The buzz around Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book Between the World and Me was tremendous this summer. As Coates and his publishers released excerpts of the book, it became clear that it would resonate with numerous readers of color and would challenge people of various backgrounds.
Released in July, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), chronicles Coates revealing to his son, Samori, observations, frustrations, and experiences about being black in the United States. The book, which raced to the top of the New York Times’s bestseller list, argues that it is U.S. “heritage” to “destroy the black body.”
Coates takes to task the myths we tell ourselves about the founding of this country, and the delusions of “the Dreamers,” who, he says, “have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.”
There is a significant overlap between Unitarian Universalist demographics and Coates’s Dreamers, and so the idea came about to have a conversation about Between the World and Me through Facebook messages among five UUs of color. A passionate, thoughtful dialogue unfolded over the course of the next several weeks. The participants included Jacqui C. Williams of New York, a black woman seen by many in the black UU community as an elder; Kat Liu, a Chinese-American woman from California’s Bay Area; Adam Dyer, a middle-aged black male seminarian in California; Ashley Veronica Boyd, a twenty-something black woman and active participant in the Black Lives Matter movement; and UU World senior editor Kenny Wiley, a young adult black man who facilitated the discussion. Edited for length, the following discussion reveals how Coates’s prose moved each of them.
Living in fear
Kenny Wiley: To get us started, let’s talk about the fear Coates brings up early on. He writes to Samori on page 14: “When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such.”
In what ways do you feel this fear personally? How does it shape you and other people of color with whom you are close?
Adam Dyer: I feel an underlying fear every time I enter a new UU space. I am acutely aware that often because these are predominantly white spaces, and because people “mean well,” I become their contact with diversity. It means I am subject to doing race work instead of being truly part of community. I have to be “on” and on my guard.
Ashley Boyd: I feel fear when I hear about stories like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, or when I hear the echoes of my parents’ warnings about my “smart mouth getting me in trouble” (which has never gone away!). I feel the fear as a black woman who is cognizant of the connection between racial justice and women’s rights.
When Coates talks about his experience as a black man feeling this way and his powerlessness, I wonder if he’s thought about the black women in his community growing up who probably felt this way even when they were amongst other [black] brothers and sisters. I feel most afraid for my body when I’m around racist whites or sexist men of color and say something in defense of my personhood. Those moments when I interrupt people’s oppressive behaviors is when I’m most vulnerable.
How does this shape me? It’s shaped me to be more loving toward people of color because I know the hardship they’re going through.
Dyer: An important part of what underlies Coates’s work here in terms of fear is the fact that he is a black male talking about the black male body at all. Part of the fear that I have experienced as and among other black men is rooted in a certain kind of reflexive physical “disembodiment.” I think in his reference to the “extravagant” boys, he’s calling out the overblown, over-decorated, overly mannered ways many black men have learned to present themselves. This masks not only some basic insecurity about masculinity (that sadly manifests in certain misogynistic behavior) but also a learned internalized fear of physical potency.
From a very early age in this country, black boys are taught that they are seen as sexual/physical predators by society. At the same time, because we are also fighting for a male identity, we believe we must strive for a hypermasculine identity.
Jacqui C. Williams: Completely agree with the hypersexualization of black bodies; however, I believe it is gender neutral in our objectification. The fear of not meeting expectations starts very early and, as Coates writes, stays with us long after we realize it is a setup.
Kat Liu: Up until a few days ago, I would have said that the reason why white society (and even some of black society) sanctions these murders by the police was due to white fear of black people.
But Coates is adamant that white fear is not the primary motivator of police brutality. Brutality and murder are sanctioned as a tool to maintain the Dream of “American” (i.e., white) exceptionalism. In order for someone to be “on top” someone else must be “below.” So this fear of the hypersexual black male is completely manufactured in order to justify lynchings past and police shootings present.
Wiley: It being Coates’s work, and a letter from a black man to his son, much of his conversation revolves around black men and boys. I detect in [Boyd]’s words a question about whether Coates has considered the fear black women face. One of the primary critiques among readers is that womanhood is on the edges of the story.
Dyer: Black women definitely need to be heard and seen and deeply discussed. Is Coates the person to do that? I don’t think so. His work here is unique because it is from a black father to a son.
