The Stigma of Racism: The American Context

Kankana Borkakati, (Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi)

Through the prism of : Between the World and Me (Spiegel and Grau: 2015)

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Racism as a problem within society is one that has been persistent for centuries as a ‘social evil’. It is today one of the world’s major issue, with a number of activists from various fields trying to sensitise people of the causes and consequences of the same. However, even though the world has been progressing lately in the modern era, both socially and technically, problems of racism and prejudice can still be found today, deeply embedded in the mindsets of the masses. Now, although racism is found in several forms in a number of different societies and countries, in this essay, however, the prime idea is to focus on the problems faced by the Blacks in America and Britain. This is basically done through an analysis of the novel- namely, Between the World and Me, authored by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

To begin with, let us first look into the defining factors of what exactly is racism all about. The term ‘race’ refers to groups of people having differences or similarities in their biological traits, conceived by society to be socially significant. For eg, although differences or similarities in eye colour have not been considered as socially significant, the very differences or similarities in skin colour do have their significance in the society. Obvious physical differences do exist in all human beings. But how these variations form the basis for social prejudice and discrimination has nothing to do with genetics but rather with a social phenomenon related to outward appearances. Racism, thus, is prejudice based on socially significant physical features.

Racism is an ongoing force of the society that impacts the lives of Americans negatively in an everyday manner. The American racist mindset can be seen from the times of slavery, where blacks were treated as inferior to the whites. This ideology of discrimination on the basis of race has throughout history evolved and developed into a number of different meanings. The author Ta-Nehisi Coates has, in his book, tried to trace this development through his own experiences as a Black in the American society. He does this by writing letters, addressed to his son. Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful framework for understanding the nation’s history and current crisis. According to him, Americans have built an empire on the idea of race- an idea based on falsehood which brings damage to all, but the extremes of this damage faced are by the Black men, women and children.

Ta-Nehisi Coates begins his book by saying that racism, although undoubtedly still exists in the hearts of people today, the way it is conceived now is much different than what it was during his childhood days. Surrounded him and his black friends was the aura of fear- the fear of getting beaten up, the fear of walking freely on the streets without being thrashed by some White kids. Now though one might have to deal with the occasional roughnecks on the subway or in the park (p. 24), in those days, as the author recalls, one had to be fully concerned with whom the person is walking with, the manner of their walk, who or what one smiles at- all these cultures of the street practised chiefly with securing the body from any possible thrashings.  Today however, the law has become an excuse for furthering the assault on one’s body. But, as Ta-Nehisi Coates believes, a society that protects some people through its safety net itself shows the inferiority and inequalities faced by them in the greater society.

The author then recalls an incident of his childhood which made him realise, or rather accept the fact that the Blacks and the Whites were in fact in an opposing relationship, with the Blacks dominated by the latter. Back when he was eleven years old and was returning from a long day at school, he saw a boy of around the same age as he was, being bullied and surrounded by some older light skinned coloured boys. The author stood there for some seconds marvelling at the old boys’ beautiful sense of fashion, when suddenly one of the older boys with a long head and small eyes reached into his ski jacket and pulled out a gun. The year was 1986 when the news reports of murders were everywhere. Although the boy did not shoot, his action had affirmed the place of the author in the order of things. The boy had made it clear how easily anyone from the Black community could easily be selected to get hurt any day at any point of time.

Amazed by this incident, the author realised that West Baltimore, where he lived, the north side of Philadelphia, where his cousins lived, the South Side of Chicago, where friends of his father lived, comprised a world apart. Somewhere beyond this, there were other worlds where children regularly did not have to fear for their bodies. It was television that brought witnesses about the dispatches from the other world, where little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak (p. 20). The author wonders what it would mean to grow up with a black President, social networks, omnipresent media, and black women everywhere, because this was never the scenario that happened to him during his childhood. As he tells addressing to his son,

“Do you ever feel the same need? Your life is so different from my own. The grandness of the world, the real world, is a known thing for you. And you have no need of dispatches because you have seen so much of the American galaxy and its inhabitants- their homes, their hobbies- up close. I don’t know what it means to grow up with a black President, social networks, omnipresent media, and black women everywhere in their natural hair.”

Now, speaking of education, Ta-Nehisi Coates believes that schools should provide access to things like art and music, and most importantly to ideas which are relevant, challenging and empowering. The explicit aims of education are to create thinkers, those who inquire, and to provide equal access to the world of thought and beauty. But this however did not happen and instead what became evident was the suppression and control of the Black children. Coates argues that, as a child, he felt “drugged” by the “false morality” taught in school. Education was not an opportunity for learning and development, but simply the more preferable institution to prison. The resentment of the author is easy to understand. As Coates recalls,

“The laws of the schools were aimed at something distant and vague. What did it mean to, as our elders told us, “grow up and be somebody”? And what precisely did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline? To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant always packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly. Educated children walked in single file on the right side of the hallway, raised their hands to use the lavatory, and carried the lavatory pass when en route. Educated children never offered excuses — certainly not childhood itself. The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls. How could the schools? Algebra, Biology, and English were not subjects so much as opportunities to better discipline the body, to practice writing between the lines, copying the directions legibly, memorizing theorems extracted from the world they were created to represent. All of it felt so distant to me.”

