This book review, with special focus on the black queer bodies’ mention in the book, was first published as “Hate Gives Identity: How ‘Between The World And Me’ Explains Breakability Of A Black Queer Body” in Gaysi Family’s Opinion section on February 25, 2020.
Borrowing it’s title from a poem by Richard Wright, “Between the World and Me” is a modern classic that’s part memoir, part meditation of black African-American lives.Tweet
“Son, Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.” So begins this book. I wondered why would a journalist get flummoxed to answer this question asked by another. But there were multiple reasons to do so. First, it’s not a question. It’s an affirmation that the lady anchor, a white woman, was one of the subscribers of a White America, and its American “Dream,” which in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates has been built using black bodies. Second, why it needs to be asked to a black man what it means to “lose” his body; and instead why not meditate the cause due to which a black person loses their body.
There’s a way in which nation works. And some nations believe in their “greatness.” They believe in their masculinity, their powerfulness, their unbreakability, their purity. It happens in India in the form of Caste. And it has happened, and continues to happen, in America in the form of race, which Ta-Nehisi Coates breaks down for anyone to understand in a lay person’s language in this book. This book, which has been called by Toni Morrison “a required reading” and calling Coates heir to James Baldwin, is written in an easy and accessible, yet direct, letter from a father to his son.
Black Body Is Breakable
On hearing this question, Coates writes, that “an old and indistinct sadness” well up in him. And he wanted to yell at the anchor why it’s so difficult to understand that the answer to this question is American history itself. He reminds what Abraham Lincoln had said, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth;” in doing so he writes that Lincoln was not being merely aspirational. From Lincoln’s speech the important aspect to reflect on is not the government, but to interrogate what’s meant by this political term “people.” Who defines it? Who defines one’s citizenry? Semblances and echoes of this conundrum are reflected in the recent protests back home against the CAA, NRC, and NPR. Semblances of this are reflected in the passing of the ridiculous, and ironically named, Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, which dehumanizes trans* people.
By skipping this question (defining what we mean by ‘people’), by letting one community perish at the hands of the other, by doing what any State does — exercising its unquestionable power by using “fear” as an instrument to silence the dissenters — Coates writes, to his son, that it is, then, designing itself “to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”
Coates writes, “Fully 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the country. But it does not.” It does not disgust people who’re believers of preserving a divide in the society. Instead people who feel entitled, who are privileged benefit from it. And to prepare their children to fight with this world the vulnerable and marginalized people always ensure that they learn this difference in the treatment early on: this attitudinal change toward them. Coates’ mother was no different. She taught him to read when he’s four and taught him to “write, by a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation.” It’s this investigation that’s reflected in his writing when Coates remembers Prince Jones, a colleague, who’s murdered by a PG County officer. The preservers of divide acquitted the officer. The “Dream” preserved the “Dreamer.” And set another example that being black makes you vulnerable.
A Queer Black Body Is Rather More Vulnerable
It’s well-known that Coates began writing this book out of frustration. It wasn’t a frustration why no one was writing about the atrocities and humiliation that a black body suffers, and is ignored by writers. But he’s disappointed why no one was writing like Baldwin. He called his editor at The Atlantic one day and questioned this to him; in response he urged Coates to do so. To fill this void left by Baldwin.
James Baldwin was a black writer, and a queer person. Whenever one studies Baldwin only as a writer, they’re missing the point. They’re totally ignoring what Baldwin stood for. Being black makes your breakable; but being a black and a queer person makes you doubly vulnerable.
Being “black,” Coates writes was “someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.” However, he’s reminded of a time when he was violent as well in his conduct. It’s through the anecdote below that he describes in this book, and for which he meekly apologies as well, I’ll explain why I wrote that Baldwin was doubly marginalized and vulnerable.
“I fell again, a short time later and in similar fashion, for another girl, tall with long flowing dreadlocks. She was raised by a Jewish mother in a small, nearly all-white town in Pennsylvania, and now, at Howard, ranged between women and men, asserted this not just with pride but as though it were normal, as though she were normal. I know it’s nothing to you now, but I was from a place—America—where cruelty toward human who loved as their deepest instincts instructed was a kind of law. I was amazed. This was something black people did? Yes. And they did so much more. The girl with the long dreads lived in a house with a man, a Howard professor, who was married to a white woman. The Howard professor slept with men. His wife slept with women. And the two of them slept with each other. They had a little boy who must be off to college by now. “Faggot” was a word I had employed all my life. And now here they were, The Cabal, The Coven, The Others, The Monsters, The Outsiders, The Faggots, The Dykes, dressed in their human clothes. I am black, and have been plundered and have lost my body. But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder, maybe I would take another human’s body to confirm myself in a community. Perhaps I already had. Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man.”— Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
If you reread this you’ll know how meticulously Coates is explaining why we need to see intersections of our identities. As a black person, Coates is marginalized. But, in another situation, as a heterosexual, he becomes the oppressor and uses his heteronormative privilege on a “little boy,” who was fag. A hatred of black body from White America gave rise to a “black” identity. Similarly, we’ve an identity that’s risen out of hatred: Queer. Hatred of those who’re society. Hatred of those who want to continue living conforming with the set standards of the society. Again, hatred of those who’re subscribers of a politics that ensures division stays. And that’s the “Dream” of our country now.
It’s this “Dream” that marginalized Baldwin. It’s this “Dream” that gave him his identity.
Advice to His Son
Coates doesn’t believe in giving moral lessons. Or withholding a piece of information from the past from his son. And this author happily endorses this fact. Coates didn’t write this book as an advice for his son to navigate through the White America, but what he did was that he reminded him of what he is, and what the White race is capable of doing to him. Coates says to his son that neither he nor his son can change this. What one can do, essentially, is struggle.
I liked how the persecuted here, in Coates’ advice, don’t take on themselves the onus of changing the system, but reminding the White race that what they’re continuing, if it continues, will set them and their children up for failures.
In his own words for his son: “I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.”
Also that he should, “Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer that we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.” This advice, in particular, strung a cord with me. This is how you train your children, telling them upfront and not fooling them with creative stuffs that prepare them to dream an utopian world. Reminding his son of how this system works, and how the officer who murdered Prince Jones was acquitted and how others have been rewarded for killing black people on mere suspicion, he writes, “Destroying the black body was permissible—but it would be better to do is efficiently.”
Doing this Coates has made his work resonate with the lived experiences of anyone who’s been marginalized, brutalized and victimized. Be it a black person, a woman, a queer person, a trans person, a Dalit, and anyone who by one form or one way or the other is set up to fail in a system that’s created to “Dream” for a better world for one set of people by using others.
It’s now, today, that this book needs to be read. And it’s this #BlackHistoryMonth when we should acknowledge the brilliance of articulation of a black person’s advice to his son more than ever.
Featured image credits: Author’s Instagram (@writerly_life)