[This review was originally written in April 2016.]
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Audio narrated by the author
The author writes a letter to his 15yo son about what it means to be a black American, the way our nation’s history has been twisted and rewritten to serve the purpose of making the perpetrators look better, hiding the truth to showcase what is more palatable. The ways we are taught untruths our whole lives, creating another level of ignorance because those of us who call ourselves “white” are often so unaware of why we think the way we do, act the way we do, assume our place in this world. It is just the way it is and we don’t question it because it is not thrust in our faces from birth that we don’t “deserve” it. It is not even on our level of awareness. It is just part of us. It sucks to know we are insensitive jerks and don’t even realize it.
Racism: The need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them.
My take on this is that even if we don’t have malicious intent, our ignorance in itself is malicious. We need to wake up and see the truth. With sincerity, I’ve got to say that really is hard to do. It feels like being pulled out of the mud. There is a suction there that keeps us mired in it, and even if we break free, it will take a lot of doing to finally wash ourselves of the dirt.
At one point, the author describes his visits to Civil War museums and battlefields. He notices that most of the visitors are interested only in the military maneuvers, the muskets, the uniforms, the mess kits, etc. Very few people seem interested in the larger issues surrounding the whys of the war. No one seems interested in the roles black people played in the war, or how their lives were affected before and after the war, or the part their fate played in the decision making of going to war.
Coates mentions a farmhouse at Gettysburg near where Pickett’s Charge took place. It was owned by Abraham Brian and his family, a very successful freed black man. They moved out fearing the influx of Confederate soldiers to the area. I looked this up. When they returned, they faced the destruction left behind. (Some accounts say it was Union soldiers who inhabited the property as it was in a higher location which gave a good view of the surrounding area.) Fences were removed, bullet holes riddled the buildings, crops were trampled, and approximately 106 graves were scattered across his 12 acres. He estimated the damage at over $1,000 (during that time, that would have been a HUGE sum of money). He was only given $15 for his losses. Incredible.
The author said of his Civil War battleground/museum visits,
“Whenever I visited any of these battlefields, I felt like I was greeted as if I was a nosy accountant conducting an audit and someone was trying to hide the books.”
When I visited Gettysburg three years ago, learning about, yes, the military maneuvers of Pickett’s Charge (ha), I don’t remember hearing about this family. Now, I could be wrong. We had an excellent tour guide who was passionate about the history of the area. Maybe we weren’t close enough to the farmhouse for it to be pointed out. Maybe my mind was too full of other information. Perhaps I let that factoid go right over my head, either because I didn’t stop to really think of the significance that would have held at the time, or because I was focusing on those fields and was immersed in thinking about the history of the place and all the ghosts of war.
Perhaps, because I am white (English, Irish, Welsh ancestry), I don’t hold as deep of a tie to black history as I should or own up to its significance or importance unless it is of the “romantic” variety, i.e. the hardships slaves went through, the poignancy of MLK, Jr.’s speech the night before he died, etc. I realize this is distasteful, but I’m being honest. It is shameful. I have black family members. I wonder how my ignorance has unintentionally hurt these people I love? Part of our white insensitivity is that we are taught very little about others in school, and “our” history is revised to make us look good. For goodness’ sake, some places still celebrate Columbus Day! With subtlety, it is ingrained in us to think the importance lies in US, not in OTHERS. I don’t feel a deep connection to Japanese or Afghani or South American history either because it is not where “my people” come from. That doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in others’ histories, but it is not my own. I want to have a connection to my roots, my history, my ancestors, which are mostly lost to me because there are so many generations separating them from me, a true American “mutt”, which proves the author’s point that we white folks aren’t as white as we think we are. I’m not a member of DAR. My ancestors were not on the Mayflower. I certainly did not come from the elite. “We” were farmers mostly. And probably pretty good at making homemade hooch. (Whoops. Sorry, crazy family.)
I’m disappointed with my ancestors for being careless about not passing down our family history. I would be livid if I knew that my history was stolen from me and that it was based on kidnapping, rape, enslavement, humiliation, degradation, etc. And that there is still an unfair, imbalanced, and obvious abuse of power, and it is just accepted in society. I grew up in the Midwest, so I have an affinity toward the plight of the American Indian as well. The same horrible story, then and now. My ancestors, historically, are the cause of everyone else’s hardship. Gee, that’s something to be proud of, huh?
You know when you go to church and you feel convicted by the pastor’s message? This book does that for me. It scolds me, and scalds me, correcting me because of my sins–intentional or strictly borne out of ignorance–or perhaps intentional because of that ignorance. I apologize. I’m a work in progress.