November 21, 2019

Black like me

When Toni Morrison says, “This is required reading,” I listen. 

So, when I saw that imperative calling out from the cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir-cum-treatise on race, “Between the World and Me,” I obeyed. 

But I was not entirely prepared for the demands this book placed on my conscience. I was not prepared for the hard truths of Coates’ tale — and I was especially not ready to admit my place in it.  

I was also not prepared to see its premise reflected (yet again) in the violence and protests that turned Ferguson, Mo., into a state of emergency (yet again) earlier this week, when a gathering to commemorate the killing of Michael Brown turned into an extended arrest-fest in which everyone from Princeton professor Cornel West to rising social media activists DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie were handcuffed for their own trespassing at the Federal Courthouse. 

None of this would surprise Coates. “Between the World and Me,” borrowed from a line of verse by the 20th-century prose poet Richard Wright, is written as a letter to Coates’ son, Samori, about the experience of being Black in America. Part lamentation, part love letter, Coates’ iridescent language shimmers even as his message stirs up shudders. 

His premise is simple: To be Black in America is to have no control over your own body. It is to be physically vulnerable, endangered and constrained at all times. It is to inherit 250 not-too-distant years of “being born into chains,” a foundational injustice that precipitated a million more social and political injustices — begetting segregation and unfairness and a destructive construct of race that has divided those who are Black from “those who believe they are white.” It is to live in an “other” society, where different rules apply based on the color of one’s skin. Where a culture of the streets has emerged in which “a lifestyle of near-death experience” is the norm; a nefarious norm inextricably linked to the sins against Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Samuel Dubose, Sandra Bland and on and on — adding to an endless list of Blacks whose bodies were “plundered,” as much by police who were supposed to protect them as by a system of racialized politics that pits Black lives against one another.

“It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country,” Coates writes. 

How familiar are these words for Jews, who have endured thousands of years of anti-Semitism and suffering at the hands of those in power? It is tempting to identify with Coates, to feel that we, too, have been there, that we understand exactly what it is to live that way. And maybe some of us do. But his story is not about us. 

Reading this soaring work was a reminder of the American history that was hinted at in textbooks but which revealed itself in full on the streets, in the backs of buses, in lynch mobs and at lunch counters. It made me see anew that no matter what Jews have been through, the summit of suffering is not ours alone to claim. And how we all too easily assume that we are the primary victims of history. We teach our children about biblical slavery, the Russian pogroms, the European Holocaust. In some essential way, to be Jewish is to identify with a long trail of suffering and victimization, seeing ourselves as the essential other, the outsider, the stranger.

How strange it is, then, to live at a time when Jews have achieved their dreams — the State of Israel! The good life in America! A time when Jews are not only victims but victors. 

And how strange it is to read Coates’ smart credo of racial invention and find some of our own history within it: “Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible — this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

Tell that to Hitler! Tell the “new people” of modern America that this idea is old; that Hitler’s dream of Jewish inferiority (driven by his delusion of Jewish superiority) was as much a made-up bunch of hooey as the beloved American dream, which built itself on the whipped backs of Black people. 

But here is where Coates gets hard, allowing us first to identify, then pushing us away: “These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white — Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish — and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to become something else again.”

The implication is clear: In America, Coates believes, American Jews aren’t the Jews of history, they are white. 

When I first read this, I wanted to rage against it. I wanted to prove our righteousness, our own pained relationship to so many of the same tyrannies Coates teaches about — hatred, intolerance, discrimination, separation. But I couldn’t. To do so would undermine the core argument of his brilliant book — that these distinct cruelties are the story of Black life, that this is his unique experience of the world, his meanings, his memory, his history to pass down to his son. To rage — and defend myself — would be to participate in “the politics of exoneration” that too many times has allowed police violence to persist unchallenged. 

The Jewish thing to do, I realized, is to read and weep with Coates. To listen and lament and accept his truth as true: That because I am white, even if I did not create racial constructs or mean to condone them, I am party to an unearned privilege that has made my body infinitely safer and societally more sacred than Coates’ son’s. 

That I never thought of this before reading “Between the World and Me” means I was unwittingly, undeniably complicit in that system, the way all white Americans have been complicit. We are all Coates’ American “dreamers” who dreamed of things America told us to want without ever thinking of what it cost and who it was who enabled us to have those things. We did not create slavery, but we benefited from its legacy. And Jews know better than anyone that a people — Black, “white,” Jewish or American — can never divorce itself from the history that brought it into being.

It’s time to kick away the border “between the world and me.” Time to silence language that articulates ideas such as “the essential below.” No human being should think of him- or herself this way. 

So I offer Coates and his son an apology and an aspiration: Think of yourself as The Chosen.