It was clear from the beginning. The book club wanted to choose a book that shed light on current events. They wanted to somehow talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, white privilege, white fragility, blatant, subtle, and institutional racism…and they asked me if I had a recommendation. I turned to some of my Facebook groups and asked for their insight. I knew great pieces of fiction that I had loved growing up – Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is among my favorites. But that didn’t fit the criteria: Non-fiction and current.
My initial suggestion clearly wouldn’t work. I was given several options, but this is a church book club. It had to be all around pretty clean, especially language. Then someone suggested Between the World and Me. I admit the book had been on my to-read list for some time, and I didn’t even really know that much about it. The woman who suggested it gave me the thumbs up on passing among the church ladies; and the book was selected. Between the World and Me. We then found that some of our friends or their children had this book as required reading in classes – all the more reason to explore these written words.
I love to read. And I’ve read a lot. Nothing that I can recall, however, has been quite so difficult to read. Let me be clear. It is extremely painful to read the experiences that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes. Writing to his 15-year-old son, Coates doesn’t worry at all about my fragile heart. He doesn’t care what white adoptive parents or his white neighbor may think. His audience is his son.
On a larger scale he is speaking to the African American; those who have been cast down, trodden upon, and still fighting population of the United States. United states. Are we? How united are we? As I read, I felt very distanced from the cruel life he was exposed to from a very early age.
Growing up white is certainly different than growing up black. That is among the many reasons why, as difficult as it was to read, it’s so important for white adoptive parents to open the pages of this book. Paragraph after paragraph, I felt assaulted by shock and sadness. Like I said, it was difficult to read. This wasn’t a book you pick up and read at the beach.
Coates describes growing up in a world where there aren’t options; there is fear. Fear is what leads to survival. Many times his friends chose a more violent path, however, it all stems from that base of fear. I can’t imagine living a life where I constantly wondered if I was safe. Even as he grew, matured, and attended his Mecca – Howard University – he wasn’t released from the sense of fear. In fact, when his friend, Prince, was shot and killed by a black policeman, it only radicalized his thinking and pushed him to scream out for change.
Though he was surrounded by others who had hope, I don’t feel hope was ever a vocabulary word he used or was real to him. In fact, much of the book felt very dark and hopeless. I truly felt verbally assaulted, time and time again, with despair, sadness, and hopelessness. As I read, I wondered why I continued to read on when it only brought such depression to my usually optimistic spirit. I read forward hoping for hope. It never came – at least not from him.
Coates lays out a pretty beaten life where the white man takes the body of the black man –literally and figuratively. Constantly in the clutches of this greater power, the black man struggles to get a step upward. Yet, his wife and Prince’s mother – they were the ones who kept me from sinking to a point of ultimate sadness. I find it significant that these women – these mothers – were the ones who carried a desire for change and to fight, while keeping hopes flame burning.
Beyond sad. Beyond angry. Beyond heartbroken. But full of hope that it will get better ONLY if we work for it.
His wife wasn’t stopped by racism. She fought to be what she wanted. She travelled the world and opened possibility to Coates. The closed eyes of Coates that his upbringing nearly scarred shut were peeled open. Prince’s mother, who lost her boy, was full of faith and hope in something greater. Beyond sad. Beyond angry. Beyond heartbroken. But full of hope that it will get better ONLY if we work for it. I imagine Prince’s mother as a woman who would rally the troops and give them that amazing before-battle speech. She was full of power, strength, and light. These two woman kept me reading on.
I found myself reading and rereading passages as it sunk in, to make sure I was grasping what he was talking about, because his experiences are vastly different than my own. I have an African American daughter and sons who, even raised in a white family, will experience an America that is different than my own. My white skin will not “protect” them or shield them from racism. So I ought to know what some of the worst is all about and what they may face.
Beyond that, however, I need to know what’s going on in some of the cities across the nation especially if it’s not my children’s experience. White parents, if we have black children who have had a pretty great life, we should be appalled by what these boys and girls from neighboring cities experience. We should rally around them because…those kids could be our kids. In fact, they are our kids.
As an adoptive mom to black children, I feel a responsibility to seek knowledge so that I can appropriately act. Growing up, my mom made me believe I could do anything I set my mind to. I still believe that. It became a part of me. But she didn’t tell me through her words or her actions that other little girls were incapable because they were girls. Or because (sigh), sadly it’s just the way it is. I knew she believed this about the human spirit: that we can do what we set our minds out to accomplish. I want to instill that same tenacity and vision in my own children.
I truly believe that their skin color, though in a very real way makes life more difficult for them at times, it cannot stop them from what they want. Or will not. So I learn and continue to educate myself on black issues. Why? Because I want my children to know that it’s not just them I care about. It’s the human race. That we are all worth fighting for and that I will stand up for what I think is right. That when their friends from school come over, that I believe in them too and I will fight for them.
Reading Between the World and Me was not “fun.” I think I’ve made that clear by now. However, reading this book has changed me, opened my own closed eyes shut tightly by society, and solidified my resolve for a better tomorrow. It’s a book we all ought to open up, or at least start by being open to the messages within it.