Never before have I wanted so badly to sit at a table with my readers and talk face-to-face. This book! I’m hoping I can do it justice in this space. I decided, the best thing to do is to share my reaction with you as a jumping off point for our conversations. Please don’t feel as if you have to agree with me and, if you don’t agree, please don’t think that means you need to remain silent. Conversation is the goal, here. So, pull up your chair to this virtual table, let’s pour the coffee (or wine, or soda, or tea, or bourbon, or milk, or water — whatever works for you) and dig in.
I started reading Between the World and Me a few weeks ago. I got to page twelve-ish and it just hadn’t hooked me, so I put it down. But then, my friend encouraged me to get back to it and, when I did, I couldn’t put it down. Sometimes, a book just needs to find its way to you.
I’ll be fifty-two this year. Even now, I sense a passing of the torch. In the past week alone, a few of the younger women carrying the torch have messaged me to ask my advice about how to talk about the issues of the movement, or how to take care of your emotions when you’re involved in the movement. We don’t call it the movement when we talk. We don’t have a name for it. But, we do know there is a movement afoot. We don’t talk about the specifics, because we don’t need to rehash the stories of Trayvon and Sandra and Renisha and Tamir (that case gets to me, every time — not that the other ones don’t, but I can’t mention Tamir in public and keep my composure) to know what we’re talking about. We have children we love, too.
I’m feeling my role changing, and last week I told a few of the younger women how proud I am of the work they’re doing. It is hard work, and a person — even a person with hope in God — gives up a lot to keep the conversation front and center, and to carry the weight of so much loss. I told them I feel really good with them in charge. I think what many people who aren’t usually impacted by injustices like racism and discrimination are experiencing is the unveiling of the thing so many people have been trying to point out for far too long. It’s not pretty, that’s for sure. But, it has been there all along. Racism is this country’s original sin.
Faith and Bodies
I’m older than most of the people carrying the message, and something I’ve noticed is less attachment to messages of faith in the mainstream voices. I’m not necessarily opposed to that, but I do notice it. I thought it was a new thing, but it’s not so new after all. James Baldwin spoke of it, and so did Howard Thurman, for example. To be sure, the distance is not always initiated by those who are working things out in the streets rather than the sanctuary. Sometimes, it’s the Church that has pushed out the revolutionaries.
This issue of faith in God or, more specifically, Coates’s lack of faith in God, seems to be a central point for many people I talk to. And so, I think it’s important to make sure we at least place it on the table. Not everyone views culture through the lens of faith and, as Coates has so beautifully shared with us, sometimes the body is the only thing we’ve got. Sometimes we don’t even get that.
I’ve often asked God why I was born an American with brown skin and coiled hair in this particular moment in time. I don’t ask because I want to be something different. I don’t. I ask because I know it means something important and sacred and holy to have been born in this body. It is the same for you. I ask because I realize God knows that living in America in brown skin is nowhere near the same as living in America in skin that some call white, and I want to be a good steward of this one life in this body that I’ve been given. I’m sure you do, too. This brown skin has been my ticket behind the veil. It has given me access to an intimate knowledge of what’s back there.
I’ll leave the conversation here for now. It’s your turn. Imagine us at that table together, okay? What would you offer to the conversation? What has been stirred in your heart and in your soul? What questions do you want to ask? What answers do you need? What is breaking free in you? When you read the phrase, “the people who think they are white” what does it mean to you?
Catch the recorded Periscope chat, here.
I am listening to “Between the World and Me” in my car. I wasn’t 20 sentences into listening before I knew I had to get a hard copy, just so I could highlight.
If I was at the table, I would admit to this:
For some reason, as I listened, words of another writer, another time, came back to me. “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country…” (Thomas Paine). My mind made this connection to words I first encountered over 40 years ago. I think it’s because Coates writes in this league. Eloquent, inspiring, impassioned. I’m having the same response to hearing Coates (the author narrates, I love that!) as I did to Paine. TEARS. Coates’ turn of phrase is pure poetry and his heart lies on the page.
Coates’ repeated use of the expression “people who believe themselves to be white” makes me grin every time, appearing in my mind as a carrot on a stick. I would have followed anyway, without it, but I do like it.
So I have this mix of GREAT SADNESS in the truth of what he is saying and EXPECTATION (because of the carrot on the stick).
(Aside: Deidra, your words in this post are also beautiful and highlighter-worthy. Too many lines to cite. I’ll just pick one, your comment about “the ticket behind the veil.” It made me consider the veils I’ve had the opportunity to see behind, and wonder about the purpose of those observations and connections. Thank you for contributing to my thinking on such things.)
The comparison to Thomas Paine is beautiful, Marilyn. And your words are life-giving. Have you read through the whole book, yet (not an expectation, just curious)?
I’m close to halfway, Deidra.
Great point, Marilyn, on the veils each of us gets to see behind. Maybe going forward we can be part of pulling those back for others.
Thanks, Deidra, for hosting this discussion. Didn’t James Baldwin sound prescient in that 1968 piece! I have that “On Being” episode downloaded, but haven’t listened yet, so thanks for the nudge.
Please share that James Baldwin piece…really like thinking about the veils and what’s behind them. He really takes us into his “Sanctuary “, if you will ..of being black.
Jennifer, it’s above. Deidra linked to it.
Great point about the veils we each to look behind, by virtue of our arbitrary differences. I’m thinking of us, now, as reporters. We see something someone else doesn’t have access to, and we get to “report back to the group” in a way that elevates the conversation. I think that’s something social media has helped to facilitate: the raising of awareness and awakening of consciences (hence, the hastags, #woke and #staywoke). I wonder: how can we use what we know about what’s behind the different veils to bring us together rather than further divide us?
I was so anxious to have this discussion… And then I get here.. & im speechless. I am not sure I still have words. So I will come back . The body… My body… Emotional . Lots of emotion. Young emotion . Teenage emotion. Young adult emotion. 48 year old
emotion. I have begun to think of my relationship with my body differently , & only after reading this book. Never thought of the influence of race; on this level , with my black body. I could write a book about it, too.
Your words are stunning…
“This brown skin has been my ticket behind the veil. It has given me access to an intimate knowledge of what’s back there.”
Oh yea. I’m still pondering these things within me…. Thank you for this time of sacred self-awareness .
(We must treat this discussion very carefully.) Selah.
Oh… And I’ve been relishing in the kindle version reading the highlights of history, new words and new people because I can do the research and read about the people he mentions in wiki .. It a surreal experience
I felt the same way, Jennifer. When I sat down to write this post, I typed entire paragraphs and then deleted them. You’re right. This is a discussion to steward well.
Amen. I’ve taught diversity on my former days, and I tell you race relations can get “messy”… We used to say as facilitators : “that’s why we are going to ask you to have them in the kitchen ” in the kitchen things are easier to clean up, and we often feel more comfy because there’s lots of food there to eat.. So …on that note …I offer to everyone reading.. Imagine you’re at the kitchen table and sitting and talking to your sisters and brothers about this issue and ask hard questions; w/grace; understanding; curiosity and if someone makes a mistake feel free to say “ouch” but don’t hold on to it.. Release it and be free in your empathetic responses ; (remembering we are all here to learn.)
Thank you. What a wise way to frame this conversation. With some of my past experiences that were very hurtful, I wouldn’t put it past myself to say the wrong thing. But good listening conversation can help move a person forward.
Delina Pryce McPhaull
Deidra, I want to know more about the entire paragraphs you wrote and deleted…
I really wish we could sit down at the same table, too. I need the veil pulled back more and more. I thought I was sufficiently “woke”–for someone who is not a person of color, but in reading this book I realized that there is still so much I don’t know–so much needs to be knocked down in me, in so many ways I need to be humbled and awakened. I know that the tears I shed while reading this book are nothing compared to the tears shed by those who have lived these things behind the veil. At the same time, I feel such anger rising in me–I am so tired of mentioning the racial divide and getting blank looks. What do I do with this anger and sadness? Is my emotion doing anyone in the black community any good? And even as I write, I am counting the times I’ve said “I” and “me”. It’s not about me, but I keep coming back to “what must I do?”
In terms of “the people who think they are white,” I think it’s related to the quote I mentioned in the last post (racism coming before race, pg. 7). I’ve heard of race being a social construct and always wondered, but I’ve never done the hard work of reading and studying to learn about it. It makes sense to me, though, and it makes me long for the time when we were just people, though I don’t know how far back you’d have to go to get there…
Also, I should have said “people of color” when I said “black community”–I don’t want to leave any group out of the conversation! Please forgive my omission. I have a long way to go, obviously. I’m really sorry.
Hey, it’s all grace around here. We are all waking up. We all still have so much to learn. This is one space where there is much grace for that journey.
I, too, am anxious about this discussion. I got the book yesterday and will begin it soon. I so appreciate this opportunity to listen and to discuss with people willing to also listen and discuss. Jennifer is so right in that we must be careful and even more importantly perhaps, caring. Not having read this yet, I expect that I am one of those “people who think they are white,” which is comical in a way as my great grandmother was full blood Comanche. Somehow I was not raised with that sensibility. I do look forward to opening my heart and mind to this book. I’ve been deaf and blind far too long.
I’m glad you’re here Dana. I think each of us can learn something from this experience — from the book, and from one another. I’m so looking forward to the process. Yes, you and Jennifer are right to say we need to care for one another as we go. Thanks so much for being here.
Well, I admit, I bristled a little bit when I read Coates’ descriptor of me as a person who thinks she is white. I was like, “What the heck does that mean?” But the truth is, I bristled because I didn’t understand it. As I read along and re-read and re-read and digested Coates’ experience of living as a black man in America, I began to understand and see, really see through his eyes, as much as I can, what he meant (black and white race as a social construct, I think). I think that’s important. I think we have to walk through the bristling – our first defensive reactions – in order to come to a true understanding. We have to be willing to sit with our defensiveness and ask ourselves hard questions BEFORE we react.
Honestly? I didn’t even register the phrase the first few times I read it. And then, I started to notice it. And I had a moment of processing what he must mean by it.
I remember the first time I heard the concept of race as a social construct. I had a hard time accepting that, and I felt as if the person was trying to justify racism. They weren’t. They were giving me a different way to frame my experience. I actually helped free me a little bit, when I realized this whole race thing is something man-made. But, I had to sit with that and walk through the bristling in order for the understanding to grow and serve me.
Why did you think that the concept of race as a social construct justifies racism? I would think it would do the opposite. Could you say more about what you meant?
I too have bristled at seeing race as a social construct and have viewed this idea as a racist position. A part of me still does! But now that I have viewed it through Coates’ eyes, I am starting to understand it a little bit. So what do I feel about being told I think I am white? I am still a little fuzzy on what this means to me. But I did find Coates’ detailing of his journey during childhood and especially at Howard to understand his relationship to his body to be very helpful to me in understanding some of these issues a bit better. He is such a gifted writer and is so vulnerable about his experience that the reader is enabled to have a bit more insight into the issues. I have the unique experience that I am white (or think I am white!) but am married to an African American man and have African American sons. My experiences have given me a bit of insight into the experience of African Americans, but I am sure this book will increase my understanding.
