And people listen. As a civil rights lawyer, activist, legal scholar and mother of three black children, I could not wait to read what Coates had to say to black young people at this moment in our history, a time when many are struggling to make sense of how frequently black lives can be destroyed legally through incessant police violence and mass incarceration.
He did not.
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I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself. One of the great virtues of both books is that they are not addressed to white people.
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The usual hedging and filtering and softening and overall distortion that seems to happen automatically — even unconsciously — when black people attempt to speak about race to white people in public is absent. But here we reach a fork in the road. Rather than urging his son to awaken to his own power, Coates emphasizes over and over the apparent permanence of racial injustice in America, the foolishness of believing that one person can make a change, and the dangers of believing in the American Dream.
Little hope is offered that freedom or equality will ever be a reality for black people in America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness.
Still, Coates urges his son to struggle. Struggle for wisdom. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Do not pin your struggle on their conversion.
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The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves. I found myself highlighting so much of the text it seemed the whole book was gleaming yellow. But by the end, I was exasperated. Under what conditions could Coates possibly imagine that the Dreamers would wake themselves up or learn to struggle for themselves?
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Between the World and Me
Why do you think Coates chose this literary device? Did the intimacy of an address from a father to his son make you feel closer to the material or kept at a distance? One can read Between the World and Me in many different ways. It may be seen as an exploration of the African American experience, the black American male experience, the experience of growing up in urban America; it can be read as a book about raising a child or being one. Which way of reading resonates most with you?
I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructive—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings.