Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.
Last week I had the opportunity to lead the book club discussion at the library I work at. I chose the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A few weeks before the meeting I was talking to a colleague about it, and it hit me: this could actually be a really, really difficult discussion because of where I live. (Deep in the heart of Utah County, where people say things like “all lives matter” without even flinching, where that trumpy way of thinking about race—oh, all those Black people are just overreacting and it’s not like slavery is still a thing so can’t we just move on?—is very prevalent.) Plus, what was I thinking, a white woman in a white community trying to a lead a discussion about a book that explores how racism impacts people of color?
But I had picked it because it still feels important to me, for all of us to have these conversations, even if my community doesn’t necessarily share my values.
There were no fireworks at the discussion, but it went about as I had expected. One member loved the book like I did, but the rest were some varying level of that trumpy thought process. One woman said something that’s stuck with me, about how the author seems to have a chip on his shoulder and is making himself miserable. If he’d just focus on what has changed instead of worrying so much about how things used to be, he’d be so much happier. He’s impacted by racism because he chooses to be, and if he just chose something different he’d be fine.
I didn’t say what I really felt about that, which is that that is a way she looks at the issue is also a choice. We all bring ourselves, our race and culture and religion and experiences, to every choice we make. I strive to choose to look beyond myself, to allow that others’ experiences are different than mine and that my role isn’t to tell them how they should feel or act or choose, but to listen and try to understand. (Actually, what I really thought was it doesn’t seem like you understood the point he was making but I remained professional and didn’t say that.)
Another question I asked, which is something I ask in all the book group discussions I lead, was “what other books by people of color have you read that have impacted your understanding of racism?” I listed some of mine: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Beloved, An American Marriage, Audre Lorde’s collected essays. Then: crickets. No one had a response to that question. Then one of the group members asked “but isn’t that racist? I don’t read books based on the race of the author.”
Sometimes life contradicts imagination. There was a part of me (the hopeful part that chose the book in the first place) that imagined a great discussion about what these white people learned about living as a Black person in America. But that conversation still can’t be had, at least not here.
I don’t know how to write that without sounding like I’m judging, or like I think I’m smarter or better than others, and that’s not my intention. I just don’t think in the same ways most of my community does, and I am so hungry for discussion that makes me feel seen instead of strange.
All of which is to say: Recently I reread Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I read it when it was fairly new, and my memories of it were vague. I read a library copy before, but this time I bought my own, and it is full of underline and comments. While I don’t think Coates’s philosophies are without argument—he takes an awfully long time to realize that “the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I could never truly know.” But I disagree heartily with the book club member’s idea that he should, basically, “just get over it.” “Look on the bright side” is, to my mind, a particularly Mormon way of thinking, and while yes, it is not great to always be stuck in the darkness and misery of human life, not looking at what is real is equally, if not more, damaging. It’s not about carrying a grudge, it’s about hitting up over and over against the fact that as an African American, he is treated differently, and I appreciate him sharing the details of what that is like so that I, at the very least, understand that all perspectives are not the same as my own.
I’m glad I read it if only so I could be reminded of this metaphor:
The right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.
And the rest of that concept speaks directly to the book club member’s perspective:
There is no them without you [remember, this is a book written as a letter to his son, so the “you” isn’t you the reader but you, the author’s son], and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream.
I’m not entirely outside of the Dream. (I’m not sure any white person can be.) But I am trying to be aware of how my life influences others in ways that lessen their divinity. The patron is still deep in the Dream and can’t (yet?) see that not everyone is there with her.
But I’m also glad I reread it, if just for what he wrote about writing. How writing is a way of thinking, of figuring out what you think about what you experience. And this line, which struck me hard not because I’m white and he’s Black but because we both love words:
All I then wanted was to write as those black people danced, with control, power, joy, warmth.
And this is me entirely taking out of context what he wrote. He didn’t write it for me, a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman. But as myself, I want that too. Not that I want to write like others, but that I want to do it with that control, power, joy, warmth. As an expression of who I am.
I’m glad and grateful that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this book and that I got to read it. (Reread, and also listen to him reading the audio.) It has helped me understand the world better, and that is a source of power.