According to the article I read, the teenager had been jaywalking and when told to get on the sidewalk by a policeman, he did not comply and used “obscene language.”
The ensuing “scuffle” resulted in the boy being held against a tree with his knees up, the officer pinning the boy’s ankles tight to his body by pressing his baton against them. The teen tried to move the baton away, and the office told him stop resisting and then struck boy about the head, twice, with the baton. Soon, nine other officers arrived on the scene, four of whom grabbed the slender kid and pushed him to the ground. The teen was handcuffed and taken into police custody.
There are those who will say he should have done as instructed, shouldn’t have mouthed off, shouldn’t have resisted, shouldn’t have been jaywalking in the first place. Maybe so, but do those actions warrant the harsh treatment this kid, hardly more than a child, received?
As any parent or teacher of adolescents knows, these behaviors and attitudes are typical during the teen years. They also know that to achieve teens’ compliance, situations must be dealt with by means other than physical force. I recognize that police officers have a formidable and dangerous job to do and most do it well. But I can't help but think their training should include child and adolescent development and strategies for working with difficult teens.
Regarding Coates’s account and the Stockton incident, an observation from another friend and writer, Charlotte, came to mind: “There was a culture of superiority among the Whites that hung on from the beginning of slavery in this country… And it hasn't changed. Maybe, outwardly, since, except for the police, we don't go around killing and enslaving Blacks. But it still festers in their gut. How can it not be that today's Black has a terrifying chip on his shoulder?”
A “chip” and an unwillingness to continue to surrender, a need to protect his body. A young Black man must understand, as Coates relates, that “In America, it is traditional to destroy the Black body -- it is Heritage.” Coates wants his son to realize, “You are a Black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.”
For all the cautionary words and myriad examples of racism, Between the World and Me is also an anthem to the strength, resilience, and struggle of Blacks. Coates declares, “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”
It’s a revelation, an honest entrance into his world and life experience. It’s a way that anyone, Blacks and Whites, can place themselves in his context.
In her assessment of the book, my friend Cristina said, “What I appreciated and respected so much about Coates’s Between the World and Me was his courage in looking at himself and then turning that "truth lens" on racism in our society. As he said : "Race is the child of racism, not the father." I have never read a book which is as honest and truthful as this one.”
What good book that explores questions and observations and provides insight about race can you recommend?
~ xoA ~