Racism has no context.

Pretty recently I “rediscovered” Lupe Fiasco. By rediscovered, I mean he came up on shuffle while I was listening to my iPod. He’s a rapper that is pretty well known for the political undertones in his lyrics. The title of this post comes from his song “All Black Everything” which is a narrative about what the US might look like if slavery had never existed. As a black woman, I cannot remove my race from the experiences that I have in life; so I think that the song is pretty fun to think about. Unfortunately, racism has a lot of context in our world today, unlike the imaginary world Lupe Fiasco creates in his song.

I should preference by this post by saying that I am not the most well read on black politics or black thought in general. There are some great bloggers out there that devote all of their time to issues of racism and race relations in the US. (I will also create a page on this blog that links to some of these bloggers.) However, I think that talking about racism and thinking about racism are valuable uses of one’s times. I recently read (and tweeted about) Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me. It’s critically acclaimed and has been a hot topic in both my worlds – higher education and the book community.

Coates’s inspiration for his book came from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Coates’s chooses to write his book in the form of a long letter to his teenage son after the decision to not indict the officer who shot Michael Brown in late 2014. Writing about his childhood in the Baltimore inner-city, he focuses on the body and how he does and does not have control over his own. This book is short, hovering around 150 pages. When I first saw the book, I was kind of disappointed. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t the little pocket reader I held in my hand. I believe that I thought a book that covered such an important and heavy topic would need to be big. After reading Between the World and Me, I don’t think that’s the case.

If you’re expecting Coates to have a lot of answers about race relationships in the US or a depiction on how things have gotten so bad, this isn’t the book for you. Between the World and Me leaves the reader with more questions than answers, more confusion about race with less clarity, and an unsettling feeling in the pit of the stomach. For me, I had never thought of my race in terms of my body. As I think about how the media depicts the black body, specifically within the last couple of years, I find it silly that I’ve never thought of myself in that way.

What matter is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable.

Coates writes about the American Dream and American heritage a lot in his book. He describes how this dream and heritage was built off the backs of black bodies. He writes about the death of one of his friends from Howard at the hands of a police officer. He writes about his frustration he felt as a youth, learning about the nonviolent movements while living in the violent streets of Baltimore. And through all of this, the reader can begin to understand just how deep the injustice truly runs.

The interesting thing about Coates’s book is that it is written to a black audience. I don’t think this means that other people cannot read it, but the audience is distinctly black. One of the things I enjoyed most out of reading his book was how he talked about white people. He frequently used the phrase “people who need to be white.” Throughout the book he uses this phrase to emphasis the fact that racism is a social construct. In the US, the main descriptor often comes down to race. It’s one of the first things I personally think of when I look at other people, and it is one of the main ways I define myself. Coates’s forces the reader to acknowledge this almost every page. It’s refreshing.

At the end of the day, I will join the hype and say that I think this book is important. I think it’s important to be realistic in how we view race relations and how far we’ve really come. Between the World and Me presents a narrow perspective of race in the US, but has the ability to start an important conversation about our collective heritage and just what it takes to break tradition.

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