There is a lot to say about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, most of which is positive and acutely receptive to what Coates so powerfully presents. I’ve read countless responses that circumnavigate discussions we’ve had in class yet make sure to establish personal connections with the text. It’s remarkable to actively watch a body of diverse individuals interact with a text that is so honest about the condition we live in. Perhaps what enlivens me the most is that I fall into Coates’ target audience (people of color), yet I’m engaging in thoughtful and well-articulated conversations with people the book was not intended for (white Americans). In this respect, the greatest revelation I’ve had from interacting with this book is not the painful awareness that our society is suffering, but how many Americans are, in fact, blind to the systematic oppression at the center of it all. And they are not afraid to admit it.
Between the World and Me is written so to educate Ta-Nehisi’s son of the world he will grow into; a world that is racist and systematically set up to break down his body. Many of my “privileged” classmates responded with shock when learning the harsh reality that people of color are subject to live in. One student commented on how the nature of race-related conversations she had encountered up until Between the World and Me are spoken with regard to ethics and human morality. They go on to acknowledge the optimistic tone of hope in African literature that convinces people of color the afterlife will offer salvation even if their current life is rooted in oppression. This tone is not present in Between the World and Me and because of such the honest reality of what Coates is saying is met with urgency. We must do something here and now. We must be made painfully aware of who has privilege and how systems set in place are meant to keep them there. It’s not only a matter of human decency; the root of oppressive evil functions like a machine.
My siblings are white and I grew up side by side with them, not realizing the significance in skin tone that separates us until I was much older. I did not have many friends of color growing up nor did I understand how their upbringing differed from mine. I was raised in the suburbs, living peacefully in a guarded community, whereas a majority of diverse students commuted to school from a small city that is home to a huge immigrant population. With that being said, my childhood does not mirror the image of growing up that Coates presents to his readers. In this respect, I can relate to my (white) peers that were raised quite differently, yet it didn’t take me until college to see the other side of the story. Even though I didn’t live and breathe the black upbringing that Coates presents, I was taught that it did exist, that I was fortunate to have an education and economic stability to further myself and my success. I was taught that even though I am smart and talented, people will treat me differently because of how they may choose to perceive my body. This was always a reality to me, even if I didn’t endure it daily.
To read and see my (white) peers blindness to that systematic oppression that has surrounded me, even though I was not always directly impacted by it, reveals the weight of privilege in our society. But I greatly admire their ability to admit the truth of the matter, to openly confess their “blind eye” as a result of their positionality. One student writes, “After reading the book and having further validation from many students in the class, I feel like I have had a blind eye on what black Americans really go through. I had no idea that this talk even existed; perhaps it is because I am from a different generation, possibly it is because the teachers glossed over the facts in school, or maybe it is because I never had to worry about these issues because I’m white, probably all three. It just goes to show that this topic needs to be more widely filmed, talked about, and written about. It needs to be thrown into people’s faces, it needs to be explored by the blind eye, it needs to be made present.” For me, this is the primary purpose of what Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me seeks to exploit, whether that was his intention or not. It is reactions like these, moments of communicative understanding, that redefine how someone interacts and interprets the world around them for the better of all people living in that world. This is what makes a difference; this is what will break the machine.