Last week I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015). Actually, I listened to it, and found it a powerfully unsettling book.
I had no knowledge of Mr. Coates and no preconception about the book except that in some sense it was about race. The book is (sort of) a long letter to his son about what it is like to be a black man in America. (“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.”)
I say “sort of” because you have to put aside even that vague description very quickly. Mr. Coates would remind us that in any society there are those whose aspirations to achieve “the dream” will necessarily involve putting some people — identified by color, ethnicity, gender, language or some other characteristic — at the bottom of the well. I think he would say that in 2016 in America that characteristic is still often race.
Mr. Coates tells his son stories about his experiences and about those of his friends and acquaintances. Some are touching and some are extraordinarily upsetting. No one could listen to his account of the death of Prince Jones without horror, shame and outrage.
One of the recurring themes is that the fragility of “the black body”:
We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. A year after I watched the boy with the small eyes pull out a gun, my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.
It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked 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.
But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.
I am convinced that Mr. Coates is telling me truths I need to hear. I am not sure that Mr. Coates tells me what any white American can do to ameliorate the evils he describes. It is better to hear truth than to block it out, of course, but that is not enough.
What is enough?
Mr. Coates declines to believe in any otherworldly justice, though he seems to concede that there have been times when the church has been one of the few refuges for the black body. As I listened to him in the midst of Passion Week, though, I thought that Jesus, certainly, voluntarily offered his body to be destroyed by the system of the world as a sacrifice for all of us.
This is not a “good read,” or an “interesting study.” It seems to me to be an important book that has challenged my assumptions and beliefs. I hope and pray that I will allow it to change the way I act and live, and that God will help me to understand what is enough.