'Between the World and Me' by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Book discussion Friday, May 13, 1 p.m. EDT

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Unionist Unionist's picture
'Between the World and Me' by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Book discussion Friday, May 13, 1 p.m. EDT

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Issues Pages: 
Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Great choice!

swallow

Will you join us for the conversation? 

mark_alfred

The book sounds interesting, so if the hold I just put on it at the library comes through in time, then yes, I'll gladly join in.

Caissa

Read the book on the weekend. Looking forward to Friday's discussion.

Unionist Unionist's picture

Finished it on the weekend (didn't read it on the weekend - I'm not Caissa). Now skimming through it again and making some notes. Which I should have done the first time round.

kim elliott kim elliott's picture

Also finished on the weekend.  Glad to see you guys doing this! I haven't always been able to finish books on time in the past of the book club...

 

Caissa

Glad you were able to finish it this time, Kim.  I haven't made any notes, Unionist. I am trying to ruminate on the central theme.

Caissa

This article relates to the book.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36273488

Unionist Unionist's picture

[quote=Caissa]

This article relates to the book.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36273488

[/quote]

Update:

[url=http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36281438]Trayvon Martin gun "removed from sale"[/url]

infracaninophile infracaninophile's picture

Arrrgh, I will not be able to make very sagacious comments compared to you two. I hated "lit crit" type exercises in school and bomb on text analysis. Give me math and science, thanks. But maybe I can add a puerile comment or two when the coversation begins:-)

Unionist Unionist's picture

[quote=infracaninophile]

Arrrgh, I will not be able to make very sagacious comments compared to you two.[/quote]

Do not, ever, underestimate our ability to be superficial and facile.

[quote]Give me math and science, thanks. 

[/quote]

Sure:

[url=http://qz.com/639452/mathematicians-are-geeking-out-about-a-bizarre-disc... are geeking out about a bizarre discovery in prime numbers[/url]

[quote]

Researchers studying prime numbers at Stanford University have stumbled upon a new phenomenon. In their study, published on arXiv, they show that consecutive prime numbers try hard not to be similar.That is, they may not be as random as once thought.

 Apart from the single-digit prime numbers 2 and 5, all other prime numbers can only end in one of four digits: 1, 3, 7, or 9. (If a number ends in 2, 4, 6, 8 or 0, it will be divisible by 2. If it ends in 5, it will be divisible by 5.) Thus, if they were truly random, a prime number that ends in 1 should be followed by another prime number ending in 1 about 25% of the time. That is, this kind of pairing should occur at least one in four times.

 But when Kannan Soundararajan and Robert Lemke Oliver checked the first billion prime numbers, they found that a prime number ending in 1 is followed by another also ending in 1 about 18% of the time. That is, this kind of pairing occurred only one in five times. Instead, that prime number was followed by a prime number ending in 3 or 7 about 30% of the time and by 9 about 22% of the time. This result holds true for prime numbers ending in 3, 7 or 9 too, but with slightly less bias.[/quote]

I know, I know, I was shocked also. 

Caissa

"Race is the child of racism."

Unionist Unionist's picture

[quote=Caissa]

"Race is the child of racism."

[/quote]

I think that's undeniably true and increasingly apparent to progressive-minded folks. It's one of the reasons for referring to "racialized" people. They are literally ascribed a "race" by a society which discriminates, oppresses, exploits, kills, in order to maintain the domination of some over others (with the aim of acquiring and maintaining wealth, property, "comfort", etc.). It's an important conclusion which many of us have finally started to get, but needs to be repeated and advocated.

In one place, he gives graphic examples of "races" that don't exist any more, because racist societies needed them once but have moved on (Irish, Italian, German, can't recall the 4th one...). Race has no objective existence or precise delineation - whether it's the oppressed (in this case, Blacks) or the oppressor (who call themselves "white").

 

Caissa

The other simple, clear message of the book is that black people (Coates term) do not have control of their bodies.

