“But all our phrasing- race relations, racial chasms, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy- serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
A couple of days ago I posted on Twitter a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme entitled “Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind.” I love the painting, the title, and I think that’s how truth can appear to some people; scary but perhaps appealing as well. On a similar note, I love the honest, truthful accounts people are writing about their lives these days. I’ve often spoken of the gratitude I feel in particular to the different black writers who have given their unique perspectives that have helped paint a bigger picture about what it means to be black in the West. Although most literature is focused on the USA, so many of us who don’t live there understand to a certain extent the experiences.
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Jean-Léon Gérôme- “Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind.”
So I read this eloquent and detailed response to the world, a letter to Ta-Nehisi Coate’s teenage son, and I’m glad I did. The comparisons to Baldwin are very apt, especially having read “The Fire Next Time.” Baldwin’s book, one of my favourite pieces of writing, is still very applicable to our time, and Coates’ has been written specifically for our time with several modern references. I recognized many familiar names; Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, and Michael Brown, and others.
This is less of a book review than a response to what emotions and thoughts the book brought out in me, so it might sound a bit disjointed.
I can’t even begin to imagine the pain and difficulty many black people face when raising their children in a hostile world, a world that does very little to treat black people as worthy. Several of the adults in my family had the “race talk” with me. From a young age I knew how I was likely to be perceived, and I was taught ways that I could lessen the impact, and I realized as I got older how exhausting it is to live like this, very often on guard.The adults in my family and community did their best to create a safe environment for the kids despite society’s obviously powerful presence. And I don’t know if all the repercussions of living in such a world were completely evident to them because perhaps they expected racism and hardships for several reasons, but for someone like me who was raised in the West, my thoughts have always been “I am practically one of you, your society socialized me, why do I still feel this feeling of unbelonging?”
The last few years have been very trying and we’re dealing with a lot of backlash from discourses about race and what to do about racism. This book helps to show there is no way to forget our skin colour because we are treated based on what we look like, not on who we are. I often see the onus is on marginalized people to change their ways of reacting to racism, and when I read this book I am more aware of how pervasive racism is in all parts of society, and the effects it has on minorities living in these societies.
“We were black, beyond the visible spectrum, beyond civilization. Our history was inferior because we were inferior, which is to say our bodies were inferior. And our inferior bodies could not possibly be accorded the same respect as those that built the West.”
I appreciate Coates’ discussion of education as he saw it and experienced it. I think it’s very telling and clearly shows that the role of the schools was to uphold white supremacy. I can speak from experience that as a black person learning in history class that the main contributions your ancestors have contributed have been slavery, is disheartening, yet I felt grateful that my history was even touched on. It took me well into my 20s, and on my own accord, to study black history that didn’t focus on slavery. And the effects of that were obviously huge, and made me realize that my people had contributed so much more than is readily admitted.
When I read the story of Coate’s friend who was shot and killed by police, I found his reminiscences of his friend very poignant, and adding more depth to what it means for a black person to be killed for no reason but the colour of their skin:
“Think of all the love poured into him…And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all the holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flying back to the earth.”
This book is full of profound quotes and thoughts that I’m still thinking about weeks later:
“It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moment we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered.”
I could really go on and on about this book because there is so much to say. I’m very thankful I was able to read it.