Between the World and Me (Anglais) Broché – 16 juillet 2015
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. . . we sprawl in gray chains in a place full of winters when what we want is the sun
Amira Baraka, “Ka Ba”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
There is nothing extreme in this statement. Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. But democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune. In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.
This leads us to another equally important ideal, one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim. Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence 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 this new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.
These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new 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 be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I cannot call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.
The new people are not original in this. Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. 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, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names. But you and I have never truly had that luxury. I think you know.
I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
That Sunday, with that host, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about “hope.” And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.
That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.
This must seem strange to you. We live in a “goal-oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live—specifically, how do I live free in this black body? It is a profound question because America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men. I have asked the question through my reading and writings, through the music of my youth, through arguments with your grandfather, with your mother, your aunt Janai, your uncle Ben. I have searched for answers in nationalist myth, in classrooms, out on the streets, and on other continents. The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.
And I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such.
It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world. They would stand on the corner of Gwynn Oak and Liberty, or Cold Spring and Park Heights, or outside Mondawmin Mall, with their hands dipped in Russell sweats. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T‑shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a catalog of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired.
I saw it in their customs of war. I was no older than five, sitting out on the front steps of my home on Woodbrook Avenue, watching two shirtless boys circle each other close and buck shoulders. From then on, I knew that there was a ritual to a street fight, bylaws and codes that, in their very need, attested to all the vulnerability of the black teenage bodies.
I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew, the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies. I saw it in the girls, in their loud laughter, in their gilded bamboo earrings that announced their names thrice over. And I saw it in their brutal language and hard gaze, how they would cut you with their eyes and destroy you with their words for the sin of playing too much. “Keep my name out your mouth,” they would say. I would watch them after school, how they squared off like boxers, vaselined up, earrings off, Reeboks on, and leaped at each other. --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Relié.
Revue de presse
"I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates' journey, is visceral, eloquent and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading." --Toni Morrison
"Obama's statement also made me think of Between the World and Me, an extraordinary forthcoming book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he writes an impassioned letter to his teen-age son a letter both loving and full of a parent's dread counseling him on the history of American violence against the black body, the young African-American's extreme vulnerability to wrongful arrest, police violence, and disproportionate incarceration." --David Remnick in The New Yorker
"Immense, multifaceted... This is a poet's book, revealing the sensibility of a writer to whom words - exact words - matter... As a meditation on race in America, haunted by the bodies of black men, women, and children, Coates's compelling, indeed stunning, work is rare in its power to make you want to slow down and read every word. This is a book that will be hailed as a classic of our time." --Publishers Weekly
"The powerful story of a father's past and a son's future. Coates offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son's life... this moving, potent testament might have been titled Black Lives Matter." --Kirkus, starred review
"Ta-Nehisi Coates is the James Baldwin of our era, and this is his cri de coeur. A brilliant thinker at the top of his powers, he has distilled 400 years of history and his own anguish and wisdom into a prayer for his beloved son and an invocation to the conscience of his country. An instant classic and a gift to us all." --Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns
"I just finished an advance copy of Between the World and Me, a look at the racial history of our country by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It's really powerful and emotional." --John Legend in The Wall Street Journal
"Heartbreaking, confronting, it draws power from understatement in dealing with race in America and the endless wrong-headed concept that whites are somehow entitled to subjugate everyone else." - Capital
"In our current global landscape it's an essential perspective, regardless of your standpoint. " - Paperboy
"After all, Between the World and Me is an exhortation against blindness. Coates wants to push us to see the delusions we've been feeding ourselves and insist we struggle through the Dream, that false narrative of America's history, by reckoning with its ugliness. I use the word 'reckoning' carefully; I admired how Coates refrains from outright condemnations of the American experiment, wanting to wrestle with it rather than destroy it. Throughout he resists the urge to tie up these ugly complexities with anything pat, delivering a perspective, in many ways, that you could call post-cynical." --The Guardian
"One of the truest works I have read in a while: honest, arresting, and challenging throughout, its argument, on behalf of black struggle in a system with no incentive to change, feels not new but refreshingly old, something that had been submerged under distractions and niceties for too long." --Alexis Okeowo's Books We Loved in 2015 in the New Yorker
"An intimate, wise look at a problem that's finally getting nationwide attention. " --Flavorwire's Best Nonfiction Books of 2015
"Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me is the one book you should read if you only read one book in the next couple months... Coates will leave you gasping with awe at the beauty of his language, even as you digest the bleakness of his message." --GQ's favourite books of 2015
"Forget, for a moment, the ubiquitous comparisons to James Baldwin: Though fitting in many ways, they can distract us from how original Coates's book truly is." --The New York Times' 10 Best Books of 2015
"This work, which won the National Book Award in nonfiction, is something to behold: a mature writer entirely consumed by a momentous subject and working at the extreme of his considerable powers when national events most conform to his vision." --The Washington Post's 10 Best Books of 2015
"Between the World and Me is one of the most powerful and poignant pieces of literature that I have read this year" --Socialist Review
"Coates combines an unapologetically defiant voice with a poetic sensibility to poignant effect." --The Independent
"Brutal and lyrical, elegant and searing." --Financial Times
"Between the World and Me is both a meditation on life in a country that weaponizes black skin and a rigorous examination of what Coates calls the Dream - the pernicious American concept of whiteness, fuelled since the days of the Middle Passage by the destruction of black bodies... a brilliant primer on the experience of black maleness in America and the man-made structures that shape it." --The Globe and Mail
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with manicured lawn), that can be fulfilled only by exploitation of the black race.
