Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While Dreaming

Baltimore City Paper
Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While Dreaming

In his new book "Between the World and Me," Ta-Nehisi Coates describes whiteness as a Dream. The Dreamers, defined by Coates as people who believe themselves to be white, live in varying states of power over black people and other people of color. Usually oblivious to having that power, we don't think too hard about how we got it. The Dream relies on forgetting and denial. The Dream says, "I have nothing to do with slavery. My ancestors weren't on this continent at that time. Everyone has equal access to opportunities. Racism is over." It makes us forget how preferential treatment from the police, courts, banks, unions, and schools have elevated white people above everyone else in the United States. We don't want to wake up from the Dream because waking up would mean losing the power we have as white people, a power built on violence against black people.

I say "we" because I'm a Dreamer and because most of the writers, staff, and readers of the City Paper are, too. I'm writing about "Between the World and Me" as a white man because that's the only way I can read it, and also to respond to New York Times columnist David Brooks' condescending open letter to Coates. In his piece 'Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,' the conservative columnist conflates Coates' concept of "the Dream" with his own take on the "American dream." It offends Brooks that Coates would reject that dream. "A dream sullied is not a lie," Brooks writes, defending the American dream by presenting it through his family's perspective. "My ancestors chose to come here. For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms. For them, the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise."

Brooks' family had a chance to rise. His Jewish family, like my Jewish family, didn't come to America white, but became white in a process that reveals how the goal lines of whiteness shift to serve the Dream's own logic. Whiteness allowed us to integrate into the American dream. But it also made us complicit in the squander of human life that's at the heart of white identity. As Coates made clear in 'The Case for Reparations,' his June 2014 cover story for The Atlantic, there are structural impediments to black families building wealth and gaining power that don't exist for white families. From chattel slavery and the white backlash against Reconstruction to segregation and mass incarceration, a constant thread through U.S. history is the policing of the black body. Coates roots his analysis of anti-black racism in the bodies of people like himself, his friend Prince Jones, who was killed by a Prince George's County police officer in 2000, and his 15-year-old son Samori.

"Between the World and Me" is written as a letter to Samori, and it's built around the question of how to live "within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream." The book is driven by the deep fear that Coates can't protect his son's body. He tells the story of taking his son to the movies on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Samori did not move fast enough for the white woman behind him on an escalator, so she pushed him. To Coates, she was pulling rank, invoking her right to control the body of a black child. When he spoke up to defend his son, a nearby white man got in Coates' face. Coates pushed him, and the white man said, "I could have you arrested." This moment shows what Coates means when he describes control of the black body as the key to understanding racism in the U.S. The Dream isn't just about police killings and Confederate flags. It's about bodies interacting in space, here and now.

This can be jarring for us white people. We love thinking of racism as an abstraction, as something you can be for or against, as something from the past that is over. The Middle Passage, slavery, segregation, and lynching are aberrations on the United States' natural arc toward justice and democracy. When we see racism now, we see it in the Klansmen and skinheads marching on Charleston. Those bad white people are racist, not us good ones. We say that race is a social construct, so how can we even talk about "racism" anyway? I mean, we're all part of the human race, aren't we? All lives matter, right?

Coates takes us out of the abstract and shows us that anti-black racism is as concrete as the bullet that tore through Renisha McBride's face. Going beyond the cerebral wishy-washiness of the white, liberal understanding of race, he focuses on the ways the black male body is policed, judged, and perceived in the U.S.

That specificity is helpful. Coates speaks from his own experience, delivering a blistering critique of a country that has always seen the black male body as something to control, fear, desire, exploit, and kill. By focusing on black men and boys, he mostly leaves out black women, girls, and trans people. Given that the book is a letter to his son, this is an understandable, if disappointing, omission. As Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead points out in The Sun, "there has always been push-back to the decades-old assumption that the black male experience automatically includes black women . . . the #BlackLivesMatter movement seems to inform a black man's view of the world and in much the same way, Coates' memoir continues to keep the Gaussian beam of focus squarely and predictably on black men." This critique is necessary, but should not take away from this memoir's importance as a timely, challenging, and necessary work. Readers can appreciate its value while recognizing its limitations.

David Brooks is right to take "Between the World and Me" personally. This is personal. It's about white people like us doing physical, sexual, psychological, and spiritual violence to black people every day. It's about a white woman feeling like she can put her hands on a black child. It's about Martin O'Malley hearing "Black Lives Matter" and responding "White lives matter, all lives matter." It's about white Baltimoreans breaking curfew with impunity while black protesters were being beaten, pepper-sprayed, and arrested at Penn and North. It's about the layers of power and history we carry with us through the spaces we occupy. If Coates' central question is how to inhabit a black body in the context of the Dream, white readers must ask what it means to inhabit white ones. More importantly, we must ask what it will take to wake ourselves up from the Dream. Otherwise, we'll prove Coates right when he says "the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free."

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