Lisa Dye Norris
What I would offer to the conversation:
I hear you loud and clear about passing the torch and the awareness of the lack of faith-based notions. The one thing we have got to remember is that each of us approaches our view of the world from our own truth and that affects how we act and react. There are events that lend themselves to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but I always am cautious in rendering absolutes because there are always three versions to all stories: 1. individual #1; 2. individual #2; 3. the truth (i.e., her story, his story and the real story). Some people have either never embraced faith or have turned from it because of hurt or mistrust they have witnessed or experienced that has more to do with individuals than a personal relationship with the one true God. Unfortunately, this often means a negative association with faith and belief in God because they have not established themselves in a Biblical God but a man/woman based understanding of who God is or should be from that negative view.
What has been stirred in me:
The world in which my children grew in and the manner in which my husband and I raised them is so vastly different from the world in which I lived and what my parents were able to instill. Coates’ words: “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance” (page 26), hit a strong nerve within me. My father raised my brother and I to be observant and question everything. As a parent, I did not give my children that birthright and in many of years in the classroom, I know I often robbed my students of expressing their curiosity in favor of compliance.
Questions I have and answers I need are more in line with passing that torch to the next generation. My children are adults and the three of them spend a great deal of time questioning the world in which we live and I am learning to let them speak a LOT before I inflect my thoughts or opinions.
What is breaking free in me is the notion of “the people who think they are white.” As we consider how we all evolved in, through and around this country, my idea of “white” conjures up a certain set of attitudes leading to privilege and not wanting to be challenged with societal pressures. As I read Coates, I am vividly reminded that often those people who think they are white are not necessarily a particular hue, race or ethnicity, but more those who believe they are far removed from the atrocities which beset those who are often referred to as ‘low income’, ‘impoverished’, ‘living in the inner city’, ‘poor’, ‘disenfranchised’, and so many other adjectives. It is sad that often, people do not want to take up the movement until it has touched them directly. I will continue to hold onto my faith in the God I have come to know personally and try to make a difference where I am, however I am able. While we may not be able to actively participate in the movement, we know that prayer demonstrates to God that we trust Him and know that He is able to do all things in and through us and that we do not have yell and scream to get others to listen to what we have to add to the conversation. Our quiet ability to vote and put ourselves in positions to have a say in the types of policies and laws that effect change speaks volumes.
(sorry this was such a long discourse, but I am feeling the passion that Coates uses to school his son on the ways of the world from his perspective)
No apology needed for length. I read the whole thing, nodded my way through.
Agreed! No apology for length.
One of my biggest regrets as a parent is telling my children more than I asked them. I wish I had encouraged them to explore their wonderings about the world, rather than being so quick to tell them how to think about the world. I wanted compliant children. Other peoples’ curiosity is scary. Even my own curiosity scares me, sometimes.
my kids are still small. i try to actively keep an open conversation with them. my oldest, only 7.5, has asked questions that have shaken me since he was less than 4 years old. i have already learned so much just by letting him have his questions and his doubts and by being slow to give him quick answers to complicated questions. i hope what i’m teaching him is to search out truth, that it’s ok to question and doubt and be wrong sometimes, that i am always a safe place to land for him. i have never truly felt i had that safe place to land – a place where i could come with opinions and things i thought were true or false without having “all my ducks in a row”.. a place to come with questions and doubts and differences. i have tried to foster this in myself – a willingness to doubt and to be wrong and to be messy – and i hope to foster that in my children as they continue to grow. thank you for opening up this conversation. it resonates deeply with a part of me that i didn’t even realize existed until recently. i am one that was unconcerned with race and all its messy issues until recently. it didn’t even come up because of anything personal exactly – it was just never on my radar. a couple of years ago, i became aware of things i never knew existed, and my heart has been breaking open ever since. i’m excited to learn more and have a place to come to with my questions and my messiness!
I too highlighted my way through the first section. Almost every page has underlines in it. The comments about curiosity vs. compliance in relation to school hit me also. Since I home schooled my children for several years, I am hoping I fostered some amount of curiosity. I know that even though I was a white mother with biracial kids I made certain that they read history and literature about African American life. We took them to the one museum in our state explaining African American history. I took them to MLK Day celebrations at our State Capitol. And my youngest son, though now an adult, had an eye-opening and heart-opening experience last summer when all three of us went to Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Atlanta to view some of the historical milestones of the Civil Rights struggle. However, though I consciously tried to acquaint them with their black heritage, I am sure that I made many mistakes in schooling them and in parenting them. I am glad God redeems us and our mistakes!
