To know the truth about the incredible battle black people in America fight to survive and thrive, you must read Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In a graphic, eloquent and passionate missive to his teenage son, Coates writes about white America, he calls them The Dreamers, and their attitude toward black people today.
Coates begins the book with his experience growing up in West Baltimore. He reflects on the violence and fear that were always present in his neighborhood— but not outside of it.
“This country was really built on – the destruction of black bodies and families rather than the romanticized vision people who call themselves white have today,” Coates writes. And whether you agree with him or not, the fact that so many unarmed black men and women, including Coates best friend, have died at the hands of white male police officers is painful testimony to the truth of his words. This reality prompts Coates to ask the question blacks have been asking since we were brought to this country, “How do I live free in this black body?”
Coates does an excellent job of describing the complete isolation and entrapment he felt in West Baltimore, “…there could be no escape for me or, honestly, anyone else.” Despite his initial belief, Coates did get out, with the help of his parents. His mother taught him how to read at four, and his father, a research librarian, introduced him to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. They helped him develop the intellectual curiosity and critical thinking skills he needed to be successful in the world beyond West Baltimore.
Coates acknowledges the vital role his family and friends played in his success,
“…I didn’t always have things, but I had people, I always had people. I had a mother and father who I would match against any other. I had a brother who looked out for me all through college.” Of his friends Coates says,
“…I had friends who would leap in front of a bus for me. You need to know that I was loved.” And, he ties that love to his son,
“…I have always loved my people and that broad love is directly related to the specific love I feel for you.”
That power to embrace and strengthen has been part of Black culture since time immemorial. I know this because I grew up in a family that loved and mentored me. From an early age, they taught me how to think critically and challenged me to pursue excellence in everything I did. As an educator at an HBCU I do the same thing for my students. This is the strength of black communities in America; it is how we will continue to survive and thrive in spite of gross injustices done to us — just as Mr. Coates did, I did and so many others but more are needed.
Coates doesn’t tell his son how to deal with the conflicting worlds, ideas, desires, emotions, motivations and futures that a young black person faces today. He tells his son that culture, history, beliefs and values are more powerful definers of groups and how they relate to each other than any artificial declarations such as race. His message— knowledge is power; the power to choose your circumstances in life. Cotes gives his son, as well as those of us fortunate enough to read Between the World and Me, a powerful and provocative epistle that challenges us to see and understand the African American experience in America.
Dr. Granville M. Sawyer Jr., is the author of “College in Four Years: Making Every Semester Count.” An authority on helping minority students achieve success in higher education, he is a professor of finance and director of the MBA program at Bowie State University. He writes about education and life at GranvilleSawyer.com and tweets @ProfGMS.