I am still learning what it means to black. Thoughts of my identity have lingered in my head ever since I realized that I was somehow different, that I am a person of color and portions of my life have already been determined for me. I didn’t always know this or the extent of what it means to be a disadvantaged citizen in a “post-race” nation. I began reading, paying attention, and curiously observing the world around me until I was made painfully aware of how my existence, my genetic makeup, would leave me subject to a man-made invention—racism. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me has helped me understand this condition further, especially at times where I have trouble digesting the societal structures set in place to marginalize people who look just like me. As Coates would say himself, “knowing was freedom,” and for this, I embrace the act of learning the truth about my history (48). It is texts like Between the World and Me that uplift the black body in a reality systematically designed to objectify it.
Between the World and Me reminds me of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen primarily because both texts have forced me to actively think about conversations of race and the necessity to correct the cycle of racists behavior in the United States. Coates presents us with knowledge that can be difficult to stomach but presenting it as a letter, code-meshed with historical relevance, current events writing, and personal memorabilia, allows readers to be more receptive because there is an emotive layer to the text that beckons you to think contextually. I position myself with Somori, despite the fact that I am separate from him, not to mention the difference in life experiences. I did not grow up “black” in the way Coates depicts his own upbringing, but I did not grow up cherishing the American Dream either. My mother immigrated to this country at eighteen and immediately discovered that assimilating into foreign territory can be dangerously demanding of a brown body. She promised me a better life, filled with opportunities, but that meant there was no room for behaving badly. Immediately, I am reminded of Coates when he writes, “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say “accept half as much’” (90-91).
I cannot forget the look in my mother’s eyes when she cried to me, distressed by her belief that my future is limited because of how people can choose to perceive me. The amount of time that went into preparing my hair for job interviews or the countless times I’d have to change my clothes so people wouldn’t think I was “ghetto ” all remind me of Coates’ notion of “the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time” (91). He is essentially confronting how black and brown bodies are denied the luxury of the Dream, and only after my mother confronted me with her fear did I realize I experienced this denial daily. My younger sister inherited generations of recessive genetic material: red hair, hazel eyes, and pale white freckled skin. She can leave the house with her strawberry hair in a tangled mess, but my natural mane would not be welcomed with the degree of respect she is met with. She could wear ripped jeans, dye her hair pink, and get by with a B average, whereas I was on house arrest for piercing my ears and I lost my technology privileges for bringing home less than an A. In my youth, I did not understand where my mother was coming from because high school history class had me convinced that times have changed, but now I admire her support because unfortunately, times are still in need of change, despite the fact progress has been made.