ETA: The auction seems back on. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36281438

RETA: I think the fourth race was the Franks.

Unionist Unionist's picture

[quote=Caissa]

The other simple, clear message of the book is that black people (Coates term) do not have control of their bodies.

[/quote]

Right. And the fear of losing your life ("body") is never far from the surface, whether in the schools or the streets, even for those few Blacks (like Coates's own family, or like Prince Jones's) who have "made it" to some extent and are starting to (think they can) live "the Dream". The racism isn't just, or even primarily, some stereotypes or attitudes. It's rape, murder, plunder, and it operates on an individual level, not just on the "mass". What he said on that score resonated with me.

Unionist Unionist's picture

Did you notice that he used the term "white privilege" only once - around page 6 - and it was one of a list of terms which he called "phrasing" that "obscures that racism is a visceral experience". Found that intriguing. Although arguably, all his references to "the Dream" could be seen as talking about the same phenomenon.

Yeah, the Franks, that was it.

Caissa

Page 10 but who is source checking. ;^)) Is the Dream meant to be short for the American Dream?

Left Turn

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

I really like the narrative style of the book, which allowed Ta-Nehisi Coates to get to the heart of what he is talkjing about right from the get go.

[quote=Caissa]

The other simple, clear message of the book is that black people (Coates term) do not have control of their bodies.

[/quote]

I had some awareness of black people having less control over thir bodies than white people, but it was a real eye opener to see how pervasive a force this can be in the lives of black people, even those who are relatively well-off.

 do however think that Ta-Nehisi Coatws singular focus on race to the exclusion of class is a bit simplistic. I don't deny that all black people in the United States face threats to the safety of their person that white people ds not. However, rich black people do have some advantages over poor working class white folks that Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn't acknowledge. It's true that a rich black person is still more likely to be shot by the police than a poor white person, but a rich black person generally doesn't have the same financial stress that a poor white person does.

Left Turn

[quote=Caissa]

Page 10 but who is source checking. ;^)) Is the Dream meant to be short for the American Dream?

[/quote]for the American Dream

I'm pretty sure the Dream is short for the American Dream.

Coates also uses the term "Dreamers" in the third chapter I think as a reference to white people or some subset of white people. Note that the more common usage of the term refers to supporters of the "Dream Act", which would give citizenship to the US-born children of undocumented immigrants.

Unionist Unionist's picture

[quote=Caissa]Is the Dream meant to be short for the American Dream?[/quote]

That was my assumption.

[quote=Left Turn]

I do however think that Ta-Nehisi Coatws singular focus on race to the exclusion of class is a bit simplistic. I don't deny that all black people in the United States face threats to the safety of their person that white people ds not. However, rich black people do have some advantages over poor working class white folks that Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn't acknowledge. It's true that a rich black person is still more likely to be shot by the police than a poor white person, but a rich black person generally doesn't have the same financial stress that a poor white person does.

[/quote]

I agree as to where his singular focus is. Not sure I'd go with "simplistic". I think he's writing a cautionary tale to his son. He's telling him that the era of slavery lasted longer than the subsequent era. That lives are at risk all the time. That he himself (father) gets sucked in by the Dream and has to remind himself that it's an instrument of self-enslavement (not his term).

In short, he's not dealing with the whole reality of life - like wealth and class and climate change (but I'll have a question about that later...) - he's dealing with racialization, and how it's nowhere near a solved problem, and it's a matter of life and death, and all he can bequeath to his son is the fundamental importance of struggle. He can't even provide him with light at the end of the tunnel.

Similarly, it occurred to me that he never deals with America's criminal worldwide empire, the murder and enslavement of others in the present day. Nor with the situation of the Indigenous people. But I concluded that that's simply not his subect. If he ends up making gross errors by ignoring class and empire, etc., then I guess that would become more important. But I'm not sure he does that.

