Hope & the American Nightmare
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.
“All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and recreate yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in face — this may sound very strange — you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”
— James Baldwin
This relevant quote from Baldwin has haunted me in recent days as I continue to explore what it means to inhabit my body. Though a coherent collection of words doesn’t (and shouldn’t) exist to describe the complexity of blackness, twenty-seven years of exploration has assured me that he unfortunately speaks the inconvenient truth. This “very strange” undertaking of defining personhood appears to be at odds with a variety of societal forces that complicate our existence. “Democrips and Rebloodicans” are playing games with the black electorate while religious institutions use altruistic language to similarly avoid compromising their comfort. Simultaneously, black entertainment has skewed and, at times, undermined the personhood that it claims to advocate. Above all, the past year of government interactions has re-salted an already raw wound that was falsely reported “healed.” With this complicated labyrinth to maneuver, it’s obvious that blackness is under siege from various sectors of the ideological spectrum.
In the shadow of the tenuous circumstances that the black body encounters throughout the American social structure, writer and social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates thankfully fast-tracked his second book, Between the World and Me, a searingly honest letter to his firstborn son Samori. As a voice, Coates is as much maligned as he is celebrated. His vocal progressive champions are contrasted by fierce conservative critics who predictably see him as a menace unworthy of the praise he receives. In that sense, he is much like his predecessors. However, instead of drawing the lazy direct line from Baldwin to Coates as some seem content to do, I prefer to allow TNC the freedom to decide who he is without forcing upon him preconceived ideas of who he should be. As one reads this narrative, it is vital to remember that he is his own complicated man.
The principle question throughout the text surrounds how Samori, and all who society considers black, will inhabit their bodies in the spectrum of American life. This is far from an original question; and in his words, the question “ultimately answers itself.” On the other end of the spectrum, he saves his remaining energy for harshly describing the “dreamers” that America’s society has produced. He asserts that, in the mind of the dreamer, black life is simultaneously profitable yet expendable. It is an inferior existence to be subjugated and exploited when it conveniently benefits the established power structure. Though this is (still?) a debatable premise in the society at large (see “All Lives Matter”), Coates makes his case with impressive conviction and rhetorical flair.
To him, the American Dream Nightmare is what we were intended to experience.
His uncompromising words are tailored for his son but have continued to resonate with me as I read and re-read them. He speaks as a big brother eager to give his younger siblings the “real” story that the parents are too careful to tell us. And he held back none of what we truly needed to hear, even when it pains us. After reading the 152 pages he pens, the early admission that he refused to comfort Samori in his grief surrounding the Mike Brown case is entirely believable. I did not smirk at any time while reading, and could only muster misty eyes when I saw myself between the lines. This is not a book for the faint of heart. It is unafraid to evoke raw emotion.
In this regard, comparison to his exemplary predecessors is more than appropriate. Though he is firmly irreligious, Coates cannot help but channel the cynical prophetic voice of his ancestors. His pages echo the bluntness of Baldwin, the vividness of Morrison, and the impatience of Malcolm mixed with a dash of 21st Century progressive annoyance. Most noticeably, it is smothered in realism, the kind that a doctor must summon to deliver the grim news of impending death. Rather than re-voicing the “America has failed to live up to its ideals” standard-issue proclamation, Coates diagnoses the United States as having mostly functioned properly according to its own design. To him, the American Dream Nightmare is what we were intended to experience.
“I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal.”
The letter most noticeably resounds with this raw kind of “unoriginal” fear. Coates is certainly defiant, but he still worries. He is angry but also fearful. This honesty is refreshing in light of his place on the mountain of modern elightenment. He refuses to tell Samori the typical lie and instead shoots straight: intelligence is not a shield from the abuse of your body. There is no fluency of language or peak of academic achievement that will ensure such protection. Samori cannot rest on the invulnerability of respectability. No one can.
This fear is particularly striking as he retells his trip with then 4-year-old Samori to see Howl’s Moving Castle. As he slowly moved out of the theater, he engages a white man and woman who push his young son out of the way dismissively. After a brief heated exchange, the disgruntled white man reminds the writer, “I could have you arrested!”. In his story, he expresses what is also my greatest fear: “One must be without error out here.” As I maneuver through the cultural checkpoints of society, I know that I must obey. I must be “safe”. I must be perfect. Coates taps into the book’s strongest human emotion in this section of the book: humanity. We all are subject to profound imperfection. We will not always be perfect or safe or meticulously obedient. In those moments, who will defend our humanity? Who will affirm our personhood? When we are not perfect, who will protect our bodies?
I fear for my unborn son and daughter in the same way Coates father feared for him. I daily pray that they will not be volunteered against their will into this high-stakes game of perfection with their bodies in the balance. I fear that they will hear their flawed father speak out of turn and become a punching bag for an authority figure. This fear must be confronted honestly to process the black experience in America.
“I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.”
In many ways, I understand Coates’ penultimate advice to his son. One need only to scroll a social media timeline to see this generation’s disillusionment with the concept of hope. When it comes to their future safety in the American culture, what does this generation know of “hope”? What is hope when the most enduring image of last year was a prone, lifeless black body in the center of a normally busy street? What is hope when a black, bikini-clad teenager is pinned face-down on the grass in the presence of her friends? Who can speak of hope while black bodies are deemed expendable by government action and inaction? Yet, he paradoxically still instructs Samori to “hope for them” who have bought into the American Dream. This juxtaposition between hope and struggle is a tension I have observed in the Black Lives Matter movement. Hope is not seen as it once was. But if I were to lightly critique Coates and BLM, I would say that without substantive hope, we lose a core element of our identity.
A hopeful spirit is the quality that makes the black experience in America especially unique, an airtight indictment of and stirring testimony to our country’s idea of freedom. It is the glue that gave our ancestors the strength to persevere through the hot steel that hugged their wrists and whips that tore the flesh from their backs. This undeterred hope is precisely what made us who we are in this American society. Coates’ misstep is not that he tells Samori to hope, but that this attribute is glaringly absent from the rest of his letter. A lack of hope weakens the fundamental expression of blackness and drains optimism from our legacy. Hope is essential to the struggle. They are most powerful when they are complimentary rather than contrasting forces.
Through Between the World and Me, Coates embodies the fear and hopelessness that characterizes the black experience in America. Though his conclusions will continue to be challenged, there is little doubt that he is blazing a different path for others who have chosen to recreate their black bodies, “according to no image which yet exists.”
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Illustrated. Spiegel & Grau. $24.