First, I look to you as someone who has been born into time for this moment because we’ve so benefited from your voice and graceful, if not sometimes reluctant, leadership. You are right when you say “It is hard work, and a person — even a person with hope in God — gives up a lot to keep the conversation front and center, and to carry the weight of so much loss.” I went to an author’s retreat this past weekend for POC and it was complicated and God was doing a lot of stuff in me but one of the most profound things that broke free was the chance to talk unfiltered. I live here in Oregon where it is 87% white. Everywhere we ate that weekend as a group, the waiters or other people asked where we were visiting from because everyone knows there aren’t that many black or Asian people here. And they said Chicago or Baltimore or Texas but I live here. I live here with people who think they are white. And these are the people who are my neighbors and the people who are in my church and the people who are my friends and because I’m biracial it is part of me too. Al Hsu said something that stuck with me, “the challenge to being a bridge is that you get walked on from both sides.” I feel like I’m always stretching for middle and trying to hold to both ‘sides’ and I felt ashamed that I get so tired so easily. That I get scared because conversations have gone south so many times when race is brought up and I go home and weep because these are my friends and they refuse to see that maybe a boy, younger than my oldest, in brown skin is not safe to play without fear for the loss of his body. And I don’t understand it and it makes me rage and it makes me despair and I’m trying to hold to the middle of faith where hope lives but sometimes change is so slow when it’s your everyday life and I can see how easy it would be to push faith aside and believe the body we have is all we have because the church has failed so miserably in addressing and caring about black bodies. But we, if we believe, believe in a body and I guess I don’t always know how to walk around in it and love it when it feels so sick from within. I don’t always know how to speak about change without injuring other parts. I realized this past weekend how often I hold my words close and filter them in white space which often means everywhere because I don’t know what to do with them and there is the very real thing of shutting down conversation when race issues are brought up. I have been hushed and blocked by colorblind advocates and questioned about merit and personal responsibility, and sometimes I’m just tired. I don’t check the mailbox out where we live on these rural roads because when we first moved in an old man a few mailboxes down called me a chink and I was so shocked I just got back in the car with my children and drove home as fast as I could. I drive past confederate flags hanging side by side with the stars and stripes and yet these are my neighbors. I don’t know what I would offer to the conversation but more questions. I read Between the World and Me when it first launched and now I’m listening to it again on Audible. It’s different somehow this time with Coates narrating. Sadder, less hopeful than the first time I read it. I just have so many questions.
Thank you for adding to this conversation, Alia.
Thank you so much for this reflection. Especially the bridge quote illustrated by your experiences!
Yes yes yes!
Two things I’d like to share in response to this, Alia.
First: Right after the Oscars and Chris Rock’s monologue, a white friend contacted me to hash through our reactions. I hadn’t had time to process my experience and so, my emotions were raw and my words were unfiltered. I was wary of sharing my thoughts without my usual filter, but I did it anyway, trusting the work this friend and I have done. I shared some stuff that I don’t often share with white people, and my friend received it. She said something like, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you speak so unfiltered before, and I like it!” That unfiltered way of talking is a gift at the other end of trust. It’s evidence that our defenses are down and we feel free to live unguarded.
Second: In this kind of cross-cultural work, where one is often in the minority, growth happens when we return to the places we feel most comfortable, culturally. So, we may spend lots of time out in the mission field of racial reconciliation and cultural transformation but, if we don’t take time for furlough, in the places that feed the core places of our souls, we become stunted in our own growth. In the safe places of cultural comfort, where we return to our first culture and its food, language, and swagger, we let our guard (and our hair) down and we can fully process all that we’ve learned on the mission field. Because, we are learning out there. We are being fed. It’s an unusual diet, to be sure, and our spiritual system cannot process and metabolize it while we’re in the trenches. We need furlough — respite — for the lessons to take shape in us so that we return to the mission field with deeper insight, compassion, and hope. It’s a deeply rich form of self-care, but it’s not the same as bubble baths and spa treatments. It is a surrender to community and we lay on our mat, confess our infirmities (wounds from the battlefield and trips to the mailbox), and let our people lower us through the roof into the presence of Jesus.
I’ve been thinking a lot about your response. So much wisdom here but I’m struggling with the second part. I guess that’s where I am stunted in my growth, as you said, and I could see that because I really don’t have a culture to return to. I don’t have a place to let down my hair. Being biracial, I’m not really Asian enough to relate to so many of those experiences. I remember my Korean roommates were so other to me, and didn’t consider me Korean at all because Korean American is something else entirely. And the Korean Americans had their culture too but I’m not even that. I’m Korean/Japanese/Caucasian so I’m not white enough to be white and don’t fully fit there because I’m usually seen as other, and I’m not Asian enough to fit there either. Also, I literally know only two Asian American women who live even remotely in my area and one is related to me. Maybe that’s why I feel so blocked up because I haven’t been able to metabolize this weird diet in the place God has me. I think maybe there are a lot of people who don’t fit clearly into a culture so maybe I’m there? I don’t know. Like I said, lots of questions.
Me too, Alia. Here in Nebraska, there aren’t many opportunities for me to hit the “reset” button by returning to my culture. During the first seven years here, it was agonizing, to be honest. I thank God for Internet, for this very reason. On the Internet I was able to find a suitable substitute for that community. It wasn’t perfect, but it sustained me until I could find my bearings.
I raised the idea of what a return to culture can do for us because it sounded as if you got to experience that at the writers’ retreat. I’m glad you were able to breathe in that experience.
I’m wondering…have you been in touch with Helen Fagan? Reading your thoughts here makes me think of the assessment tool she administers. It’s a cultural competency inventory, but I think you might enjoy the follow up tools provided. Taking the inventory and working with Helen were revolutionary for me as I tried to find my way, here in Nebraska. If you’re interested in hearing more, I’d be happy to talk more, offline. Love you!
“We need furlough — respite — for the lessons to take shape in us so that we return to the mission field with deeper insight, compassion, and hope.” This sings to my soul, what God is doing with me now, giving me a furlough, after a hard twenty years of teaching minorities how to write, and bearing witness nearly every weekend of the school year to their stories. Right now I’m in a rest time, a healing time, and need to be more conscious of drinking in time with my animals, the land, friends, quiet.
Like Alia Joy I feel like I’m a bridge person, a person who stands in the gap even though I don’t have a mix of races or ethnicities.
I did get to experience that and it was like oxygen or maybe nourishment. I didn’t know I was starving in those ways. Mostly, I just listened and learned but in the one on one conversations especially, I realized how often I hold my tongue.
