Between the World and Me
(Spiegel & Grau)Between the World and Me is an open letter to Coates' young son. He rehearses the history of black life in the United States, mainly centered on the continuing police violations that not only touch black communities, but seem to foment death and destruction everywhere: on the streets, in homes, in hearts.
He also and interestingly offers up the fact that slavery had a powerful economic element, one that had to be supported by the financial entitlement that powered America in the 19th Century.
At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more that all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolon bodies --- cotton --- waas America's primary export . . . Our bodies were held in bondage by early presidents. Our bodies were traded from the White House by James K. Polk. Our bodies built the Capitol and the National Mall. The first shot of the Civil War was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state.
"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery," declared Mississippi as it left the Union, "the greatest material interest of the world."
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Between the World and Me has been astoundingly successful, receiving accolades in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, on National Public Radio, and from Adam Gopnik himself, editor of the prestigious New Yorker. It recently won the National Book Award.
I would be the last one to spit in the soup, my heart's desire to but praise that which should be praised, only disparaging that which should be disparaged. Still, I find myself in a distinct minority. My problem was that the book brings up ancient conceits and complaints. The prose is workaday, but the message been a given for decades. I am befuddled as to why there is such an overwhelming flood of encomiums for Coates.
Yes, life stinks in the U. S. for blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and now --- most of all --- those with Muslim heritage. So many people in this cohort are disparaged, spat on, given crappy chances in the work-place, are victims of America's well-known in-depth built-in paranoia. Agreed.
The author cites his literary forebears, the great writers of black literature and opinion: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and, most of all, Malcolm X. If he cites them, he is automatically encouraging us, the reader, to compare his work with theirs. Baldwin's subtle fire, Wright's burning frustration, Ellison's bitter distancing, and, most of all, Malcolm's ferocious indignity at finding himself, and his people, treated lower than animals. Coates aligns himself with these five, but his writing, falls into a trap that somehow, the five of them elegantly evade.
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There are some moments of lightness in Between the World and Me. Coates conveys the wonders of his college, Howard University, when he was there years ago. There was the research center, which held "archives, papers, collections and virtually any book every written by or about black people." He calls it The Mecca. He rejoices in its diversity, and the fact that it was not all one-sided, "this is good, this is bad." "I began to see discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear, as a kind of power."
It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only humanity in all its terribleness.
He even revels in the reward that comes from a common language. He was standing in the airport, retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt.
I bumped into a young black man and said, "My bad." Without even looking up he said, "You straight."
"And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world."
But ultimately, no matter the language of freedom in the United States, Coates believes that he and his brothers and sisters are living in a new world of old slavery. "Race," he tells us, "is the child of racism, not the father." He sees much of contemporary black life as a fantasy, because the ruling culture of America is people who "believe that they are white." But "the elevation of the belief in being white was not achieved through wine tasting and ice cream socials, but rather"
through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me that right to secure and govern our own bodies.
His newest discovery, the one that comes to bedevil him and his family, is the radical force that perpetuates this loss of body coming from those who patrol the streets in the supposed interest of all, the American police "endowed with the authority to destroy your body."
Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. [And] the destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions."
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There is something awry here, and it's a key Constitutional issue that Coates might want to expand on in his next book. Many of us are at one with his alarm at the rising military aspect of our local police. Most of all, since he is a writer now well-acclaimed by all, I would hope that if he focuses on this alarming new destabilising force in our country, it is sure to be examined in depth by those who run the country and its media.
It's the question of a "standing army," something that should be of concern to those who claim that all powers flow from the Constitution.
Non-blacks of America are quickly learning what blacks have known all along --- and probably were taught more relentlessly than the rest of us. The "guardians of our cities" are coming more and more to act above and beyond the Constitution. Out police forces are now operating as "standing armies."
Standing armies were deeply feared by the makers of our Constitution, and are heavily restricted. They are specifically not permitted unless "created and funded by Congress." In Article 1, Section 8, one of the powers of congress is defined as:
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years . . .Samuel Adams wrote in 1776, such that professional ( e.g. standing) armies are "always dangerous to the Liberties of the People." Soldiers were likely to consider themselves separate from the populace, to become more attached to their officers than their government, and to be conditioned to obey commands unthinkingly. The power of a standing army, Adams counseled, "should be watched with a jealous Eye."