Although I do not share the author's universal pessimism I gave his book the highest mark because the powerful feelings expressed here come from the guts and sound completely authentic. Unlike the civil rights movement, M. Coates does not believe in the inevitability of justice. There is a fight going on between "them" and "us" and you cannot expect a happy ending.
But what role are the "non-us" expected to play in this fight ? Watch the limits of Manichaeism.
But there is also the stagnation, and backlash. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book concerns the latter. His first name is derived from an old Egyptian word for Nubia, the area to the south of them that was inhabited by blacks. The New York Times review of this book underscored the similarities, and delineated the differences between this work and Baldwin’s Fire Next Time.). Both take the structure of an older black man telling a much younger black man the (racial) “facts of life” in America. In Baldwin’s case, it was to his nephew, in Coates, it is to his son.
Coates grew up “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Baltimore. At least, that is what it was called in Baldwin’s time. Perhaps it still is. A tough neighborhood. A war zone, literal, and of sorts. A lot of psychic energy is spent just trying to stay alive… of watching for what is out of place on the “trail” to school, and does that bring danger? Coats quantifies this, in terms of brain time, at 33%. Cuts down on your time for writing the next “killer app.” Another quantification: “At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combine, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies – cotton – was America’s prime export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they made their riches off our stolen bodies.” He provides no basis for the four billion figure… and for those who would dispute it, is it double or half? I recently read and reviewed Ghosts Along the Mississippi: The Magic of Old Houses of Louisiana., with the subtitle that includes “magic”. There was nothing magically about it. Far more than an abstract four billion, those “ghosts” of old mansions quantify what was stolen.
His is a staccato writing style; the “takeaways” of a 1000 page book. Concerning schools, quotes worthy of Paul Goodman: “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance…Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them.” He questions the meek acceptance and embrace of the “tear gas” of passive resistance. He admires Malcom X. Coates names 10-15 black men who have been killed by the police, the police that he says are so instrumental in fulfilling America’s will on race relations. Coates went to the black “Mecca,” Howard University, in Washington, DC, and was dazzled by the variety that is encompassed by that word: “blackness.” He finds love on more than one occasion.
Prince Jones, a fellow classmate of his at Howard was murdered by the police. He described this killing in detail, and has a heart-breaking visit to his mother, a medical doctor, who had worked her way up from scrubbing white people’s floors in Louisiana. His eulogy for Jones is haunting and beautiful. Accountability? There never is any. “And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of ‘race,’ imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. They typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force on nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.” Scathing, as good as Baldwin ever wrote.
Coates seminal work is an update on the much “progress” that has NOT been made. Normally I would give it my special rating for an exceptional work, 6-stars. However, I did have some problems with it. He goes to France, his first trip abroad, and is enthralled… I’ve been there… figuring the 6eme arrondissement is the “center of the universe.” However, he never mentions an essential word for understanding France, “les banlieues,” literally, the suburbs, with such a different connotation than in America. A fellow reviewer has mentioned that he has become more critical after his first visit. And then I would also be critical of his use of the term “Dreamer,” of which there are many, for sure, but are not a monolithic block that seems to mean “non-black.” And he never develops the implications of the fact that the cop who killed Prince Jones was black also. Like “les banlieues,” “Tom,” of an avuncular nature, does not appear in his work either. Still, overall, a very important work, for America today, and for those still singing those “old union hymns.” 5-stars.
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