At first I felt very out of place for other reasons but then there were people talking about the things I’ve experienced or thought and I didn’t have to worry that someone (white) felt like I was attacking them or causing trouble for bringing up issues.
I came back from that weekend a little freer and I started writing a series about racism/ my story/ and doubt about my place. How some of it affected me as a biracial girl. I’m finding my voice and that’s helped to just write it anyway but yeah, it’s a process and I’m always scared I’m doing it wrong. I think that goes back to place and how I fit.
I’ve taken a cultural competency inventory before but I’ve never gone through the results of it or any tools. I would love to hear more. I know you’re busy with book writing but hit me up when you get a breather.
Oh this book. I can’t even begin to express my thoughts or emotions. I thought i knew. Thought I understood. Wrong
Embarrassed, angered,aghast. Some of those raw emotions that surfaced often.
The HOPE of Jesus is missing. Have we-the white church failed? Really praying this discussion brings hope, promotes change,encourages that “everyLittle Thing” we can do-will be beneficial.
Thank you Deidra.
And you are not passing the baton at 52, you are showing these younger woman how to move forward with GRACE.
Missy, I truly appreciate your commitment to this topic and to this conversation. I think the Church has failed; is failing. But, we are not without hope. I believe the white church has failed, yes. But so has the black church, and all the other churches on the spectrum. But we also succeed. We also get it right, from time to time. Our humanity gets in the way, and so does our culture and our fear. It’s a journey, and we’re discovering our biases and rationalizations as we go. All of that, leads to repentance. Repentance is hard, though, because it involves owning up to the fact that we’ve missed the mark.
For those who may be wondering about the role of the Church, I do like to press into the topic of the racial divide, but we can also talk about denominations, gender roles, generational distinctions, and more. One question I encourage people to sit with is, “Why do we have racially segregated churches in 2016?” And then, “What are the reasons we use to justify this (or any) divide?”
“But, it has been there all along. Racism is this country’s original sin.”
You’re nailing it, Deidra. The problem I encounter when I attempt discussing race problems with “the people who think they are white” is they want to stay in denial. They admit racism was rampant in the past, but they think it’s so much less now, so why can’t we celebrate and focus on successes instead of dwelling on the past and on the current failures? It frustrates me to be accused of negativism when in reality it’s just that many of us want to remain blind to the racism that still exists. It’s ugly. It’s painful.
But how can we heal until we face reality of how things really are? My current approach is to ask people to start by at least *listening* closer to those who live with discrimination, instead of immediately writing them off as sour grapes.
So much in Coates’ book made me want to cry: “…when I was about your age, each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not—all of which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.” p 24
It’s going to take all of us to change things:
“‘It only takes one person to make a change,’ you are often told. This is also a myth. Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen.
The fact of history is that black people have not—probably no people ever have—liberated themselves strictly through their own efforts.” p 96
Thanks for this discussion!
Thanks for being here, Lisa! I think “facing the reality of how things are” is foundational. It’s not easy to face, but it’s necessary. So glad we’re doing this together.
I do wish we were around a table because typing seems to take up much more “space” than speaking and I feel limited. First, I agree with Michelle about sitting with defensiveness before reacting. When I did, it came to my mind that I have experienced things that are difficult to explain to others, but that I desire to be understood because those “others” can potentially help improve or change the experiences for people in the future (I specifically thought about my parenting a mentally delayed/mentally ill child and how mental illness is handled in our society). After this revelation, my defensiveness was minimal and I think I was able to hear Coates.
Second, like Marilyn, I felt sadness. Most strongly, I felt sadness that, as Missy pointed out, the hope of Jesus is missing in this story.
Third, I felt a disconcerting stirring, a reminder of the relevance of this story to my life. As the mom of children with brown skin, I find it overwhelming at times to stare racial issues straight in the face. But I believe God is gently urging me to. At the same time I began reading Coates’ book, three of my girls auditioned for (and got!!) parts in the play, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book from which the play was derived was hugely influential in my life. I am not the mom of brown-skinned children by accident. Yet, I have found myself drifting away from my former, more intentional, attitudes and actions concerning racial issues, partially because it seems overwhelming and partially because I do not have the “ticket behind the veil.” Even though racial issues matter very much to me, especially because of my kids, I feel like I have no legitimate voice in the conversation since I am “a person who thinks she is white.”
So, fourth, for the opportunity to sit around this virtual table, discussing Coates’ book, I am very grateful.
I’m glad you’re here, Lisa.
I felt that sadness, too. A hopelessness, I think. And, in Coates, I sense a hoping. I feel as if he’s casting his hope onto his son, which is a heavy burden to bear, but I think it’s common for so many of us, right? I *hope* we get to talk about this more when we discuss Part III.
It’s funny about the issue of his faith–when I read the last few pages of the book, where Coates says, “The Dreamers will have to le themselves to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all,” he reminded me very much of the prophets of the Bible. I was actually surprised to find so much respect in the way Coates talked about Christianity–his appreciation for the Black church, for instance, and even a wistfulness about whether he’s missing something by not being part of that heritage. It made me ache to know that my church, the white church, is much of the reason why his parents steered him away from Jesus.
For me, the words “black body” hit me very hard, because it’s such a repeated phrase, and so bald. His awareness of his own body, the threats against it, against his son’s body. It is visceral, it is so plain, so simple, so aching, so deadly. Have I ever been forced into an awareness of my body’s place in this world? (Maybe a little–as a woman, walking alone at night). It seems to me that so much of my inheritance of whiteness is not awareness, but sleepiness, complicity, eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. An unawareness of my body, and of my effect on other people. I found myself very moved by how Coates takes this bitter awareness of his body’s fragility and moves towards even more awareness and wokeness–he is relentless in his pursuit of _seeing_. Would that I would be that relentless, with so much less at stake.
