Saturday, July 4, 2020

Between the World and Me: a review

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. I think I will need to read it three more times through to understand all that is in it. The cruelty and love and history and hatred and injustice and victories - small, fragile, even temporary as they sometimes are - pile on top of each other in this small book with the might of 500 years.

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Between the World and Me is a history lesson. It is an autobiography. And it is a love letter between a father and his 15-year old son, one that acknowledges how much of their relationship has been determined by the fear with which a Black person in America lives every day, and the force of that fear in seeking to protect their children. Fear is the third party in this book - fear, and an impressive bravery to continue. Coates writes with power, intellect, and honesty that, as I said, requires re-reading. You must work your way up to absorbing these truths. They are not self-evident, and yet when you read them, they are as undeniable and obvious as the ground beneath your feet: 
  • Race does not exist - it is not a scientific or biological reality. Again. 


  • That is not to say differences don't exist, or that cultures don't exist. It is to say that genetic difference does not make us separate races. 
  • Race was invented to justify racism. 
  • In order for one human to own another human, they must first create some inviolable difference that makes the owned human not human at all. That invention was race based on skin colour, it could just have easily been eye colour or height or arm span. Literal ownership has changed, but the results still echo.
  • I am not white by biology but by training. My delicate sensibilities. My freedom to look away from what upsets me. My desire to be rescued. My opinions and outspoken-ness. These are markers of whiteness more than my lightly-melanated skin. 
Author and Son.
As Canadians we so often want to distance ourselves from the reality of America - of it being built and sustained on the blood and bodies of stolen people. But we are, at the very least, complicit in the continuation of that domination. We trumpet the Underground Railroad as proof of our goodness, ignoring that many of those who found their way to Canada returned to the US seeing no more opportunity here than there. We feign colour-blindness, further denying a reality we don't want to acknowledge and erasing others for their difference. We pretend that Black Canadians aren't policed as heavily as Black Americans. We pretend that race is real and justice is abstract. 

Toni Morrison said this book should be required reading. It should, for most of us, also be required re-reading. Few people who call themselves white will really be able to take in what Coates says on first read. 
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