As is evident in Coates work, is his devotion to Malcolm X[1], whose work inspired the author to believe that black bodies are scared and precious and that black bodies too have the right to defend violations to their bodies. As he quotes,

“I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their facade of morality, unlike the streets and their bravado, unlike the world of Dreamers. I loved him because he made it plain, never mystical or esoteric, because his science was not rooted in the actions of spooks and mystery gods but in the work of the physical world. Malcolm was the first political pragmatist I knew, the first honest man I’d ever heard. He was unconcerned with making the people who believed they were white comfortable in their belief. If he was angry, he said so. Malcolm spoke like a man who was free, like a black man above our laws that proscribed our imagination. I identified with him. I knew that he had chafed against the schools, that he had almost been doomed by the streets.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates also describes to his son how he found his Mecca in the Howard University, which is a historically black university.[2] Now, the force of the author’s Mecca, he believes, cannot be understood by or translated into the language of today’s youth. This is because the youth of the current generation is used to a more new and eclectic language, that is, they are more used to ideas derived from a broad and diverse range of sources. But for the author, the Mecca proved to be one of the crossroads of the Black diaspora, it’s alumni including persons like Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, Charles Drew, among many other notable persons.

When referring to Howard as “The Mecca,” however, Coates draws a distinction between the university as an academic institution and as a vibrant community made up of young black people from every background, social class, and cultural orientation. It is this social community that truly rouses and inspires Coates. Although he never ends up graduating from Howard, the legacy of The Mecca stays with him throughout the book. In one of the final anecdotes, Coates describes the sense of joy and “black power” he experiences at Homecoming. The Mecca of the Howard University became the source of strength and guidance Coates throughout his life. It was here where he realised that the world was more than just a photonegative of the people who believe they are white. “White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control the bodies of the Black- the power sometimes direct, and at times insidious. As he quotes,

“I was admitted to Howard University but formed and shaped by The Mecca. These institutions are related but not the same. Howard University is an institution of higher education, concerned with the LSAT, magna cum laude, and Phi Beta Kappa. The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body. The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent.”

And yet, in another instance, he says,

“It was the briefest intimacy, but it captured much of the beauty of my black world––the ease between your mother and me, the miracle at The Mecca, the way I feel myself disappear on the streets of Harlem. To call that feeling racial is to hand over all those diamonds, fashioned by our ancestors, to the plunderer. We made that feeling, though it was forged in the shadow of the murdered, the raped, the disembodied, we made it all the same.”

Throughout his book, Coates also seemed to imply that ‘white’ and ‘black’ do not describe race, but who people believe themselves to be. He is seen expanding on his belief that racial categories are not natural facts, but rather systems of human invention. He mentioned there are people with straight black hair and blue eyes who are still considered ‘black’. But at the same time, while people are worrying about their ‘colour’ and how they should describe themselves or each other, he says, they aren’t realizing that people are being murdered, beaten, broken, tortured, and framed because they have a darker skin pigment than some other people.

We also find Coates describing in his book how he met his wife, Kenyatta, who was also a student in Howard University, fell in love and later had their son Samori, named after the Guinean Muslim cleric who fought French colonizers in the 19th century. Coates reflects on the wisdom of the streets that he gained in his youth, and remarks that Samori’s name signifies the fact that “the struggle, in and of itself, has meaning.” He encourages Samori to remember that slavery is not “an indefinable mass of flesh” but rather the individual thoughts, experiences, and hopes of unique people. He emphasizes the notion that for these individuals, enslavement was “damnation,” and that they did not find redemption in the afterlife.

Coates encourages Samori to view American history realistically and to resist seeing enslaved people as “chapters in your redemptive history.” Nothing that Samori achieves- no matter how great- can make up for the reality of slavery. At the same time, Coates urges Samori not to feel responsible for creating a better world, because as a black boy, he is already disproportionately responsible for keeping his body safe. He says,

“The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. The world needs saving orecisely because if the actions of these same men and women. I am not a cynic. 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 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 will never 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.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates now shares with his readers another instance of his life which confirms the fact that the American police and overall criminal justice system is decidedly unjust and set up to incriminate, incarcerate, and murder black people. Once while travelling, the author was pulled over by some Prince George’s County police. The author remembers being terrified since at that moment he recalled how the PG county brutally beat up or kill black persons. Although that day the author was lucky himself to get passed by, the next day he hears the news of the death of his friend Prince Jones and was devastated on hearing it. The story contains few details other than the fact that Prince had been driving to see his fiancée and that there were no witnesses other than the officer who killed him, who claimed that Prince had tried to run him over with his car. The knowledge that Prince was a kind, generous, promising man in the beginning of his life makes no difference against the force of this structural injustice. The officer who killed Prince was not charged against anything and was set free, filling Coates with rage.

