Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book review: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I could not put it down.

I thought it would probably take me weeks of bringing this book along with me for my solo meals out, which is how I do much of my reading. I'd get through a bit here, chew on it, bite off a bit more, etc.

Instead, I read it from beginning to end in one sitting, staying up long past my bedtime because I prefered reading it to sleeping. I began the book as my accompaniment for a solo meal out, that meal ran into more than two hours, then I brought it home and continued to read it until I was surprised and saddened by the last page.

This is at once a beautiful, touching, moving and profoundly insightful book. It answered, in one swiftly deft sweep of elegant prose, questions about racial identity in America that have puzzled me since I realized that I was "white" and there were other people, mostly distinguished by skin color and economic class, who were "colored." I would guess I was around four or five years old when I first wondered why white and colored people were so angry with each other. It was 1964.

This book is written, earnestly and sincerely, as a letter to his son. There is no artifice in this. It is a letter from a black father frightened for his black son, who wants him to understand his situation and be able to discern lies from truth as he deals with it. He almost too-dryly lays out the dangerous situations over which his son will have no control other than over his own actions and mental repose, explaining each with simple equations of self-interest, power and brutality.

He then details his own struggle and evolution with all this, honestly unearthing his own now-abandoned limited views of the world, some left on the streets of Paris and some left on the boulevards of a now-gentrifying Harlem, now strolled by white women with strollers, the very neighborhood in which I live today and read this remarkable book.

He describes white people as "people who believe themselves to be 'white.'" This distinction is the central revelation of this book for me as a man of caucasian and European descent.  I was primed and readied for this view because I've never felt my "white" identity was something real.  I'm a little Northern European on my mother's side, a little Southern European on my father's.

I've had my DNA sequenced, so I know that my father's ancestors emigrated from Northern Africa to Southern Europe fifty-thousand years ago, about twenty-thousand years before my mother's ancestors came out of the Caucus mountains and moved to Northern Europe.  I have more in common genetically with people in the Basque region of Spain than any other currently identifiable region, but my father's family regards it's European roots as being in Alsace, we have record of a DeWald as a tax collector in the region in the eleventh century.

However, the name DeWald has it's richest history in South Africa, at least for the last couple of centuries, and in German, it means "of the woods."

So, WTF am I?  A German/English/Basque/Alsatian/Afrikaner?  I'm all those things, but according to the US culture, I'm "white" along with my friends whose ancestors followed an entirely different path.  We share a skin color and assumedly "not one drop" of the adulterating "colored" blood.   That's what makes us white, and it is the only thing that makes us white.  We believe we are and so does everyone around us.

This is the point that Mr Coates makes so eloquently.  "White" isn't a race, as such, it's an identity, and the degree to which one possesses the identity (in their view and in the view of others) determines which side of the racial dividing (white vs. non-white)  line one lives in the United States.  The United States has, in Mr. Coates view, a heritage of enslavement, a history of violent oppression, and a continuing practice of violating non-white personhood.  He points out, coldly and rationally, that non-white people, today, still lack boundaries and protections against institutional and state-sanctioned forms of systemic violence.

White people, or as Mr. Coates reminds us, "people who believe themselves to be white" take inviolable boundaries and protections against these kinds of institutional and state-sanctioned manifestations of systemic violence for granted.  This is what really makes them white.

I live in Harlem.  It would shock me to the very core of my being if a NYPD officer stopped and frisked me for drugs, weapons or contraband.   It would be a turning point in my life, a story I would tell for years, something I would pursue remediation for to the full extent possible, with no fear of further persecution because I chose to do so.

I walk by black men being stopped and frisked by NYPD on these same Harlem streets so routinely that I hardly take notice of it.

There's nothing rhetorical about that.  It's a fact of my own life.

If I had a black son, I would require him to read this book.  Today.