Williams: This is a book by a black man to his son. Very few references are made to Coates’s mother or wife. This for me doesn’t highlight a lack of love or respect, just not the topic at hand.
Boyd: As Coates speaks truth to power on his experience as a heterosexual cisgender black man in the U.S., his privileges do shine through at times. That’s what I was getting at. We can respect his work and hold it in high regard, as I do, and still hold him accountable. Therefore, I think my critique about the connection of bodily autonomy with racial justice and gender justice is one of serious relevancy.
Wiley: While I respect that he was telling a particular story, black women have been much more a part of his story—and part of the larger black story in the U.S.—than Between the World and Me lets on. I’m not sure he even mentions his wife’s name. The stories we choose not to tell also matter.
Liu: As a Chinese-American woman, I can directly relate to what Coates says about the drain on his energy, constantly having to think about who he is with and how to behave with which group. I can relate to not having control over how I’m viewed by the majority. And the anxiety around whether a space is safe. But for me the consequences of an unsafe space generally are not life and death, as they are for him and other black Americans.
I get why it’s not Coates’s responsibility (nor his son’s) to get white people to see the myriad consequences of “whiteness.” But given that white supremacy relates to Asians differently, and we are far less in immediate danger, is this work then for me to do? Am I helping or hurting when I engage?
Boyd: I’m coming to see multiple ways the Black Lives Matter movement addresses how non-blacks can be in the fight, as BLM is a movement against anti-blackness—which has traces in many racial groups.
I have a desire for coalition building. As we lift up black voices, how do we still honor the plight of Latino immigrants that are being killed and detained, or else taking sanctuary in UU and other churches? What I’d like to see is ownership of “horizontal hostilities,” or people of color entities getting into it with each other—while also challenging folks to be in solidarity on anti-Asian or anti-Latino sentiment.
Distorting the civil rights movement
Wiley: I wanted to lift up a new point: Coates’s commentary about the way the civil rights movement was talked about in his school. He writes: “[I]t seems that [February] could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life—love the dogs that rent their children apart,” and so on. “Why are they showing this to us? Why were our only heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality.”
And later: “It does not matter that the ‘intentions’ of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. . . . [A] great number of educators spoke of personal responsibility in a country authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility. . . . ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”
This section really hit me hard. In our UU churches, “The Sixties” can sometimes be used as a weapon, complete with references to the perfect morality of MLK and a sense that any performance of blackness that deviates from that is somehow impure, be it criminality or the method of protesting or something else.
Liu: I often joke that, in UU circles, the two “high holy days” are Earth Day and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The civil rights movement holds so much import for UU identity as well as black identity, as we saw in the UU response to the recent 50th anniversary of Selma.
Yet whenever something is held in reverence like that, there is the danger of distorting it and/or co-opting it to some other purpose. Even though I continue to hold King and the civil rights movement and the philosophy of nonviolence in highest regard, I agree with him (and you) that these things have been used as a weapon to condemn anyone who understandably wants to fight back.
Boyd: I’ve been thinking about this a bit with how the responses to testimonies of racism are met with denial, hostility, or flat out erasure, which I would call a form of epistemic violence.
Williams: Coates noted the bios that were allowed and which were not lifted up as being too radical or not the role we wanted emulated. As a child of the ’60s, I wasn’t convinced that MLK was the be-all-and-end-all to our issues, or that others didn't deserve notice. Malcolm X was considered a militant in my household, which made him very attractive to me.
At that time, I had never heard of Unitarianism or Universalism, or realized that progressive, white, liberal religions would be quoting a black Baptist minister in their services. When I was introduced to Unitarian Universalism, I was struck at how many MLK quotes were used and references made to “beloved community.”
Liu: Not only is MLK heavily favored over Malcolm X in UU communities, but the quotes from MLK that are lifted up are the ones that can be seen as more conciliatory and the ones that are more “radical” are ignored.
Wiley: Indeed. I often lament at how much I’ve had to “unlearn” about the civil rights movement, from misunderstanding Dr. King’s philosophy on down to thinking more Unitarian Universalists were involved in the movement before [the] Rev. James Reeb’s 1965 murder in Selma. The movement for racial justice, then and now, was more than a handful of major figures.
An abridged version of this dialogue appears in the print edition of UU World (Winter 2015), pages 50-51, 52.