Thank you for hosting this discussion so gently, Deirdra. I am moved by your faithful, hopeful assertion that your brown body is a blessing, a ticket, has been given to you on purpose, and I am pushed to consider what God is doing through my white skin in this time and place as well.
The story of sitting in Prince Jones’ funeral was so moving to me. I felt that respect of which you speak, Heather. His writing is powerful, and especially so in that part of the book. His curiosity is truly a gift to us all. I want to be like that. Less compliant. More curious.
YES. Clearly Coates has real respect for the church, even if that hasn’t led to conversion. The whole story of Prince Jones was so terribly devastating. The casual, indifferent waste of it. Have mercy on us, Lord.
Stacey Blaydes Moore
I am reading, I am listening, I am trying to understand and to learn, but mostly I am struggling. I am not done with the book, but right now I am feeling overwhelmed. The anger seems insurmountable. The chasm seems unfixable. I am struggling with the casual descriptions of family violence and the seeming justifications. I am not insulted by the phrase “the people who think they are white” because I know plenty of folks who fit that bill and I know that at moments in my life that probably included me. But I struggle with anything that paints an entire group of humans with one sweeping brush stroke and I don’t know if that is his intent with that phrase. I dream of and pray for a different America (and a different world as we are not the only country with marginalized populations), but I really want to know what I can do right here, right now, right where I am to make things better for the world my children (some of whom fall into a group that will never be able to “think they are white”) are growing up in and moving out into on their own.
I hear your struggle, Stacey. Thanks so much for hanging in there with us, and for participating here, in the conversation. I think Ta-Nehisi lets no one off the hook with this book. We all have to struggle and press into and through our emotions. I hear you, friend.
I keep reading your words: insurmountable and unfixable. And I’m going to sit with those, because I want to say something like, “I don’t think it’s either.” But something in me feels as if that sort of response brushes past something important that I have yet to discover. It may be easier for some to conquer or fix than for others, and so I’m wondering how to put into words the reason for that. And what it means for me.
I’ll share my thoughts about the phrase, “the people who think they are white.” I think it doesn’t apply to all white people, or only white people. Lisa Dye Norris said it like this in her comment, above:
“…often those people who think they are white are not necessarily a particular hue, race or ethnicity, but more those who believe they are far removed from the atrocities which beset those who are often referred to as ‘low income’, ‘impoverished’, ‘living in the inner city’, ‘poor’, ‘disenfranchised’, and so many other adjectives. It is sad that often, people do not want to take up the movement until it has touched them directly.”
So, sometimes, that phrase applies to me, too.
As for what to do? I think we’re all on that journey together. The answer will be different for each of us, and reading this book and talking about it as a group is one step on that journey. I’m really looking forward to where we’ll be at the end of this process. Thanks again for being here.
Stacey Blaydes Moore
Deidra, first of all I want to thank you for being gentle with my initial response to this book and also for giving us all a table to gather around. I have been thinking alot about your response and my own initial reaction and have come to a couple of realizations. First of all I think my statement that it felt insurmountable and unfixable came through a mindset formed through my career – I spent 27 years as a firefighter/paramedic and learned that problems were solved quickly and by myself and my partner often alone. This problem felt unsolvable and unfixable because I didn’t see how “I” could solve it (and quickly!), but then I realized it is not MY problem to solve, it is OUR problem to solve and TOGETHER we certainly have what it takes to fix this! The other thing I came to realize after some serious thought is that I was viewing the words of Ta-Nehisi as being representative of an entire group of people instead of seeing them for what they are – the words of one man who has lived one life. While I am sure many of his experiences and feelings ring true with many, like all of us he is walking his own path and seeing things through his own unique set of eyes. This is the beginning of my exploration into the issues of race in our country, but this is not the end of it. I am looking at his book with a fresh perspective of just LISTENING to what he has to say and accepting it for exactly that – what he has to say about this issue. I will need to listen to many such voices before a clearer pictures exists for me. Each human being on this earth has a unique perspective and a unique story and it is only through listening to many many of them that better understanding will take place. It’s OK for me to feel overwhelmed by what he is writing – it sounds like he was often overwhelmed by what he was experiencing.
As far as my questioning what I could do right where I am after some thought I believe there are some easy, but important things – PRAYING daily for the leadership of our country to help create a better place for all. Voting with particular attention to policies that affect some people disproportionately. Financially supporting organizations actively working for change. Sitting at “tables” like this and being open to hearing the experiences and feelings of others (especially when those experiences have been very different from mine). Raising my children to hope for a work toward a better future for all, and most importantly through my own daily interactions trying to be an example of what I want to see in the world and speaking out when I see injustice.
OK…enough talking for now. Ready to get back to listening. Thank you for giving us all a seat at this table.
This is a beautiful conversation. I have not read Between the World and Me, but I now look forward to reading it! I recently picked up Just Mercy & The New Jim Crow. These books opened my eyes to a world in which I was unfamiliar. Just last week, I attended a talk on race. The meeting was brought about after a black man walked into a jewelry store & was asked to leave because of his race. This happened in the town where I live. It’s very different knowing this happened in your town verse hearing a story like this on the news or reading it in a book.
At this meeting, I was able to hear a black man share his story of racial profiling. I had read these types of stories through the books I referenced, but to actually see a black man, that lived in my community, speak right before my eyes, woke me up to this very real, sad reality.