When Coates, along with his family moved into New York in 2001, the incident of 9/11 did not make him connect to the tragedy as every American should ideally. This is due to, he says, the feeling of alienation from not only New York, but the whole of US, which inescapably reminded him of the racism built into the foundations of the country. He then contrasts this lack of nationalism with the close ties between Coates and his family, friends, giving me all the support when times are bad.

Recalling yet another instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates says, once when Samori was almost five years old, Coates had taken him to the theatres in the Upper West Side. As they were coming of the escalator, with Samori moving at the dawdling speed of a child (p. 93), a white woman pushed Samori and exclaimed, “Come on!” Coates is alarmed by this woman putting her hands on Samori’s body and horrified by her sense of entitlement. There was also his insecurity to protect his son’s ‘black body’. For a brief moment, Coates forgets that he is not in Flatbush or West Baltimore or The Mecca and speaks sharply to the woman. A white man approaches and tells Coates, “I could have you arrested!” Later, Coates interprets this statement as a claim on his body. If Coates had made a single mistake, one of Samori’s first memories would have been seeing his father arrested.

Coates argues that the saying “It only takes one person to make a change” is a myth (p. 96). He claims that African Americans have rarely achieved liberty purely through their own efforts, but rather that this always happens in conjunction with broader historical forces. Equally, it is meaningless for white people to declare that they are personally not racist, because racism is not about individuals so much as it is driven by broader, structural forces.

Coates recalls a trip he took with ten-year-old Samori and his cousin to historical sites from the Civil War. Although the boys are young, Coates feels a responsibility to present them with challenging experiences that will help them to better understand the world. Coates is particularly fascinated by the Civil War because it is the historical moment at which the status of African Americans in the US shifted from that of commodities to human beings. He writes that during the war years, “the right to beat, rape, rob, and pillage the black body” was thrown into question.

The author wanted his son to grow into consciousness. As he says,

“I did not want to raise you in fear or false memory. I did not want you forced to mask your joys and bind your eyes. What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness. I resolved to hide nothing from you.”

Now, despite Coates’s determination to show his son the true nature of the world, the author believes that Samori has still grown up in a state of greater innocence than his father was able to. Coates feels that it’s inevitable that this cannot last, even though he does not regret the unusual level of safety Samori has been afforded. In discussing the commodification of black bodies, Coates points out that black people are still treated as things whose value lies within their ability to make white people rich. This is true in the prison system, which incarcerates black people at a highly disproportionate rate in order to benefit whites.

Ta-Nehisi Coates strongly believes that life is precious because it is short, and it is through black people’s own power and resourcefulness, rather than through God that they are able to achieve beauty and meaning in the midst of chaos. Coates finally ends his book, not on a note of optimism, but rather a strong sense of determination. He refuses to find any false consolation or hope. He also demonstrates that the haunting legacy of the past can never truly disappear, mentioning his old fear coming back as he drives through the Chicago ghettoes. On the other hand, Coates does provide words of encouragement and support to Samori, and thereby also encourages the reader.

From my understanding after reading the book Between the World and Me, I feel that the author Ta-Nehisi Coates through many incidents of his life- starting from his childhood days to the very present situation, tries to deal extensively with the theme of the black bodies. He argues that for the Blacks the question of life is how to live within a black body. Through many instances, he also tries to show his readers how racism and injustices against the Blacks operate in day-to-day lives through manipulation and control incurred upon them. Through the letters to his son, Coates shows his anger against the inequalities and the constant fear that people belonging to the Black community has to face. To Coates, to be black in a white supremacist society is to live in constant fear of disembodiment.  Although it cannot be denied that several measures have now been taken up to uplift the Black community as a whole, Ta-Nehisi Coates is least hopeful of these changes and is seen telling his son a numerous times that as a Black, he will always required to be in a constant awareness to protect himself and his body.

Now, as a female reader, what I missed out from this reading is a way to understand the plights of the Black women, who hovers on the margins of the story. No doubt, Coates deeply writes about the vulnerable position of the Black body, women’s additional vulnerability to sexual and physical abuses is hardly talked about.

Hence, to conclude, it can be said that the problems of racism, although today is not very much evident on the upper surface because of the development of many laws for their protection, I feel deep down the hearts of the people the stigma still persists. To remove this age old discrimination is only possible through new ideas and new history, which sensitises all human beings, regardless their race, creed or gender. In fact, as long as there is the distinction in the terms, that is, the Whites and the Blacks, race will remain a major source of social stratification.

[1] An African-American leader and activist, and also a prominent figure who articulated concepts of black pride in the 1960s.

[2] Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are institutions of higher education in the United States that were established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the intention of primarily serving the African-American community. This was because the overwhelming majority of predominantly white institutions of higher-learning disqualified African Americans from enrolment during segregation.

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