Between the World and Me
“Historians conjured the Dream”
I recently read my first Ta-Nehisi Coates book titled “Between the World and Me.” I was raised on the idea that the American Dream was for all citizens but in the last several years there have been numerous books and articles detailing how the Dream was engineered by White Americans for White Americans, or as Coates puts it, people who believe they are White.
Being a semi-elderly white man from the Midwest, and now living in a liberal bubble in Tucson, my exposure to any black experience has been minimal. I, along with everyone else my age, was exposed to the massive propaganda disguised as entertainment from television, movies, and adventure stories from the 1950s and 1960s, portraying non-white people (native Americans, blacks, Hispanics, east Indians, etc.) as stereotypes, cartoonish, and foolish.
Below I paraphrased the synopsis of “Between the World and Me” written by Reetu Varadhan of Boston University’s Arts and Sciences Writing Program:
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay Between the World and Me is at once a cautionary tale, an analysis of contemporary American society. Written as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, Coates uses his own adolescence and young adulthood as a means to communicate the reality of existing as a black man in America, thus creating what appears to be a how-to guide for the young black American. But this summation is surface level.
What message would Between the World and Me, a letter from a black man to a black teenager, carry for a white reader? One answer is Coates’s implicit suggestion that white people, and by extension the American media, should learn to discuss black life via black struggle instead of the inherently racist American Dream. This switch, however, is not offered as a solution to racism; rather, Between the World and Me serves as a call-out to the largely white media on their perpetuation of a quintessentially racist ideal, regardless of whether or not Coates explicitly intended for it to do so.
The keystone facet to Coates’s description of the black American’s reality is his separation of black Americans from so-called Dreamers—i.e., those who can and do follow the American Dream, which purports that the ultimate goal of life is a nuclear family, white and suburban with two-point-five children. Coates almost immediately dismisses the notion of a Dream that is, and has never been, accessible to black people.
He laments “the burden of living among Dreamers,” who “nullify the anger and the fear” of the black experience in order to preserve “their [own] innocence”; this concept of existing “among” but not as Dreamers draws a clear distinction between non-Dreamers and Dreamers, between black and white, between prosecuted and prosecutors. Furthermore, the claim that Dreamers intentionally delegitimize black pain in order to preserve the rosiness of the Dream suggests that Dreamers are willfully ignorant of black strife, and that the Dream is a tool with which Dreamers can justify their maintenance of the status quo.
And here are a few passages I marked from the book (the entire read is outstanding):
That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”––as a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty. Some things were clear to me: The violence that undergirded the country, so flagrantly on display during Black History Month, and the intimate violence of “Yeah, nigger, what’s up now?” were not unrelated. And this violence was not magical, but was of a piece and design.
The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own.
But American reunion was built on a comfortable narrative that made enslavement into benevolence, white knights of body snatchers, and the mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor, and élan. This lie of the Civil War is the lie of innocence, is the Dream. Historians conjured the Dream. Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Area, was gilded by novels and adventure stories. John Carter flees the broken Confederacy for Mars. We are not supposed to ask what, precisely, he was running from. I, like every kid I knew, loved The Dukes of Hazzard. But I would have done well to think more about why two outlaws, driving a car named the General Lee, must necessarily be portrayed as “just some good ole boys, never meanin’ no harm”––a mantra for the Dreamers if there ever was one. But what one “means” is neither important nor relevant. It is not necessary that you believe that the officer that chokes Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.
Here is what I’d like you to know; In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body––it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor––it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random mangling, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible––that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.
In the next paragraph Coates goes on to quote South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun, “The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black. And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” There were many like Calhoun before the Civil War but unfortunately that kind of thinking is still prevalent today.
So, a little Baldwin can’t hurt…