I will say this off the bat: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World and Me is the most powerful book I’ve read all year. And everyone should read it.
Between the World and Me is an electric force. And yet his words are never complex or bombastic, but slow and quiet. His words have a life of their own so that they are not just words, but an energy that leaps off the page. To read Coates is to burn; to come so close to fire something in you ignites. To read Coates, for me, is to realise the gap between the writer I am right now and the writer I want to be.
One of the most powerful moments in the book comes at the end, when, after relating the wrongful death of his friend Prince Jones (and the subsequent acquittal of the black policeman who shot him), Coates visits Prince Jones’s bereaved mother. Mrs Jones, we discover, was one of those who aimed for the top of the American Dream and reached it by sheer grit and always being “twice as good”—only for everything to unravel with one racist act, just like Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave. Coates tells us everything we need to know about his visit with two simple phrases after he leaves Mrs Jones’s house: “I sat in the car, idle for a few minutes,” and a few pages later, “I drove away, as always, thinking of you.”
You. “You” is peppered throughout the book, and initially appears to be Coates’ son. But as we get deeper into the book we realise Coates is not only having a conversation with his son but with all the black boys privileged enough to have an education, to be in the position of considering their role in society and the wider black community. And you is also the reader, who has never and will never have to experience what Coates experienced growing up in the Baltimore ghetto, to learn a language “consisting of … head nods and handshakes”, to memorise “a list of prohibited blocks…the smell and feel of fighting weather”.
These laws, the laws of the street, Coates writes, are “essential to the security of my body”. The black body in America is constantly at risk. In the time of slavery, the black body was “transfigured…into sugar, tobacco and gold”; post-emancipation the black body continues to be targeted, broken and bent. Black America is where time is robbed in the energy you put in to be “twice as good”, white America is where children ride their tricycles free on the sidewalk, “their parents telling them to take twice as much”.
Reading Coates, I came to realise that in my college years, I did not, and never came to know black America. Berkeley may be one of the most woke colleges in the U.S., but in my three years there I had exactly one half Africa-American professor, and in my tutorials Africa-American classmates were a rarity. They were well-represented in sports, yes, but we never met in the classroom. Berkeley is a public college, and by many measures far more diverse than most private colleges, but black undergraduate enrollment in 2018 still only made up 3%. Admittedly, African-Americans only make up 6% of California state demographics, and the University of California has also guaranteed admission to in-state applicants who graduate in the top 9% of their high school class, which has led to an overrepresentation of Asian Americans, typically economic, rather than hardship migrants.
Of late, I have been thinking a lot about race and class, especially in Singapore. I’m ethnic Chinese, which in America is to be sidelined, parodied or typecast. But in Singapore, to be Chinese is almost equivalent to being white in America—we make up almost three-quarters of the population. (Palladium Magazine has a fantastic essay that mentions this contradiction, “wealthy Singaporeans” at Yale who suddenly march in the streets referring to themselves as “people of colour”.) Many foreigners have commented on how Singapore is, on the surface at least, one of the most peaceful multi-racial societies in the world. Yes it is, but the harmony is skin-deep. Singaporean Chinese culture is so dominant that few break out of their silos, there is little empathy or understanding of minority issues besides the same old tired tropes, while minorities usually suck it up because “at least it’s better here than in Malaysia lah” or stew in their discontent and vote for the opposition every election. Meaningful discussions on race are often silenced by the state as ‘not the right way to talk about race’.
Reading Coates in that sense, gave me a new framework to understand and think about race and class. For many, his words may be too intense. At one point, and especially during his interview with Prince Jones’s mother, I kept stopping because I was all choked up. One wrong happens, and then another, and then a third, and we start to see what is wrong as normal. Coates says “what America does best is forget”. We forget, because we start to think it is normal. We forget because remembering is more painful than forgetting. Therein lies the ferocity of Coates’s words: every word burns with the urgency of the forgotten.
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