Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between The World And Me

I just read another book I wouldn't have read except for my book club, Norm's Bookies, having assigned it. In a close vote we chose the widely acclaimed Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. http://www.amazon.com/Between-World-Me-Ta-Nehisi-Coates/dp/0812993543/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1450188646&sr=1-1&keywords=ta-nehisi+coates+between+the+world+and+me.

The last two years have been filled with evidence of the pervasiveness of police terrorism towards African-Americans. It's incontrovertible – Baltimore, Staten Island, Ferguson, Cleveland, Chicago. All together, the picture is of police terrorism toward African-Americans.

What we have seen in these killings is the outside view. What Coates presents us with is the inside view, what terror lurks in the heart of the oppressed. He, and other African-Americans, need constantly to be on the alert, not at the wrong place at the wrong time, not pissing off the wrong cop, staying under the radar. His friend from Howard, Prince, didn't do that. He wasn't offensive, but he probably was obvious and true to his name, princely. An off-duty Maryland cop stalked him into Virginia and killed him and got away with it. That's not an aberrance, that's the standard, there are many like him, this was just the case closest to Ta-Nehisi.

Stay alert, keep your head down, know where you are. That's really no way to live. He looks at the carefree suburbanites and is irritated. Why do they get to live like that, when Ta-Nehisi has to keep his head down? He's right.

He is on less solid ground, I think, when he talks about his body and relates it to history. It's not just in his mind, they can actually kill him, get to his physical self. In slavery, bodies were captured and ruled. Well, yes, it isn't just mind control, that's true. But that is just history, and it isn't just African-Americans, it's everyone in the world. People didn't just assemble and reason together, after all. Gangs got together, ruled the unorganized and fought the other gangs until finally one gang ruled everything. That's the way states began. The treaties came later, within countries and among countries. The Magna Carta was a treaty between the royal gang and the aristocrat gang. In political theory, the sine qua non for a government that works is having a monopoly on violence.

So, yes, it was a brutal world for slaves and a brutal world still for many. But at least now we have regular ways of negotiating differences, and overall, law is a wonderful thing. Perverted in the case of cops and African-Americans, yes, but better than it was, and it will be better still. Not to say that African-Americans need to be patient. Patience is frequently not a virtue, and this is one such place.

But objectivity isn't the strength of the book; the heart of it is Ta-Nehisi's subjectivity. What he remembers so vividly is that his father had a belt up on the mantlepiece, and he lived in fear of that belt. His father used it frequently, saying “better me than the police.” He made sure by stark physical means that his son would not die at the hands of the police by not showing respect, by mouthing off, by not being aware. Ta-Nehisi accepts the explanation of the father he reveres. He gets beaten for his own good.

I hear this with the ears of a pediatrician. And what I hear is, child abuse. When I hear the alert and watchful adult story, I hear in addition to the reality of police abuse, a certain amount of PTSD from child abuse. Maybe it is functional PTSD; maybe it keeps him out of trouble. But it seems all too reminiscent of scars of child abuse.

I am reminded of the sad case of Adrian Peterson, suspended for a year from the NFL for beating his little son. Charles Barkley objected to the league's view, saying they “They don't understand the South.” Maybe it is necessary; maybe it is. It doesn't sound like it's identifying with the oppressor, man kicks boy and boy kicks dog. It might be one way of dealing with police terrorism. But in any case, it leaves a scar.

It is not just a rhetorical device, then, that the book is written as a letter to his son. We serious people take our parenting seriously. We look at our parents, and we look at ourselves as children. We think, how can I do what I need to do with this most important job of my life?

Our parenting has three major influences. Our default is to replicate our own experience; we can't help but do a lot of that. Our major conditioner is our own personalities. We can only do so much, based on who we are. But then the third influence is what we choose to concentrate on, the things that we want to change. We might have to think about it constantly, because it doesn't come automatically. We might make lots of mistakes, and suspect ourselves of not doing it well enough, or constantly enough. But there are things we think we had better do for the good of the child, things we need to correct in our own upbringing, things in which the clay has hardened in ourselves but not yet in our children.

What Ta-Nehisi has decided to do differently is not to beat his son. And he's trying to tell him, look, I'm not beating you, but you still have to be careful, you hear? They are still out there waiting for you. You hear? I don't want you winding up on a slab like Prince, that magnificent presence at Howard. You can excel, I want you to excel, but you be careful. You hear? You hear?

And now in publishing this book, the rest of America – you hear?

Budd Shenkin

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