Saturday, January 2, 2016

Notes from Between the World and Me

_Between the World and Me_ by Ta-Nehisi Coates
NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015
ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7

(7)  But race is the child of racism, not the father.  And the process of naming "the people" has never been a matter of geneaology and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.

(28)  My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.

(29-30)  Your grandmother taught me to read when I was only four.  She also taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation.  When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it.  The writing had to answer a series of questions:  Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher?  Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect?  How would I want someone to behave while I was talking?  What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson?  I have given you these same assignments.  I gave them to you not because I thought they would curb your behavior - they certainly did not curb mine - but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness.  Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class.  She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicted the most sympathy and rationalizing - myself.  Here was the lesson:  I was not an innocent.  My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue.  And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans.  If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent.  Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell?  The cities they built?  The country they claimed as given to them by God?

(30)  I was attracted to their [Black Panthers] guns, because the guns seemed honest.  The guns seemed to address this country, which invented the streets that secured them with despotic police, in its primary language - violence.

(32)  They [60s civil rights protesters] seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists who bombed them.  _Why are they showing this to us?_  Why were only our heroes nonviolent?  I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality?

(36)  Malcolm was the first political pragmatist I knew, the first honest man I'd ever heard.  He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief.  If he was angry, he said so.  If he hated, he hated because it was human for the enslaved to hate the enslaver, natural as Prometheus hating the birds.  He would not turn the other cheek for you.  He would not be a better man for you.  He would not be your morality.  Malcolm spoke like a man who was free, like a black man above the laws that proscribed our imagination. I identified with him.  I knew that he had chafed against the schools, that he had almost been doomed by the streets.  But even more I knew that he had found himself while studying in prison, and that when he emerged from the jails, he returned wielding some old power that made him speak as though his body were his own.  "If you're black, you were born in jail," Malcolm said.

(53)  The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation.  Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own.

(58)  I know it's nothing to you now, but I was from a place - America - where cruelty toward humans who loved as their deepest instincts instructed was a kind of law.

(66)  The truth of us was always that you [his son] were our ring.  We'd summoned you out of ourselves, and you were not given a vote.  If only for that reason, you deserved all the protection we could muster.  Everything else was subordinate to this fact.

(70)  Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free.  Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains - whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.

(82-83)  Black people love their children with a kind of obsession.  You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.  I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.  That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.  It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother's hand.  She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine.  And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of "race," imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgement of invisible gods.  The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed.  The typhoon wil not bend under indictment.  They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all.  He was  a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world's physical laws.

(87)  Damn it all.  Prince Jones was dead.  And hell upon those who tell us to be twice as good and shoot us no matter.  Hell for ancestral fear that put black parents under terror.  And hell upon those who shatter the holy vessel.

(98)  "We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren't any," writes Solzhenitsyn.  "To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act in conformity with natural law."  This is the foundaton for the Dream - its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.

(137-138)  I have never asked how you became personally aware of the distance [from the Dreamers].  Was it Mike Brown?  I don't think I want to know.  But I know that it has happened to you already, that you have deduced that you are privileged and yet still different from other privileged children, because you are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country.  What I want you to know is that this is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility.  It is your responsibility because you are surrounded by the Dreamers.  It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair.  The breach is as intentional as policy, as intentional as the forgetting that follows.

(142)  Have you ever taken a hard look at those pictures from the sit-ins in the '60s, a hard, serious look?  Have you ever looked at the faces?  The faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous.  They betray almost no emotion.  They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me.  I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe.  But, god or not, armor is all over them, and it is real. Or perhpas it is not armor at all.  Perhaps it is life extension, a kind of loan allowing you to take the assaults heaped upon you now and pay down the debt later.  Whatever it is, that same look I see in those pictures, noble and vacuous, was the look I saw in Mable Jones [mother of Prince Jones].

(143)  And she [mother of Prince Jones] could not lean on her country for help.  When it came to her son, Dr. Jones's country did what it does best - it forgot him.  The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream.  They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery;  the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote;  the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.  They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.  I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free.  In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers.  To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body.  It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

(150)  Once, the Dream's parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind.  But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent.  And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.  The Earth is not our creation.  It has no respect for us.  It has no use for us.  And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky.

(151)  The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.  The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.  

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