The pursuit of consciousness about the nature of society in the United States and our role in it is a process that never stops. For me the quest led to Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award-winning book written for his teen-aged son. As a letter, it is personal. As an essay, it is powerful. In sentence upon beautiful sentence Coates describes the deep insecurity he feels, an insecurity founded in the reality that his body, like the body of all African-Americans, is and always has been at risk in our country.
You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. . . . So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all.
One only needs look at the news for proof. The Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants, and Eric Garners speak to us about the value we place on black people’s lives. Now that they are not literally property in our country, we either incarcerate them or kill them with impunity. Their killers are not held to account.
For Coates, this is all in service of what he calls the “Dream” that “people who think of themselves as white” live in and support, whether consciously or not. The Dream is “perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.”
The Dream is embedded in our mythos and founding documents. Coates admits that “for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been and option because the dream rest on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. . . . You cannot forget how much they took from us and how the transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”
The wealth of our country was founded in the theft of land, in the killing of the previous inhabitants, in slavery, and in the exploitation of poor people and the natural world. Everything must submit to our Dream, and we cover those crimes by calling the victims “savage,” “uneducated,” and other euphemisms that mean we believe they are less human than ourselves.
We are captured brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of American. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.
Even education – close to my own heart – is not spared from the light of Coates’ analysis:
It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, “intend’ for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Learn to play defense – ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistake were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.
But, “this is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”
I take this to mean that struggle is important, whether we think will see justice in our society in our lifetimes or not, and I am reminded of words spoken by Cornell West in a speech I saw him give, years ago now, in Oakland: “I am hopeful, but I’m not optimistic.”
I do not pretend to truly understand what West meant when he said those words, but I do know what they mean to me. They have become a refrain that I have spoken to myself as both mantra and motivation in the face of the persistent injustice I see in the world. They mean that I don’t expect the world to improve; I don’t expect our country to truly recognize the humanity of all its people and all the world’s people; I don’t expect my people – who we call white* – to stop exploiting the people of the world, including each other, and especially those we call people of color.
So I’m not optimistic, yet I have decided to remain hopeful. I get up each day because I hope to create a little more love. I strive toward justice and humanity for myself and for everyone around me, even as I fall short of these ideals. To stop trying would be giving in to the worst of humanity. For me that would be oblivion, a life I’d rather not live.
The story Coates tells is important for all of us to understand, especially at this moment in our nation’s history when many people feel powerlessness and fear as they look at the world around them. For some, the response is blame and hate. I think Coates’s answer is to look carefully and without illusion at the violence and injustice of our society, both past and present; to acknowledge the apparent impossibility of change; and nevertheless to struggle forward toward change with as much humanity and love as he can find. How much he finds is up to each of us.
I do not mean that we, as individuals, must stop being racist. Coates is not writing about the individual racism he and all black people face every day. He’s writing about the structural racism that is endemic in our educational system, in our justice system, in our economic system, in the foundation of our country. So our responsibility is not just for ourselves, but for the society as a whole. We must look for and root out the systemic injustice that hides in the procedures and policies and ordinances – and, yes, in our hearts. It feels overwhelming and impossible. But we have seen that change, though difficult, is possible. That is the struggle.
* To be clear, whatever ethnic culture my family had was erased in the maw that we call whiteness. I know now that I come from Swiss and probably English and German stock. My mother’s parents immigrated from Switzerland and settled in Chicago in the early 20th century. My grandfather was a second son without inheritance and earned his living as best he could, exercising a hard frugality that stayed with him to his dying day. My father’s people were farmers in Indiana, and before that Ohio, but we don’t know when they first came to the US. My grandfather ran a general store at the crossroads a quarter-mile from his home. Both my grandmothers were homemakers and child raisers. If they ever worked outside their homes, I have never been told of it.