I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me. In case you’ve not heard of it (which I can’t imagine, but stranger things have happened), Between the World and Me is a long letter that Coates wrote to and for his son about living with a black body in America. He painstakingly details what it’s like to have a body that’s malleable and fragile under the white body’s desires, depending on their mood or the day. Such a body can be taken away without reprimand: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Samuel DeBose, Freddie Gray. To live in a black body, he writes, is to constantly live with fear and anxiety. Don’t move too fast. Don’t move your hands. Don’t be caught wearing a hoodie. Don’t own toy guns. Stay calm and polite. You might live, then. You might.
My head is down, looking at my phone while I type. I have a black maxi dress on with dark red lipstick–noticeable attire when it comes to living in Austin, TX. I stand out. Broad shoulders, confident walk, perhaps I’m asking for this. Maybe it’s none of these things that make me a target. Maybe it’s my tanned skin, my kinky hair–everything about me that screams “Danger, Will Robinson, danger” when it comes to pasty, middle-aged white dudes who can’t tell colors apart except for “doesn’t look like my own.”
Either case, whether it’s my attire or just the fact that I dare take up space as a woman walking down a sidewalk, two police officers decided to make snide remarks as I walked past them to get to a coffee shop Monday evening before my night class began. “Look at this one,” one of them leered. “Walking past us without looking. So cocky.” “Yeah, man,” the other replied, laughing. Because how funny it is to flaunt your uniform. Because how funny it is to make students feel uncomfortable on their own campus. Because how funny it is to make them stop for just a moment and think to themselves, “What happens if I don’t keep moving?”Because, that’s all it takes these days, isn’t it? One “aggressive” movement. One snappy quip.
I kept moving.
Not everyone has that right.
The most striking thing to me about Coates’s book is the tangible anger that emanates off the pages. The sorrow. The indignation that this still happens–that it ever did in the first place. The overall question of what it means to bring up children, to bring up a son, in such an environment where his body will be judged instantly based solely off the appearance of his skin. A world where he’ll watch the news, and he’ll hear how over and over again white bodies can decide whether or not a black body continues to live, and there’s no consequence for that decision. There are never any consequences.
A recent episode of Black-ish titled “Hope” dealt with this question extremely well, Coates’s book came up a couple of times because the eldest son had recently read it. In a devastating moment, Dre and Bow (the mother and father) come head to head about what it means to live black in America. It’s heartbreaking, and well worth watching, so I’m including it here.
There’s a medieval title illustration for Song of Solomon that depicts a black woman and
a line of the texts reads, “I am black but comely [beautiful].” Some academics have found that what it used to say, in some manuscripts, was “I am black and comely.” What a difference a word makes.
I don’t have any eloquent ways to say how much Coates’s book affected me. It’s powerful. It’s tragic. It’s quietly hopeful. As Toni Morrison blurbs, it should be required reading. Everyone should read this book. Everyone, especially white bodies, should have to confront the harsh reality of what it means to live with a black body, because somehow so many of us remain blind or ignorant. Sometimes both.
Maybe, someday, we’ll live in a world where there are consequences for that ignorance.
[Disclaimer: Being a part of a movement or a cause when you are, yourself, not a part of the community being attacked, means admitting your privilege and letting them speak. It means fighting with them, not for them.]