This is an incomplete list of books I’ve read which have helped me understand what it means to be “other,” based on skin color. They make my heart ache, and think more deeply about my own privilege of being white.
To be a black male is to be always at war …. because … we are met by the assumption of violence, by the specter of who we might turn on next. (p192)
This is the last #ReadingIsResistance book for January’s theme of social and economic justice. It seems appropriate to end the month with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
It’s hard to know how approach this book. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ experience is so far from mine, I just as well be from another country.
His memoir of life in Baltimore is colloquially written, exploring family life and growing up in a confusing family dynamic, in neighborhoods where the danger was palpable. His father had children by several women, and their lives wove in and out of each other’s in ways different from what one would expect. My life has taught me that family is who you chose, blood or no, and the family dynamic doesn’t follow a proscribed route.
Coates was surrounded by his father’s books from the Black Panther black power movement and historical treatises teaching the Knowledge of being black in America. His parents’ world was just as fraught with peril too, and Coates was meant to learn that and apply it to his own everyday survival.
My default position was sprawled across the bed staring at the ceiling or cataloging an extensive collection of X-Factor comic books. This never cut it for Dad, who insisted I learn the wavelengths of my world. In the quiet chaos of my room, everything was certain. (p. 51)
That, I can relate to. It wasn’t comic books, I didn’t know those existed in a form other than the Archie and Jughead comics available in the check-out line at the grocery store. But I was surrounded by books, and paper for writing was always available. My parents didn’t insist I go out and play. I stayed in my room and read voraciously. There was no wavelength of the community to pick up on.
But I lived in small-town America during my formative years, not the teeming, crowded life of Baltimore. My family life was unstable, but I was never forced to learn the history of anything other than what I was taught in school and the books I chose to read.
In some ways, I envy Ta-Nehisi Coates’ upbringing. It was unsafe, unpredictable, and hard but he had someone who made sure he was taught about the Knowledge and the things which were important to know about surviving in his world.
But envy is a useless emotion, especially when taken in the context of this:
The most ordinary thing – the walk to school, a bike ride around the block, a trip to the supermarket – could just go wrong. (p. 55)
A white girl couldn’t possibly know, much less understand, what it was like to be unsafe just by walking out the door. I couldn’t possibly have known why belonging to a gang of some sort was often the only option for survival. “The streets” meant nothing to me other than something cars drove on.
I can only thank Ta-Nehisi Coates for sharing his life so honestly. For opening himself up so I could get a glimpse of what it means to be something other than what I am. He has given me insight which grounds my liberal tendencies in something other than the theoretical. He is the story teller I would most love to sit and ask questions of as I learn what his world is like.
There is no way I can give a comprehensive review of The Beautiful Struggle. What I can say is that I understand the meaning of the beautiful struggle as it applies to my own life and the evolution of my self, and world. I know every one of us has a beautiful struggle going on.
I encourage you to read Ta-Nehisi Coates and open yourself to the deeply personal way in which he writes about being black, male, and in America. His is important work, and must continue to be disseminated, especially in the turbulent times we find ourselves in under the Trump administration.
I rarely say this about any writer I read. Clearly, I enjoy many authors and have learned quite a bit from reading. But I rarely say I think their work is important to anyone but me. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work is important, and it should be read by everyone.
Written in the form of a letter to his son, Coates explains what it means to be a black male in America. The fragility of a black man’s body, based on the need to know how to navigate the physical world without incurring the wrath of anybody along the way.
It was hard to for me to imagine how fraught life could be for someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates. How could I? My experiences growing up white in mostly safe neighborhoods where I could concentrate on enriching my life would never have prepared me for understanding what it’s like to be black, and male, in America.
To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding. (p. 111)
There’s a lot to think about here, and Coates does it so elegantly and eloquently. Between the World and Me changed my understanding . Having to explain to his son what to it’s like to grow up black and male in America, to explain why his parents are hard on him, or why their reactions often seem overly harsh, is to be uncommonly self-aware.
Never have I read such a powerful work. Never. His description of navigating his Baltimore neighborhood was rife with literal boundaries and secret codes, any violation of which could get him beat up. Ta-Nehisi Coates attempts to make sense of the senseless. While explaining to his son, it becomes clear that there is a sort of sense in the chaos, but only to those who are so invested in making sure the “other” oppressed.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work is important, his words are important. They’re important because they point to the nonsensical and say, “How can this make sense?”