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Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Read 4/7/2017

Shoot… It’s the first time I’ve read something that could be classified as contemporary Black nonfiction, or Black literature, and it’s at once both overwhelming and stunning. Reading through it gave me a glimpse into a world that I’ve never heard about from those who live in it; that is, neither my education in homeschooling nor at Princeton has included the perspective of Black people in book form, and not because they did not offer it (though perhaps homeschooling did not), but because I never took the time to discover it.

I feel guilty at times about my own racial identity. Where do we Asian Americans stand in this black-white society? in this black-white war? I think Mike Chen at Manna spring retreat said it best: we Asian Americans have the unique position of both privilege and racism. And I wonder how much of that contributed to the fact that we, growing up, barely knew any black people. Homeschooling is almost homogenous in its white, conservative, heterosexual, religious population; our church was largely the same, with the odd Asian or black or Latino thrown in. In reflecting upon my own upbringing, what is it that I find so disappointing about it? Did it fail me in some crucial way? Yet I was blessed to live in a world without fear, where I could succeed and expect to succeed and did, by all means, succeed. I feel guilty for being so distanced from the race problems of our society because I lived primarily in a homogenous one.

Where do I stand in this black-white society, especially as I am still trying to figure out where I stand in the broad category of “Asian American”? What can I do, when I try to consider my first identity as “Christian”? To what extent does that mean “Christian and white”? What mainstream assumptions about the world are baked into my personal philosophy?

I want to read more Black literature. I want to read more because when I think about it, I am guilty and disgusted with my own ignorance. Although I confess that as I was reading the book, I was thinking to myself proudly: Finally, I’m becoming an intelligent, informed person! — distancing myself from my parents, who in some ways represent all of which I’m now reconsidering (and to a lesser extent, rejecting). Though this thinking is at best awfully arrogant.

I tired of being ignorant. I tire of my own assumptions. Though I don’t agree with everything that Hans Halvorson says, I deeply admire him for his continued willingness to believe that he could be wrong. And he’s a Princeton professor. Most adults, which I guess I am now, are stuck in their own philosophical ruts. Is it something that just ‘happens’ as one grows older? You become tired to questioning yourself, of struggling towards more understanding, more empathy, more awareness? Am I wrong in trying to pursue this, and is it becoming an idol?

Anyway. Notes on the book. I highlighted a lot in this book. Here are some of them:

  • The idea that the American Dream, called the “Dream” in the book, is a fantasy that people who consider themselves white invest in; they believe everything is Memorial Day with white picket fences and hot dogs, when in fact this Dream was built on the backs of slaves; and that black people do not have the privilege of even believing in this Dream because reality is very different
  • “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.”
  • How does one “live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream”?
  • “I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both.”
  • “But a great number of educators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility.”
  • “That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being ‘politically conscious’ — as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”
  • “The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.”
  • “Being black did not immunize us from history’s logic or the lure of the Dream. The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own.”
  • “Hate gives identity.”
  • “Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance — no matter how improved — as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children.”
  • “But these officers had my body, could do with that body whatever they pleased, and should I live to explain what they had done with it, this complaint would mean nothing.”
  • “The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies — the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects — are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white flee the cities and into the Dream.”
  • The phrase “be twice as good” meaning the same as “accept half as much”
  • “A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself, and in America, these precipitating chapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals. … Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen.”
  • “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law” (Solzhenitsyn)
  • “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
  • “The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, were created by the policy of Dreamers, but their weight, their shame, rests solely upon those who are dying in them. There is a great deception in this. To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding. And the premise that allows for these killing fields — the reduction of the black body — is no different than the premise that allowed for the murder of Prince Jones. The Dream of acting white, of talking white, of being white, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in Chicago with frightening regularity. Do not accept the lie. Do not drink from poison. The same hands that drew red lines around the life of Prince Jones drew red lines around the ghetto.”
  • “The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free.”