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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Between the World and Me and Let's Us White Guys Shut Up Maybe

You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
It’s not often that I pull back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Oz that is Howie’s Book Club: The Blog, but today I will. My basic format is to tell a story or observation from my life, taking up about ¾ of the post, and then hastily and sometimes clumsily tie it to the book that I just read. In other words, I spend most of the time saying “look at me” and then a little bit saying also look at this book. Many posts end up like a “very special” episode of your favorite 90’s sitcom: 15 minutes of mirth followed by a sobering lesson about the danger of caffeine pills.

And all I can say about it is so far, so good, you guys. But I admit that in the past few posts it’s been getting harder and harder to do that. A previous post is one that I really agonized over, and I can’t say that it was a success. I put it up because in many ways this whole thing is just a public diary and it’s important to me that I capture my mistakes as well as the many, many, many unmitigated triumphs in my journey to understand this world through literature. I take solace in the clear evidence that very few people are taking this journey with me.

If anything I hope that my efforts to summarize 250-400 pages of painstakingly selected and organized sentences into a few paragraphs has shown how important it is to read the books themselves and in the words of the great Levar Burton, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”

A good book needs every word and every page to make its point. We can’t sympathize with a character we don’t know, and we can’t know a character without being there with her throughout her story. Summarizing a book by trying to pick out its theme and then saying to a dozen or so blog readers “this is what this book is about” is pretty silly, actually. The best I can do is give a glimpse and hope you read it too so that we can run into each other and you can say “that book” and I can say “right?” and we kind of bond over it and maybe you buy me lunch after I weakly protest, faking to grab my wallet but doing so in a way that is almost comically slow.

Otherwise what I’m doing here is akin to posting memes where big blocky letters make a complex subject simple to the point of absurdity. Willy Wonka thinks that your political opinion is stupid. This Minion is confounded that you would believe such a thing. The puppy dog is, frankly, sickened. He’s going to throw up in your shoes later, probably.

I’m in no position to “review” Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is what I’m saying. The story of being black in the United States is not my story and will never be my story. I make a lot of mistakes in my writing, but even I’m not dumb enough to try to tell you about that experience like it’s something I understand.

So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.
It’s not a long book, so you should just read it. You should especially read it if you think that we are in some kind of post-racist society. You should read it, if, at any point you told someone that racism couldn’t exist because we have a black president. You should even read it if you see inequality every day like you’re the only one wearing 3-D glasses at IMAX Star Wars. “It’s like I can reach out and hold one of those TIE Fighters,” you say in awe while everyone looks at you like you’re some kind of lunatic. But you’re not a lunatic. You tell this to yourself all the way home in your motorcycle sidecar that isn’t attached to anything because the sidecar is your home.

I’ve found that the best way to learn and get a glimmer of understanding about what it’s like to be a member of an oppressed group is just to listen to them. Social media gives us a chance to eavesdrop on the public conversation of what it’s like to be a minority in your community. In Between the World and Me, we can listen in as Ta-Nehisi Coates gives his 15-year-old advice on how to navigate the world in which he was born. Just because you might not be the audience, it might be a little harsh. You can handle it.

If you're not part of the oppressed group, my only advice is when we listen in on these conversations, let’s do it quietly. A lot of times we want to speak up in these spaces, let everyone know that it’s not us. “I don’t see race,” we are so anxious to point out. “I’m not part of the problem.” Also: “I get it, you guys. I know what you’re going through.” We definitely need to speak up, but not when there’s a voice from within the community already doing so. Our time is when nobody is standing up for the oppressed. When we won’t be praised for it. When it’s scary to do so. Don’t worry. All of us will get plenty of chances.