“So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Give me a thinking man and I will sup at his table. This is what reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me feels like. Coates’ words drip from a tube of nourishing reservoir bag, coursing evenly through the body in slow sipping motion, it’s hard to imagine ever thirsting again. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues for TheAtlantic.com and the magazine. His book Between the World and Me released in 2015 won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Coates also received the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2015.
In Between the World and Me, Coates meanders but not aimlessly on the issue of race in America, the place of the black man and the social order long imbued in the history of the most powerful country on the face of the planet. Like a jab at the heart of a man coding, Coates’ aim was a jolt from the delirium, a snap back to reality, a reality that nothing would be offered to the black man on a platter of equality or equity with his fellow white. This isn’t so much a rallying cry than it is a book of self introspection – the laying down of one’s own experience and ideas. Sometimes it feels like the laying down of a wreath, at other times it feels like the smashing of a gauntlet. You’d have to decide for yourself.
Between the World and Me was one of those blockbusters everybody was talking about in 2015. President Obama had it on his summer reading list that year too. Many a times blockbusters and intelligent books don’t reside in the same pod. This one’s a double whammy! It is written in the form of an epistolatory piece from father to son, which makes it the more poignant. It is confrontational in tone, addressing race in America. It touches on that almost-forbidden paternal love from a black ‘endangered’ American father trying to protect his son from a fate, even he really doesn’t have the remedy for. The father’s existence in itself is hung thinly by a cultural thread that regards him as inferior to his fellow citizen. Coates in this book wrote on social justice, the civil right movements and sundry other topics. This mint size book (compared to many others on this list) is fascinating in its scope and sheer profundities, the beauty of the prose and the superbly crafted sentences that bring home a message that is a grim depiction of an America so polarized by a racial fissure deeply etched into its foundation.
I couldn’t help thinking how universal truth is and how it can be deployed here in Nigeria. Instead of us trying to bury the past, that has refused to stay buried, shouldn’t we just un-clutter the dark basement of our history once and for all and see what direction we find.
This is not a book to talk too much about. The book talks plenty about things in its small fist punch. Here:
“I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.”
“Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”
“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”
“I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”
“One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.”
“The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean.”
“My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”—as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.” – this quote left me reeling.
“Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.”
“You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.”