Brief thoughts on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me

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Is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me,  styled as a letter to his 15 year old son Samori, the opposite of the song that has become somewhat of a rallying cry at some Black Lives Matter movement events, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”? I have read critiques of Coates’ book which lament it as “hopeless” or “bleak”. The Atlantic, where Coates writes, has gathered substantive critiques of his new book, where people have shared their thoughts about the book’s sense of hopelessness, despair, and seeming theme of a life of struggle.

I disagree with these critiques. I do not find Between the World and Me hopeless, despairing or bleak at all. I really like Coates’ straightforward explanation of how racism and white supremacy, manifested in laws, policies, and culture, have structured the lives of African Americans. He doesn’t provide false hope that centuries of plunder of Black lives will end in the near future, cause it won’t. The plunder, disappearing, and death of Black people is ongoing, and it is going to take ongoing struggle to end it. That is what I think Coates is speaking to when he says that all we can do is struggle. We will not upend white supremacy in his lifetime, maybe not even in his son’s lifetime, but the point of the struggle is to keep chipping away at it, so that maybe the struggle won’t be so hard for our children and their children. Each slave rebellion, though not erupting into mass resistance, did the work to chip away slavery’s grip a little at a time. Yes, legislators passed harsher laws to strengthen the slavery system after these rebellions, but they were also on notice that enslaved people were not content with their oppression and could rebel at any moment.

From 1619-1865 the United States held Black people in slavery. From 1865-1877, we had a period of reconstruction, where the federal government passed laws to protect the humanity of Black people, and some Black people ascended into powerful positions in government. From 1877-1965, we had a legalized Jim Crow system that not only segregated Black people politically, socially and economically from the rest of the country, but also plundered Black communities and families financially. Starting in the early 1970s and continuing until today we have seen massive rollbacks in legal civil rights gains and the hyper incarceration and criminalization of Black people. I don’t know what this era will be called in the history books, but I know that in 2012, with the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, three Black queer women created Black Lives Matter, and that this movement is in it for the long-haul. I truly believe that one day we will see the end to white supremacy, racism, gender oppression, prisons, police, and criminalization. There will be setbacks and the government will (is) surveil and target our movement, but as long we keep struggling we gon’ be alright.

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