Being the fiction fanatic that I am, I never thought for a moment that my reading choice for Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe would be a work of non-fiction. I had intended to read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche or one of the more recent novels of Shyam Selvadurai. But the calendar got away from me, Booktopia happened, various busy things at work and at home, and boom, I didn’t get to either of those, or any other novel by an author of color. Perhaps even worse, I looked back at my reading for 2015 and the only author of color I have read this year is James Baldwin.
As pitiful as that is, in at least one way, it is fitting that Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin are mentioned in the same breath. In addition to his breathtakingly good novels, Baldwin wrote non-fiction about race in America with unflinching and unapologetic honesty and Between the World and Me is nothing if not honest. In fact, as I have read recently, Coates modeled Between the World and Me on Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in both format and outlook.
For those who haven’t heard anything about it, Between the World and Me is a 152-page letter from Coates to his teenage son Somari. Although Coates’ love for his son, his family, and his friends comes through very tenderly throughout, the overall message of the book is a rather depressing, pessimistic view of what has happened to African Americans, what is happening to African Americans, and what is likely to continue to happen to African Americans. Specifically, he warns his son of the violence perpetrated upon Black bodies on a daily basis in the United States. As someone who thinks of myself as being well informed about what African Americans face, a book like this points out that I don’t know squat.
Some have complained that Coates is too pessimistic. I suppose one could nibble at the edges of his thesis and his approach and find ways in which he may overstate something or paint with too broad a brush. But really, when it comes down to it, it really is just nibbles. The overall thrust of his argument and the outlook he has is not just deeply rooted in the past, it is deeply rooted in the present. It is disgusting how little has changed for African Americans. Whatever advances they may make socio-economically speaking, they still face a daunting, daily assault on their very being. It’s a scenario that requires a very open mind for someone who thinks of himself as white, to be able to take it on board and allow the overall truth of what Coates writes about to sink in–without getting defensive about it.
I think this is the kind of envelope pushing necessary to shake people out of complacency. One of the reasons the environmental movement has stalled in this country is because the average citizen doesn’t smell or taste or see the degradation. We’ve cleaned-up the obvious stuff, but there is still a lot that is hidden and even more pernicious, not the least of which is climate change–the causes and effects of which are so embedded in our society and so stupidly politicized that no one seems able or willing to do anything about it. I think a similar thing has happened with race.
Lest you think this is all too depressing to read, you need to get over yourself and read it. It’s something we all need to face square on. I don’t know what to do about it really, but I feel it cleared away some cobwebs that have been collecting since my much more radical thinking college days. Even with all the shock of the recent press given to violence towards African Americans and the racist hate that has bubbled to the surface since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, I think one still loses sight of, or doesn’t know about, what it means to be Black in America.
So go find out.