He died on my birthday. It was last year, the 9th of August, the kind of summer day that begs for splashing around a pool.
But as his 18-year-old body lay dead on a Ferguson street for hours, a freedom cry built in the depths of America’s black belly, eventually spilling out in protest all across this broken country.
Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and a long list of others had come before him, but Michael Brown’s death was the breaking point. The movement was born: #BlackLivesMatter.
Yes, we know all lives matter. But America as a whole, as a body of people, does not treat all lives equally. Little black girls in bikinis are slammed to the ground by police officers. Young black men and women seeking help are shot dead. A black woman about to launch her professional career is dragged out of her car and arrested for asking why she was pulled over. Even if your back is turned, you can be shot. To be black is to be a perceived threat.
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Now the pain, fear and undeniable sorrow of our reality are gathered together in searing poignancy in a new best-seller for the ages by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
When Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted in the killing of Michael Brown, Coates was not surprised. He grew up in Baltimore. He had lost a college friend to police brutality. But his teen son, who had stayed up late for the grand jury’s announcement, said, “I’ve got to go.” He retreated to his room and cried.
Coates did not comfort him. He did not re-enact Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and fill him with hope. Instead, he told him the hard, uncomfortable truth. And then he wrote him a letter in the form of “Between the World and Me.”
I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful — the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements.
And this is not reducible to just you — the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold.
The title is from a poem by Richard Wright. And Coates writes in the same brazenly honest way James Baldwin did in “The Fire Next Time,” a letter to his nephew. Coates, best known for his work at The Atlantic, shares what it means to be born into a black body and the fear attached to it in America. The America that was built on the bodies of slaves, stolen from their country, their descendants still unable to fully enjoy autonomy today.
Literary great Toni Morrison says his book is required reading. And Jay Z, who has barely tweeted in seven years, posted on Twitter:
When I turned the last page of the book, I was inconsolable. Coates, like me, grew up in an inner city. We both went to historically black colleges. We both understand what it means to be scared of your parents’ belt and police badges, too. Like him, I learned how to defend myself from bullies early, and I was forced to see my blackness young.
But I’ve been known to dream King’s dream. I keep the faith. Coates is not a hope pusher. He writes the raw, uncomfortable racial truths. When I write about race, I enrage certain readers. They insist I am overreacting and rushing to judgment. They call me “you people.” They remind me that my mama is white. And they talk about black-on-black crime, never acknowledging that the stats for white-on-white crime are about the same. They remind me there was no indictment in the killing of Michael Brown but ignore the Department of Justice report finding the city of Ferguson responsible for escalating racial tensions and discriminatory practices.
It would be so soothing to think it’s all been an overreaction. But Coates is a mighty megaphone, affirming my fears, telling the truth about our racially fractured country and our inability to live King’s dream. Because little black boys and girls playing with little white girls and boys in King’s utopia are still seen as little black boys and girls. And there is a fear of their skin, even in the subtlest ways that end up with black students suspended three times more often than white students. Even in preschool.
But systemic racism is not something America wants to talk about. People only believe something is racist if certain slurs are spoken or the white robes come out. Not even a video of Eric Garner’s life being choked from his body convinced them.
“Between the World and Me” is No. 1 on the New York Times’ best-seller list, and I’ve talked to plenty of Kansas Citians eager to read its 176 pages, but few actually have. But Andrew Johnson, director of Kansas City’s Pilgrim Chapel and a longtime fan of Coates, jumped on it.
For Johnson, who grew up white in the Center School District, the past year has been an awakening. It started with Michael Brown, whom he found out about on Facebook from the comfort of his porch.
As a kid he was surrounded by diversity. But it wasn’t until college when his friend Calvin shared his realities as a black man that he truly started to see the black experience as different. And now, at 32, he sees that brutality and inequality have taken the national stage. He is drawn to understand it and to be an ally.
His book group will be discussing “Between the World and Me” later this month.
“It is incredibly important to focus on us seeing what it means to be black and how society has dealt with that in negative ways,” he says. “I feel like I have followed it and written about it and watched it and I have been so much more intentional in my personal relationships, and now I’m figuring out what the next step is. I don’t want to keep posting and arguing on Facebook. I don’t want to be open out of a place of guilt or do-goodery. I want to have an openness of learning and listening. I want to work through the uncomfortable conversations.”
Johnson says the book forces you to see what it means to be black in America. We cannot hide in the comfort of our post-racial dreams.
“When you talk about being colorblind, it neuters and neutralizes everything,” he says. “It doesn’t work. We need to see the struggle. And we also need to see the uniqueness and the beauty in this individual people we have tried to silence.”
And we will be quiet no more.
Toni Morrison called Ta-Nehisi Coates the next James Baldwin. I won’t go that far. But I will say that all of my favorite eye-opening books I’ve read on the black experience — from “Assata” to “The Souls of Black Folk” — I read at a time in my life when I hadn’t been as emotionally bruised and battered and aware as I am now.
He isn’t Baldwin, but this is “The Fire Next Time” of my generation. This is Malcolm X’s song cry. This is Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet” and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
It’s not a dream. It’s a national alarm clock. “Between the World and Me” is a jolt. A cup of coffee. No cream. No sugar. Everybody wake up.