Ta-Nehisi Coates and black bodies

I travelled to the US recently, because it’s an intriguing place. I enjoyed the consequences of plate tectonics, found the people who voted for Trump (another story), and ate my first ‘smore. But this time I was conscious of something new. Over the last few years I’d realised the extent of my antipodean ignorance of whatever was behind the wrongful, horrific deaths of black people at the hands of “law keepers.” I wanted to start understanding this.

When I landed in DC and commenced looking about me, the first thing I noticed was that most people working on the subway, behind fast food counters, and in janitorial positions, were black. The viscerality, and reality of it, the slap in the face of my ignorance, the realness of what lay behind what I read and saw on the news and social media, kept me pretty quiet for a few days. I didn’t know what I wanted to say, but I knew I wanted people to say things to me about it.

I asked a friend to talk to me about this, to tell me whatever he thought I should know about it. He whirled around at me.

“I’m going to give you a pass on that one, because you are a foreigner.”
“Ah, ok.”
“You didn’t see black people working on the subway. You saw poor people.”
“Ok.”
“Here’s a clue about how to talk about this. Don’t be an asshole.”

I thought this was a pretty good guide to life in general, but it didn’t really give me any direction as to my future movement on the subject. I wanted to hear about it, from everyone. I wanted to know the lived experience of every person I met, and I had no ability to frame the question. And he couldn’t understand why I couldn’t understand, and he told me to be quiet.

I got the spine – the history, the economics, the geography. I got that there was something terrifyingly wrong with the American Dream, with their portion size, with their cars, and what they thought freedom meant. But I couldn’t get to the reflexes, the nerve and tendon – to the lived experience and reality of a black person in this strange place. I didn’t even really know what the word “black” meant.

A few weeks later a Canadian friend and I were trying to take drunk pictures of the moon, which is how you are knowing you are having a good night, and I let my guard down again. I hoped I wasn’t being a racist asshole, and told her I wanted to ask questions but I didn’t even know what they were.

“Ah,” she said. “You need to read, “Between the World and Me.”

This man’s letter to his son has given me a place from which to start understanding. It is a book that can help a person “no longer be lied to.” Reassuringly, he didn’t understand France the way I don’t understand the U.S. He says he doesn’t study “race,” but he searches for the right question by which he “might fully understand the breach between the world and me.” I understand the search for that question.

Anyway, it’s breathtaking. It’s one of the right books. I think.

One comment

  1. I question the sociological qualifications of anyone who tells you that poor people work in the subway. In most metropolitan transit systems, the workers belong to a union, and have decent health benefits, and commonly defined-benefit retirement plans. They are not making Wall Street or Silicon Valley money, but they are securely in the middle class, if maybe the lower half of it. Your friend’s advice is hard to argue with, but not easily applied.

    I have not read Between the World and Me. Having lived and worked in Washington, DC, for about forty years, I have formed my own notions about such matters. I cannot say whether Coates’s book is a useful guide.

    Like

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