The thought that has been stirring in my soul around these conversations is that, while platforms do have a purpose, we can be much more purposeful in our daily, ordinary lives. Movements & platforms get us excited & can immediately ignite passion inside of us. I’m not discounting, in any way, what can be done through a movement. However, what I’ve been challenged to think on is – how am I loving my neighbor? How do I walk through the grocery store? Do I try to make eye contact with people & smile or am I strictly focused on my agenda of getting in & getting out… quickly? Did I just cut someone off in traffic or am I being gracious as I drive? Am I living in the moment & practicing the discipline of being present & valuing the gifts, known as people, that are walking all around me? Am I walking slow or am I walking fast? Am I focused on my agenda or loving my neighbor? While I may not currently be a part of a movement, I can make a difference by loving humanity in the smallness of my days.
Mmmmm. I like this. And, it sounds as if you, my sister, are involved in a movement. 🙂 This radical way of living and loving that you describe sounds like the movement begun at the beginning of time. I think, perhaps, it takes different shapes in response to the moment/s in which we find ourselves. But, you’re in it, I do believe.
I admit up front to being anxious about entering this conversation. I loved this book, but I want to make sure the emotions it brought up in me are expressed well. I’ve seen that sentiment from many in the discussion, so I feel like I’m in a safe place. This book broke so much open in me, and I followed it up by reading Claudine Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and broke all over again. Coates’ decision to begin this book talking about the body was genius. The body is personal; we all have one. The fact that he even feels the need to write a letter to his son because he knows his child’s body will be more at risk is shattering. As a woman who thinks she is white, I am grateful for the way Coates’ writes. There is not an option to skip the uncomfortable parts; this book requires the reader to move right through them, and I know that’s exactly what I need.
So glad you’re joining the conversation, Kristy. Welcome, sister.
This book is masterful, on so many levels. At the bottom of page 37, I wrote this question: “Do you feel as if your body is your own?” I wrote that question for this group, and I’ve been thinking about it for myself. The body is where so much of our identities intersect — our gender, race, culture, and even the way we practice our faith or absence of faith. So, this idea of ownership of the body is quite significant. I’m not sure how I’d answer the question myself, but I’m trying to process my way to an answer.
I feel like I need to read, reread, again and again. I have really been trying to see around the white filter I grew up with. I was (not in the same era) but essentially one of those white kids on the tv he talks about. Except a little different because I grew up in rural Appalachia. I didn’t have any friends of color until well into adulthood and have said so many immature and embarrassing things. I want to know more. And I want to have a multicolored multicultural filter. And I want to do all I can, but be humble not to make it about me, or approach it as ‘the white solution.’ While living abroad (4 years) I coached myself into “just because things aren’t being done here like in the U.S. doesn’t mean it’s being done wrong” and brought that back to the U.S. With me but replaced US with white.
To be honest, I crave to understand. I want to be woke and support the movement and be aware of my privilege. Even though I still don’t really understand what those are, and can a white girl even be woke?
Racism isn’t really talked about in my small city. And I want to be invoked but don’t know where to go to be involved. I know it exists but don’t feel close enough to my few black friends to bring it up, I don’t feel like I have a right to. Because I feel like that’s what my privilege has taught me. See a problem, go in and fix it. So I’m a little confused. My white friends would call me a reverse racist lightly, but I don’t feel confident enough to speak up around back friends.
The only thing I know to do right now is to be intentional. So I’m trying to be intentional in the activities I do, friends I call when I have unexpected free time. I’m visiting a predominantly black church once a month to try to be closer to these friends because I want to understand. But I do feel very conflicted about the space between my whole hearted desire to play a part in reconciliation and how or where or whether I belong there.
I hope that all makes sense. I’m struggling to express it! I’m so thankful we are reading this book together and am lingering over comments.
Oh my goodness, I could write volumes on the immature and embarrassing things I’ve said in my lifetime, sister! It’s part of our human experience, I think. I appreciate the way you’re wrestling with this particular journey and I’m so glad you’re allowing us to be part of it. I do hope you’ll keep sharing with us as we go. I appreciate your perspective and honor your journey.
Thank you 🙂 I appreciate being able to read and share here!
“Sometimes, it’s the Church that has pushed out the revolutionaries.”
While working in the kitchen today, I had a chance to listen to the entire “On Being” podcast you linked to. The “pushed out” line is an unfortunate truth. The interviewees were inspiring. Thanks for pointing it out.
I listened to that episode, and just kept nodding my head and repenting.
I listened to it a couple of days ago and learned a lot. I was able to hear them better, I think because Krista Tippett is so good at encouraging dialogue.
“The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood. in their large rings and medallions,there big puffy coats and full-length fur collars which was their armor against their world,” (pg. 14). Similar to the Puerto Ricans of Camden, New Jersey, Deidra. Project life was caustic and infested with fear. Latinos donned to the nines, but carrying the shame and fear of navigating a new land as their mouths and tongues battled to be understood and heard, regardless of their skin tones.
What I’m feeling right now is pride as a teacher of tall and beautiful African young men. These men are unafraid to share their hearts about bullets and hot triggers and untimely death. It gets passionate in my social studies classroom…but they hold their ground.
These men…I fall in love with respectfully, and cover their destinies. I do my best to show them positive role models of diverse and varied careers. These men are teaching me.
I think about my husband, and his beautiful copper skin and black hair. How his talent and resume gets the shift upon viewing his bodacious Latino name, knowing that some Fairfield folk will pick a name that feels and sounds normal. I see him come home with that fear, hoping nonetheless, that he will be worthy of honor, even though it’s his time to be the helpmate. Mr. Coates awakens a conversation that’s verbally stunning.