Caissa

I don't think it is "simplistic" but his thesis is "simple" to grasp. His primary audience is his son unless we believe that this was a rhetorical device.

infracaninophile infracaninophile's picture

[quote=Left Turn]

 

I'm pretty sure the Dream is short for the American Dream.

Coates also uses the term "Dreamers" in the third chapter I think as a reference to white people or some subset of white people.

[/quote]

 

He uses that term frequently, throughout the book, seemingly for white people as a whole and for the world they inhabit. I found it a significant, if puzzling, epithet. It suggests that their lives are lived in illusion, on the one hand - a dream world is not reality - but to be inside it also impiied exclusion.  Prince Jones' mother, who aspired in some ways towards the "Dream" world, could never be a part of it, and those outside the Dream were fair game for plunder, exploitation and violence. In fact, if I understood Coates correctly, the sine qua non of that Dream world is the violence and exploitation of those excluded from it. 

He used these word, (Dream. Dreamers) so often they obviously carry a great deal of meaning, beyond being simply references to the "American Dream" (which is differently defined depending on the source). What did you literary folks think?. 

Caissa

Doesn't he also use the phrase " people who think they are white"? I found that this usage often yanked me out of the narrative and caused me to reflect more on the argument being made.

I think he may also have been rederining or commenting upon the American Dream.

Unionist Unionist's picture

[quote=Caissa]

Doesn't he also use the phrase " people who think they are white"? I found that this usage often yanked me out of the narrative and caused me to reflect more on the argument being made.

[/quote]

Yes - it's one of his central themes, that colour is a matter not of "race", but of racialization. No one is "really" white, or "really" black. And those artificial boundaries and categories shift and sway as society plods its way through history.

Somewhere he says that "race is hierarchy". That about sums it up.

Unionist Unionist's picture

[quote=infracaninophile]

He used these word, (Dream. Dreamers) so often they obviously carry a great deal of meaning, beyond being simply references to the "American Dream" (which is differently defined depending on the source). What did you literary folks think?. 

[/quote]

I think Dream (capital D) is the subjective counterpart for the "majoritarian pigs" (as he calls the dominant group once) of the objective reality of plunder, dispossession, enslavement, violence.

But he refers to other dreams as well:

[quote=Coates]To be black and beautiful was not a matter for gloating. 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.[/quote]

And elsewhere:

[quote=Coates]When I came to Howard, Chancellor Williams’s Destruction of Black Civilization was my Bible. Williams himself had taught at Howard. I read him when I was sixteen, and his work offered a grand theory of multi-millennial European plunder. The theory relieved me of certain troubling questions—this is the point of nationalism—and it gave me my Tolstoy.[/quote]

[my emphasis]

The Dream, he says, is about generalization, simplification, offering answers where what is needed are questions. He's basically saying this applies to all "nationalist" dreams (and no doubt racial, religious, etc.). This resonated with me too.

Caissa

Good discussion. I hope others chime in at a later date. Should we figure out a mechanism to choose the next book, next week and then have another discussion in June?

Unionist Unionist's picture

[quote=Caissa]

Good discussion. I hope others chime in at a later date. Should we figure out a mechanism to choose the next book, next week and then have another discussion in June?

[/quote]

But... but... I'm not finished [size=25]ranting!!![/size]

Caissa

Other forums are designed for ranting. Would you like me to suggest a few threads for your ranting pleasure? Wink

Unionist Unionist's picture

Ok, ok, but I'm going to keep bumping this thread until some of the other usual suspects have time to weigh in.

And thanks, Left Turn and infracaninophile, for chiming in! You too, Caissa.

Meanwhile... I guess we need a new thread to pick the next book?

Left Turn

[quote=Unionist]

[quote=Caissa]Is the Dream meant to be short for the American Dream?[/quote]

That was my assumption.

