Writing about a book as monumental, as vital, as shattering as Between the World and Me is a difficult task. For all its difficulty, it is drop against a universe’s weight in water compared to the difficulty with which it deals, the difficulty MacArthur genius Ta-Nehisi Coates faced in living and writing it.
It’s difficult to write about a book like Coates’s painfully honest, stripped-down look at the state of things for the black community in the US. It is difficult especially because it is written as a letter to his teenage son, a letter filled with the fear, pain, and sadness that are part-and-parcel of the black experience in this nation. A letter in response to the confusion, mistrust, and pain his son Samori felt after the lack of indictment in the killing of Michael Brown; one of many such events and subsequent injustices that have only recently begun to surface in the media.
One thing that makes Coates’s book so powerful is how he explores the black experience through a simple lens: the safety of one’s body. The physical body.
The safety and vulnerability of the body is a thing that every human (every living being, really) will confront at at least one point in life. The job of a just society, presumably, is to minimize those occasions for all of its people (and, one would hope, for people outside of that society as well). Coates illustrates the difference between a life of privilege and one under the boot of the system simply: when your daily life, every action you take, and every decision you make, are dictated first and foremost by a conscious awareness of immediate danger to your body, society is not just. When you are constantly in fear for the safety of your body, everyone and everything becomes your enemy.
I do not have the tools to relate to the experience. But in reading Between the World and Me my thoughts fell on my brother, whose father is African-American; on my girlfriend and her brother, who are black; on people of color dear to me who have all faced, in some capacity, the harsh reality of being born into a society with deeply-entrenched systemic racism that batters them into a kind of submission.
Coates’s letter to his son does more than approach the complex discussion of race in the US from the perspective of the safety of the black body. He lifts away the veil of the dream; the hope of “making it” in America the way we are all taught to believe is possible. That dream, according to Coates and his predecessors, is the dream of “becoming white,” and the people who have accomplished a semblance of that dream are the “people who believe themselves to be white.”
The notion of people who believe themselves to be white struck a particularly deep chord with me. One I did not expect would resonate vis-a-vis my relationship to my Jewish heritage.
I am—have never not been—proud of my Jewish blood. I am proud to be an Israeli citizen. I am proud to share my lineage with physicists, artists, mathematicians, linguists, and sociologists. I can experience this fierce pride while also feeling terrible shame at the behavior of some of the members of my tribe, whose recklessness and selfishness in Israel and abroad has dug us deeper in the mire of intractable conflict. We can love and criticize our own blood; it’s one of the gifts of being a conscious being.
I am also a proud atheist. Well, you’d probably call it agnostic, but tomato/tomato. For a time I fell victim to an all-too-common trap—the ethnic/religious divide of Jewishness—and did not know how to define myself.
I have white skin, so I “believed myself to be white” in the way Coates describes when I came to call myself atheist. If I did not believe in the core tenets of the ideology that “binds” my people, can I consider myself one of them? Am I Jewish if I don’t follow Jewish liturgical ritual? Am I Jewish if I don’t believe in a creator God and a talking snake?
Yes. Of course I am.
That’s something I didn’t fully understand for a few years. My father, in his special way, brought this fact to my attention several years ago when he told me that “the Nazis wouldn’t have cared if you called yourself an atheist.”
And that’s that. I am a Jew. I am an atheist. I am also a Capricorn, and astrology is total nonsense.
Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded me once again of my iron connection to Jewishness when he referred to some of the groups who have “become white” in the past: Catholics, Irish, Italians, Jews, etcetera. I reeled and repositioned my relationship to what I was reading. It occurred to me as I read that I am “white” as long as it is convenient. “White” in my day-to-day life, and for the purposes of taxes and the census. “White” until the divestment movement capsizes and becomes outwardly antisemitic. Certainly not “white” enough for the signs that appeared as recently as a few years ago in Belgium declaiming that people of my heritage were unwelcome in some cafes and other establishments, or for the increased rates of anti-semitic hate-crimes in France over the last few years.
These are the kinds of thoughts the bubbled up as I read Between the World and Me. I searched for a means through which to relate. But one of the most important things I learned is that I don’t have to be able to relate. In fact, assuming that I can is a big part of the problem. Understanding that there are fundamental differences in experience is a crucial step toward making meaningful change. Despite the feeling that we’re careening toward the event horizon with no hope of escape, I honestly think better times are ahead of us, provided there is a stronger education system established, wherein young people are encouraged to engage with material that expands their world views and upsets the delicate balance of their lives.
This is what I think Toni Morrison means when she says that Between the World and Me should be required reading. I wholeheartedly agree. It is extraordinary.