I’d love to sit in on one of your classes, Jessica. Those men are fortunate to have a space to use their voices and not have them fall on deaf ears. And, what a beneficiary you are, while also being a faithful steward of their lives and their stories. I love the idea of “covering their destinies.” What would happen if we covered the destinies of young men like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice? I think we talk about it that way without dishonoring the faithful who protect and serve, yes? I hope we can.
Your husband’s story is far too common and familiar. He is worthy of honor, no matter what happens in the HR office. But, that knowledge gets chipped away at, doesn’t it?
One day I just want to sit with YOU! The Lord uses you to redirect my unanswered questions. Gracias, Deidra.
This poem “Poem about My Rights” bBy June Jordan opens up what Coates means by saying, “Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.”
Sure does, Katie.
A poem like makes me want to stop writing altogether because no other words seem necessary in this world.
Yeah I hear you. I have felt that way as well, though only you can write with your perceptions and from your unique body. You have perspectives and vision that the world needs, so I hope you don’t stop writing because someone like June Jordan describes her experience as a body so well.
I appreciate your words, Katie. I wasn’t seriously going to quit, but the poem did make me reflect quite seriously about delving into the hard stuff fearlessly, as the poet has done here.
That delving into the hard stuff can be quite a challenge, but also very rewarding.
What I have to offer the conversation are my stories and questions and stepping back, viewing Coates’ book as one narrative among many. I worked teaching developmental composition at a state university for twenty years. This gave me the opportunity and privilege to bear witness to my students’ stories with regards to living on the south side, the west side, the western suburbs of Chicago. But I am also one who thinks she is white, but have been called black by my students. I have been honored.
Like you Deidre, I can ask why was I born to be who I am: a Caucasian, who grew up on a farm, loves horses and was called to write poetry, when there is so much hurt in the world. When I was doing publicity and quite broken I asked my spiritual director about helping the poor. He shook his head and suggested I listen to that quiet voice nudging me towards horses. Ironically it was a horse that pulled me back into teaching and eventually I found my way to Northern Illinois University, teaching my students. It was a very rewarding and difficult twenty years.
In some ways, Coates calling people, “those who think they are white” can be hopeful, because thoughts are malleable. They can be inaccurate and can be healed.
As I read his book I think of Michael Datcher’s Raising Fences a book that affirms the Dream, that talks about the same boys Coates talks about. Datcher says, “We know few people believe in us. We struggle to believe in ourselves. So we pose. We have gotten good. We can pose and cry at the same time–no one sees. We can pose and cry out for help–no one hears. We are the urban ventriloquists” (3).
“The ghetto irony: Many of my generations young spinners have become the twenty-and thirty-something men who can’t be trusted. Making children who will grow up to hate them.
“Circumstance, suspect choices, and fear have ways of disfiguring urban hopes with surgical precision. A four-ounce bottle of baby formula becomes much heavier than a forty ounce bottle of malt liquor. Having five women becomes easier than having one” (4).
I bring up Datcher because he talks about wanting the picket fence dream and tells the story about how he wants to marry the mother of his children. This is a different narrative than the one Coates is telling and perhaps comparable.
In some ways Coates is very privileged himself because his father was involved in his life. I wonder if one of the great injustices of our day has to do with the lack of fathers and even mothers in children’s lives. It was one of the major heartbreaks I read about in my students’ papers. This injustice cuts across ethnicities, classes, races.
Well that’s all I want to say so far and look forward to your response.
i’m a little late in joining.. i just got my copy of the book on Monday of this week, and i’m nearly 40 pages in. my first response to everyone who has asked me about the book, what i think of it, is “it’s ruining me, in a way i need ruined”. it’s hard to get through for sure, not because it is poorly written or i disagree in any way. it is just heavy, so very heavy.
a few concepts that have stuck out to me:
race as a man-made construct, and how it’s the father of racism. i have never seen it this way, but it makes so much sense. one question i have is, do we stop identifying ourselves by race then? if this leads to racism? i want to recognize the differences and beauty of all those made in God’s image, but if race is a lens He never intended us to look through, what is a better option? what lens do i give my children when they ask me questions about differences in skin color? i want them to see the difference and appreciate all that goes along with the differences, but i don’t want that to lead to the construct of race that leads to racism. does this make sense?
pg.8: “but this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist… One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.”
i’ve often asked myself what sets apart America’s version of racism from other countries and other times. this is an incredible insight that is new to me, but maybe isn’t new to many others? it helped me to understand better why racism is so ingrained in the fabric of our culture in the way that it is… why it feels harder to fight against. it is nearly impossible to fight something that hides in the dark.
pg.24: “I think i somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things.. I think you know something of what that third could have done, and i think that is why you may feel the need for escape even more than I did.”
THIS. if the fight for survival takes up a third of a person’s brain and bandwidth, how do we ever expect the cycle to be broken? this to me is the best response to people who think those in cycles of poverty and violence just need to “get off their lazy rear ends and get a job.”
and lastly, pg.32: “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.”
i had never even thought about this. but he’s right i think.. this expectation is there. my heart broke in this section.
he also talks of many not approaching or believing in this issue of racism in America because of their strong desire to preserve the dream. i feel this tension. with every step i take into this conversation, i feel the pull to retreat back into my dream world of “everything is fine!”. but i can’t do that. not now. and i truly don’t want to. but i get it, i really do, the desire to continue living in the dream, even though it costs so much to so many others who know that it really is just a dream. (Hunger Games.. the capital!)
i hope this made sense.. and wasn’t offensive in any way. these are my very unfiltered thoughts. i know i wanted to show up to this conversation, but i didn’t know “how” to show up. so i decided to throw out my “needing to know how” and just put it out there!