[quote=Left Turn]

I do however think that Ta-Nehisi Coatws singular focus on race to the exclusion of class is a bit simplistic. I don't deny that all black people in the United States face threats to the safety of their person that white people ds not. However, rich black people do have some advantages over poor working class white folks that Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn't acknowledge. It's true that a rich black person is still more likely to be shot by the police than a poor white person, but a rich black person generally doesn't have the same financial stress that a poor white person does.

[/quote]

I agree as to where his singular focus is. Not sure I'd go with "simplistic". I think he's writing a cautionary tale to his son. He's telling him that the era of slavery lasted longer than the subsequent era. That lives are at risk all the time. That he himself (father) gets sucked in by the Dream and has to remind himself that it's an instrument of self-enslavement (not his term).

In short, he's not dealing with the whole reality of life - like wealth and class and climate change (but I'll have a question about that later...) - he's dealing with racialization, and how it's nowhere near a solved problem, and it's a matter of life and death, and all he can bequeath to his son is the fundamental importance of struggle. He can't even provide him with light at the end of the tunnel.

Similarly, it occurred to me that he never deals with America's criminal worldwide empire, the murder and enslavement of others in the present day. Nor with the situation of the Indigenous people. But I concluded that that's simply not his subect. If he ends up making gross errors by ignoring class and empire, etc., then I guess that would become more important. But I'm not sure he does that.

[/quote]

I'm not saying that he needs to address the whole reality of life. I do wish he had acknowledged somewhere in the book that there are some common interests between working class "whites" and "blacks".

The capitalist ruling class wants white poor/working class people to think they have nothing in comon with poor/working class people of color (poc). It helps them to promote the lie that all white people can get ahead if we keep poc down. This task is easier when poc themselves believe they have nothing in common with "whites".

Maybe I'm asking too much of Coates in this regard.

swallow

Sorry for lateness, we had a power failure this afternoon. 

If late contributions allowed: I have to say this book was real eye-opener. I don't think he ignored class, he complicated it, implicitly saying class in America has a colour - and poor whites can control their existence, their bodies, more than poor black people can. And that "default whiteness" isn't some natural thing, but something that power is exerted to define and protect. 

I was really hit by the scene of Coates getting angry witha  woman who shoved his son. Parental anger is to be expected in such situations, and he expressed it. And unlike white parents, that meant he risked arrest and he put his son in danger. I think about having a son about the same age, and what that must ahve felt like. And having no choice in the matter: read as black, Coates was automatically vulnerable. 

It's fine to be black in parts of America. But step out of line, and you're at risk, and your family is at risk: automatically. That's a pretty basic fact that everyone, including those who think they're white, need to grasp. No wonder there's anger. 

[quote=infracaninophile]

Prince Jones' mother, who aspired in some ways towards the "Dream" world, could never be a part of it, and those outside the Dream were fair game for plunder, exploitation and violence. In fact, if I understood Coates correctly, the sine qua non of that Dream world is the violence and exploitation of those excluded from it.  

[/quote]

Great point - people who are told they're black (and thus always in danger, I guess he'd say) are told they should conform and they'll be allowed equality. But take that telling at face value, and the walls often go up. 

Left Turn

Thanks for contributing, swallow.

[quote=swallow]If late contributions allowed: I have to say this book was real eye-opener. I don't think he ignored class, he complicated it, implicitly saying class in America has a colour - and poor whites can control their existence, their bodies, more than poor black people can. And that "default whiteness" isn't some natural thing, but something that power is exerted to define and protect. [/quote]

This is a good point, Coates probably isn't ignoring class to the extent I implied  My reaction comes partly from having encountered poc activists who do ignore class.

That and not taking the time to write a better post than what I did.

Unionist Unionist's picture

[quote=Left Turn]

Thanks for contributing, swallow.