Experiences in the decades before the Constitutional Convention in 1787 reinforced colonists' negative ideas about standing armies. Colonials who fought victoriously alongside British redcoats in the Seven Years' War concluded that the ranks of British redcoats were generally filled with coarse, profane drunkards; even the successful conclusion of that conflict served to confirm colonists' starkly negative attitudes towards the institution of a standing army.
Emerging as they did from the shadow of British rule, this country's founders would likely view police, as they exist today in the major cities of the United States, as a standing army, and therefore a threat to liberty. Excessive force and disregard for the Bill of Rights have become epidemic in this country.
According to reporter Radley Balko, these are all symptoms of a generation-long shift to increasingly aggressive, militaristic, and arguably unconstitutional policing --- one that is certain to repulse America's founders. (See Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop, Public Affairs, 2013)
Since there is no national police force in the US, policing has always been organised on a state and local basis. According to Wikipedia, this country has around 500,000 police officers and a total of 40,000 separate police forces, over half of which are simply one or two-man sheriffs' offices in small towns. In an essay published in the Wall Street Journal last August, Balko presented convincing evidence of the blurring of the line between cop and soldier:
Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment --- from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers --- American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop --- armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.
Balko then connects the menace of a martial police with the decline in liberty and a disintegration of legal boundaries between sheriffs and generals:
Americans have long been wary of using the military for domestic policing. Concerns about potential abuse date back to the creation of the Constitution, when the founders worried about standing armies and the intimidation of the people at large by an overzealous executive, who might choose to follow the unhappy precedents set by Europe's emperors and monarchs . . . Given the critical role played by sheriffs in the protection of constitutionally guaranteed liberty, it is dismaying to read story after story describing the eager acceptance of military materiel by state, county and local lawmen.
If the threat of the police becoming a standing army of the sort our forefathers believed to be "inconsistent with liberty" is to be diffused, Americans must not only exercise their right to demand that police recognize their responsibility to abide by the law rather than break it, but we must also fiercely resist every attempt to abridge our right to keep and bear arms while keeping ourselves ready to defend that right against all enemies.
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It was only after finishing this review that I ran across Thomas Chatterton Williams superb review of the book in the London Review of Books, 3 December 2015. It suggested that Coates message is one of black haplessness. After recording how the author found himself at one time at the wrong end of a gun hefted by "a light-skinned boy with a long head and small eyes" --- in other words, where Coates almost got shot by one of his brothers --- the reviewer offered the idea that "It's not just black kinds in tough neighborhoods who are hapless automatons."
In Coates view, no one has agency. The young black shooter doesn't have to think too hard about what he might do because "the galaxy was playing with loaded dice." What's alarming, though no doubt comforting to his white readership, is that in this analysis whites aren't individual actors either."
Williams concludes by quoting Ralph Ellison. "Need my skin blind me to all other values?"
Then, "The crises of the black intellectual now, if there is one, isn't that he lacks the means or the platform to represent his people but that it is too easy to cleave to a sense of resentment and indignation --- even now that he has found himself, after all these years, and all this struggle, in a position of strength."
The acceptance of this pessimistic assessment means that forty million people must be seen as permanent victims.
My unease with the book flowed from this almost invisible sense of victimhood in the author's voice. And as I go back through the book (I must have read it three or four times because I was so uneasy that I hadn't got it like all the hot-dogs did --- I found that the puzzling ending of the book has not to do with the seemingly endless binds of prejudice and police-born terror, but, instead, spoke of the international catastrophe that flows from global warming. By citing this, Coates seems to leave behind the nugget of his book, taps into yet another fear of all of us: that hopeless feeling of inability to escape.
If I stop driving my car and walk to work, will scientist's prediction of the ruination of all to hit in a half-a-century or more be vitiated? No. Not only are we all doomed, we are doomed through a force we have no control over --- the death of the great world as we think we know it . . . with no hope at all, because we are victims of what Joyce called the "nightmare of history."
We belong to a humanity that has built-in the power to destroy us all, has been doing so since the birth of the Industrial Revolution. That inspired conglomerate of union of natural resources, human ingenuousness and passionate Adam Smithism is, now, apparently prepared to consign us all to the dustbin of history, and we are all victims of a blind juggernaut that dooms us all.