By Susan Grigsby / Daily Kos
Over 50 years before I had ever heard the term white privilege, I sat out in the backyard of our middle-class suburban home and finished The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. I can still see the bright green grass and the blond wicker furniture, and the curling corner of the paperback book.
And I remember thinking that even though we lived in the same nation, we occupied different countries, James Baldwin and I. He lived in a world that I had never known existed even though it occupied the same city streets. His book’s impact on me was profound, as the kaleidoscope of my reality shifted and never again returned to its original angle.
The following year was personally tumultuous for myself and my family, which may be another reason that I remember that afternoon so vividly. In later years I thought that 14 was too young to be grappling alone with issues so complex. And perhaps it was, but the unfiltered result of that reading was that I could no longer accept that the reality I perceived was the only one that existed. And while I suffered from the same absolutism common to any teenager, always in the back of my mind lingered the knowledge that maybe everything I thought I knew was wrong.
Please join me for a look at the writing of the man considered by Toni Morrison to be the one to fill the intellectual void left by James Baldwin’s passing.
Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published by Spiegel & Grau
July 14, 2015
I think that if James Baldwin were alive and writing today, he may have written something like this book. Because if Baldwin were alive today he would be forced to conclude that we were not able to dare everything as he hoped we could do 50 years ago. He wrote in the conclusion to The Fire Next Time:
If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others— do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!
Or perhaps Ta-Nehisi Coates is the fire.
In his latest book, Between the World and Me, he takes us on a tour of America as experienced by a black man. Warning—it is not a pretty place. It is not the America of the Dream, but rather of the reality:
To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us.
Intentionally formatted like Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ small, powerful book is addressed to his son, Samori, and was prompted by his response to learning that the killers of Michael Brown would not be prosecuted. He warns his son:
And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.
He makes clear that the police in America only carry out the will of the nation and that our criminal justice system was not imposed by a “repressive minority,” but by our democratic will. That it was a majority of voters who approved of the policies that resulted in the incarceration of black men, and the brutality of the police on the streets.
Coates argues that the economy that created America’s prosperity was built upon the backs of the slaves who were brought here 400 years ago. That the cotton economy fueled the entire industrial revolution is something that is unlikely to be taught in any of the school textbooks that have been rewritten to downplay slavery as the cause of the Civil War.
He presents a scathing indictment of American Exceptionalism, the belief that it is “the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.” There is not much exceptional about building a society on the plunder of stolen land, stolen labor, and stolen lives, but American Exceptionalism will now be emphasized in Advanced Placement U.S. History classes. It is this belief in the fairy tale that is part of what Coates refers to as the Dream:
It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.
There are no easy answers in Coates’ letter to his son. There isn’t even the glimmer of hope that was offered in James Baldwin’s conclusion to The Fire Next Time. There is a lot of fear, and some anger, both justified. And there is always the struggle.
And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.
As a white woman, I doubt that I was the intended audience of this book although I should have been. Most African Americans are already familiar with the truth that Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently presents. It is white Americans, especially those Dreamers, who most need the strong dose of reality contained within the covers of this small book. It may make them uncomfortable, but that is a good thing.
Originally posted at Daily Kos.