[quote=swallow]If late contributions allowed: I have to say this book was real eye-opener. I don't think he ignored class, he complicated it, implicitly saying class in America has a colour - and poor whites can control their existence, their bodies, more than poor black people can. And that "default whiteness" isn't some natural thing, but something that power is exerted to define and protect. [/quote]

This is a good point, Coates probably isn't ignoring class to the extent I implied.

[/quote]

Ok, let's go into this. I was quite conflicted by his account. He doesn't "ignore" class - he essentially denies it as a deciding factor. Because he clearly, unequivocally, blames the overwhelming majority (not a 1% minority) for perpetuating the repression and exploitation. And he makes no "class" distinctions in that regard. Here:

[quote=Coates]You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. 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 to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs. [/quote]

We may find this hard to take (I know I do), but we have to face up to it. Is he right? I'm finding myself thinking that he is. Please tell me I'm wrong. Because it's painful.

Left Turn

[quote=Unionist]

[quote=Left Turn]

Thanks for contributing, swallow.

[quote=swallow]If late contributions allowed: I have to say this book was real eye-opener. I don't think he ignored class, he complicated it, implicitly saying class in America has a colour - and poor whites can control their existence, their bodies, more than poor black people can. And that "default whiteness" isn't some natural thing, but something that power is exerted to define and protect. [/quote]

This is a good point, Coates probably isn't ignoring class to the extent I implied.

[/quote]

Ok, let's go into this. I was quite conflicted by his account. He doesn't "ignore" class - he essentially denies it as a deciding factor. Because he clearly, unequivocally, blames the overwhelming majority (not a 1% minority) for perpetuating the repression and exploitation. And he makes no "class" distinctions in that regard. Here:

[quote=Coates]You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. 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 to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs. [/quote]

We may find this hard to take (I know I do), but we have to face up to it. Is he right? I'm finding myself thinking that he is. Please tell me I'm wrong. Because it's painful.

[/quote]

Unionist, I think your analysis is better than mine or swallow's. This is  what I get for reading the book gradually over a three week period and then thinking I could make an informed critique without going back and looking at the text to see if it supports my argument.

I think there's a range of opinions among both "white america" and law enforcement. At the one end are those who support the high rates of violence against blacks on the grounds that they deserve it. At the other end are people who oppose the high levels of violence against blacks. Somewhere in the middle are those who want to avoid violence against innoncent people, but who want to punish legitimate criminals to the full extent of the law; and the i9gnorant and uninformed.

I agree with holdiong "white America" collectively responsible for this problem, but I wouldn't hold all whites individually responsible for it. Some are individually responsible, but certainly not all.

Unionist Unionist's picture

I need some help with the book's conclusion.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Coates warns about what looks like the apocalypse - climate change - as an inevitable consequence of the "Dream":

[quote=Coates]Sitting in that car I thought of Dr. Jones’s predictions of national doom. I had heard such predictions all my life from Malcolm and all his posthumous followers who hollered that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. I saw the same prediction in the words of Marcus Garvey who promised to return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors, an army of Middle Passage undead. No. I left The Mecca knowing that this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.

Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves. [/quote]

It's beautifully and frighteningly phrased I think. And he holds out no "hope", other than struggle - which maybe is the most realistic hope.

What did others think of this passage?

Left Turn

I think coates point in the conclusion is that the plunder of the earth that has led to climate change (not a term he uses) was only possible because of the plunder of black bodies. That the Dreamers need to address climate change, but that they cannot unless they stop truning a blind eye to the continued plunder of black bodies. And that people like him and his son can only struggle on behalf of people like themselves, not on behalf of the Dreamers, who need to wake up about the continued plunder of black bodies and the earth, on their own.

Caissa

I also thought he was arguig that if people who think they are white have the chutzpah to control black bodies, why wouldn't they exploit a non-human entity, the earth.

mark_alfred

Just got this today in the library.  Looking forward to it.  Speaking of books, I did recently finish Jane Eyre and also Graham Steele's What I learned about politics.  Both good.