Grieving the American Dream
There has been a beautiful, hot buzz around Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book ‘Between the World and Me.’ You can’t go anywhere without seeing someone read it or engage in a conversation without someone asking why you haven’t read it. Frankly, we needed this. And we need more of this. TYPICAL wanted to encourage readers and conversationalists to keep the buzz going and in order to do that, we will share three pieces with you from three different readers and their three very different perspectives. If you have not read it, it is not too late and if you have, talk about it. This subject matter is hard, uncomfortable, and disagreeable. But so is growing up in a black body. The conversation is as fragile as the skin. Please handle with care.
“I realized: I don’t know what it’s like to grow up grieving.”
At a bar in Silverlake on a Friday night sometime in July, I found myself arm in arm with a man I had yet to decide my feelings about, celebrating the birthday of a girl I had yet to meet. It was new and uncomfortable, and exciting and weird, as all new relationships are, and soon he found himself in conversation and I found myself alone, scrambling to find a familiar face. Scanning the room, I saw a friend of mine who had recently written a piece for TYPICAL. As we talked, he said something that changed the way I looked at “the race conversation” indefinitely.
“We have to be sensitive because people are grieving over it.”
It was there in Silverlake, surrounded by the trendiest white people in all of Los Angeles, I realized: I don’t know what it’s like to grow up grieving
“…my conversations in my adult life thus far have centered around two things: racism and feminism.”
To give you a background, I am a white (Irish and Danish), mid twenties petite woman with green eyes, freckles, dainty hands and feet, ladylike style, and feminist ideals. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, where I remember only two kids of color in my high school, both adopted. Crime was slow, practically non existent, and the spirit of the American dream was as idealistic as an episode of Leave It To Beaver. I currently reside in Los Angeles, California, after living in Boston for most of my early twenties. A lot of my conversations in my adult life thus far have centered around two things: racism and feminism. As a woman, I know what it’s like to have your life defined by your body, but it is as a white woman.
There isn’t a page in Between The World And Me where Coates doesn’t write about his body, his son’s body, the bodies of the fathers who have left their sons early to navigate life within a flawed system, or the bodies of unborn babies of black mothers who are already worrying. At first I thought he was overstating his point, always circling back to “the body”, but the truth is, the black body and the American dream have been intertwined since the birth of our nation. White society stood on romantic ideals and the pursuit of happiness while it kept the black man under the heel of it’s boot. While white society thought the war on race was won in 1863, the rest of the country fights a silent battle, wounded daily by the ignorance of their fellow citizens. The system is flawed because the foundation was flawed. White Americans are both too scared and too ignorant to address the issue head on, myself included.
“I realized they were hurting—hurting before they knew judgement, hurting before they knew hate…”
I am naturally quite a sensitive person. I studied songwriting, music, creative writing, film, and now practice graphic design. I use all of these outlets to somehow explain what I feel, yet I struggled to open up to the realities my black brothers and sisters face in America today, out of fear of being offensive or insensitive. It wasn’t until I realized they were hurting- hurting before they knew judgement, hurting before they knew hate, or hurting before they saw the ignorant scowl of a small eyed boy in middle school pull a gun from his pocket- that I felt I could speak freely about color in America. White privilege had built a white picket fence around my heart (some would call that the American Dream) and the moment I realized my friends were hurting was the moment the fence came down. Sadly, it should have been brought down years ago. Fear is a crippling thing, but compassion is beautiful. I found compassion when I felt their grief.
I will never know what it is like to come into the world and live in a country that was built on the humiliation of the black man’s body for the white man’s gain, but I can say, however little it may be, I can see it. I hear Coates when he writes about the black body being just a body to the American Dream. The ideals of the United States, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are not inherently bad, but when built on a flawed foundation that favors it’s white citizens, it becomes void. It is my hope that through genuine relationships, I may be able to start fruitful conversations about race, gender, faith, and love, but none of that can happen within the confines of a white picket fence.
“We are not raceless.”
To white people, I want you to remind that we are not raceless, and although we can't rewrite history, we can start conversations. We can bring down our fences. To ignore the grief and fear of our brothers and sisters in America today would be our generations greatest failure. Taking away all you know about race, gender, or faith, and realizing all people hurt and hope and dream will be the moment you are set free, your fence will fall, and then, you will feel grief, too.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Illustrated. Spiegel & Grau. $24.