Margaret Gassner reviews Between The World And Me on racism for Salt & Iron

Awakening from The American Dream

… I have an adrenaline rush every time an officer
drives right past without pulling me over

and I realize
I’m going to make it home safe.

This time.

Rudy Francisco, “Adrenaline Rush”

Most Americans are well-aware that our country has a regrettable track record with race relations. Sins are named, heroes are lauded, and victories are toasted. The demons of the past have been exorcized, or so the narrative often goes. 

This common assumption showcases both the allure and the naivete of “The Dream.” 

Living in a black body in America today, it turns out, is still not particularly easy. In the form of a letter to his fifteen-year-old son—part memoir, part history lesson, part directive—Ta-Nehisi Coates articulates this reality with flowing, urgent language in Between The World And Me, published in 2015 by Spiegel & Grau.

The Dreams We Love and the Lies We Believe

Coates begins his letter by relating a news interview. The journalist inquired why he had stated that “white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence.”

This question, according to Coates, is both unanswerable and self-answering. The short answer to the question is “American history”; the long answer forms much of the remainder of the letter.

The journalist’s question, he reflects, was asked from a place of naivete, as if she were in a dream. While never explicitly defined, “The Dream” becomes a central feature of Coates’s argument. This illusion could be summarized in two key points: firstly, that modern Americans have left behind the racism of their past; and secondly, that the sins of the fathers have left no scars on the sons.

Coates proceeds to explore the theme of The Dream through a narration of his own life and the evolution of his own thought through four phases. Growing up black in Baltimore, he was first introduced to the “rules of plunder,” namely that a black person must “be twice as good” but “accept half as much.” In this crucible, he learned the value of self-interrogation and made his first forays into the world of writing. Attending college at Howard University (“The Mecca”), he sought, constructed, and subsequently lost a new, idealized history of his people as “kings in exile.” 

At The Mecca, he realized that his people were by no means alone in world history as a group selected as “other” and targeted for violence. Leaping into the challenges of fatherhood, he wrestled with his desire to ensure his son access to all the possibilities the world had to offer while facing the reality that he was unable to assure his son even basic bodily safety. In this position of impotence, one desire emerged: for his son to become a “conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” Moving to New York in the summer of 2001, he soon had the opportunity to be just such a conscious citizen himself. As the city lamented in the wake of a devastating terrorist attack, he was left cold by the thought that terrorism on American soil was nothing new for his people.

That terrorism has gone by many names and taken many forms over the generations—slavery, segregation, and lynching, to name a few—but Coates identifies a common source of them all. Somewhere along the way, he writes, a terrible belief became ingrained in the collective mind: “the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible.”

The Truth We Need

Regardless of whether “race” should exist in our society, the reality is that it does. Coates’s letter proceeds to ask the logical next question: What is to be done with that?

Writing from the perspective of his own atheism, his answer to the question rings hollow. Struggle, he concludes, is the answer. He urges his son, and all who are styled “black” by the language of race, to struggle for remembrance, wisdom, and community. Indirectly, he acknowledges that those styled “white” have their own struggle, but his letter does not address what that struggle might be.

To any conscientious citizen of modern America, a brief survey of the news might also argue convincingly for committing to the struggle. The Apostle Peter proclaimed that God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), but I have discovered that I am a great respecter of persons. I give preference or make snap judgements on the basis of education, mannerisms, grammar, title, and a host of other incidental issues that may have little correlation to a person’s core character.

Scripture clarifies that only one weapon can be pervasively and ultimately effective in the struggle. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28 (ESV). His weapon for the struggle is the unifying characteristic of fellowship through Jesus Christ. It is not that the other characteristics no longer exist. Rather, we can finally appreciate them for what they truly are: gifts that bring beauty and diversity into life, not boundaries to divide us or grounds for superiority.

In Coates’s conclusion, he reflects: “They made us into a race; we made ourselves into a people.” From the ashes of violence, terrorism, and oppression emerged the beauty of a distinctive, resilient culture. The great struggle of our generation is to embrace the strength that diverse cultures bring to our society. Coates lends a powerful and thought-provoking voice to the effort, but his proposal for action lacks the spiritual roots for lasting success.

Author: Margaret Gassner

Margaret (Freeland) Gassner graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in Accounting and German. She returned home to the Pacific Northwest, where she works in the estate, gift, and trust tax group at a large accounting firm. When she’s not at work, you might find her outside hiking or in the kitchen testing a new recipe. She and her husband also enjoy running a small Airbnb and contributing to the hospitality ministries of their local church.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *