I wonder, even as I type this, if I have the right to review this book—a middle-class white girl living in a liberal arts college town. This isn’t a review as much as an expression of gratitude to this book for helping me become aware of, what Coates describes as, the White Dream and helping me to become “a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
I grew up in Redding, Calif. which, in the 1980s and 1990s, meant moving through a sea of light skin. My elementary school photos show rows of shinning white faces. I never thought of myself, or my parents, as racist (I still don’t). After reading “Between the World and Me” I realize that I am asking the wrong questions about race and that I am still part of a system which robs black Americans of their bodies.
America and the White Dream (which “smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake”) is built, literally, on the bodies of black Americans. The blood and sweat of slaves watered this country’s first crops, cotton and tobacco. First and foremost we can never forget that.
The Dream of being White created both race and racism. “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world.” However, nature does not name things. Man does, aiming to create and maintain hierarchy. According to Coates, putting store in physical attributes—eye, hair, and skin color—and believing such attributes can successfully organize society “are at the heart of the White Dream.” Also at the heart of this dream is a need to feel safe, and the belief that America is “a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, and enemies of civilization.”
“They made us into a race,” Coates said in this letter to his son. “We made ourselves into a people.” This letter is a series of honed questions, and an exploration of how, as a black man, Coates found his own black diaspora—Mecca—and how he protects himself, and his son, against the daily robbery of his body. I feel by turns angry, horrified, and ashamed—but awe as well at what humans accomplished in the face of pervasive, legislated, cruelty.
I can never fully understand what being black feels like—to grow up in a home where hardness is love, to be told to be twice as good and accept half as much, to know that the worst is always assumed about me. I will never be privy to the incredible wisdom that Coates refers to. This is part of why I read however—Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, James Baldwin, Pearl Cleage, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Julian Bond, Martin Luther King, Michelle Alexander, Cornel West, even “Black Like Me” as an inquisitive pre-teen (and again as a college student, with a very different reaction).
Coate’s gives me a deeper understanding of the history of slavery and the government policies which continue to enforce the code of race. He also offers a perspective I can relate to: “All are not equally robbed of their bodies, the bodies of women are set out for the pillage in ways I could not truly know.” I don’t know what being a black woman feels like, but I do understand the pillaging that the female body is set out for—what being born into a body culturally treated as currency feels like.
I wonder if I have the right to review this book; but if I don’t share this review am I continuing to buy into the White Dream? Writing about this book is my first conscious act since being woken enough to realize I live in a White Dream, since being made aware of the fact that, whether I consider myself a racist or not, racism is the legacy—the heritage—of my country, and I am still part of a system that creates and enforces race. My first conscious act is to say please, read this book. Coate’s writing is informal, not traditionally poetic; however, his words offer a distilled wisdom and a path away from “loose and useless words… and thoughts.”