On Reading Ta Nehisi Coates

TaNehisiI haven’t always been a very political person. But then I got to college and started to learn about the history and politics of gender and of race. I remember being horrified when I became fully aware of what slavery and racism meant. When you grow up in a majority black country, you think that racism is simply when people are mean to you because of your race. But it’s so much more than that. Racism is a culture and an institution.

It’s repeated acts of violence that are allowed and enabled by the governing machinery. On my back there’s a tattoo that was inspired by the Billie Holiday Song about lynching men in the American south: “Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood on the roots”. It’s such a horrible, horrible image, but there’s something disturbingly beautiful about how this ugly image is told. Nina Simone uses the word “grotesque” to describe it, which I think is a pretty suitable word.

I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates book “Between The World and Me”, and at some point he talks about how the way the history of slavery is the story of individuals:
“Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific, enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own, who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressing and knows, inside herself,that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.”

This particular paragraph just hit home for me so hard. I think a lot of artists think to themselves: I tell stories, I’m not an activist. But at some point telling a story means standing for the right of others, too, to tell their stories and to live a full life. Being a storyteller means realizing that creating and recording beauty will sometimes will bring us face to face with the ugliest parts of our world. Our stories are all intertwined. And violence against one person in the past, or in the future, or in the present but somewhere else, it’s all a part of our story.

I’m not yet done with this book, but the language is beautiful and I’ve almost finished it in only two days. This book, while beautiful, is not about comfort. Right from the beginning Coates makes it clear that he does not believe in “Dreams”, especially the American Dream, which has been invented and realized through violence against generations of slaves. The painting of two worlds: a world where dreams were sweet and beautiful, and a world of violence that sustained this dream, reminded me, again, of the lyrics of the song:Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh/ Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh.” 

Between the World and me is a book not about comfort, but about truth. And I find this truth to be somewhat unsettling but powerful and very, very necessary.