Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

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When I happened to see this title at the library, I grabbed it as reviews of it have been all over the interwebs and I was curious to see how it read. Wow. It’s a provocative and challenging piece concerning race relations in the U.S. in the form of an impassioned letter from a black father to his son.

Written echoing the narrative structure of James Baldwin (who wrote The Fire Next Time, a similar narrative addressed to his nephew), Coates writes a missive to his teenaged son on how to live life in America as a black man. It’s interesting to read, but wow – Coates is so angry about twenty-first century life for African-American people and seems to hold so little hope for life to change from his son.

As a white person reading this short volume, his strong feelings against “people who believe they are white” took me a few steps back – “Wait a minute. I haven’t done anything to earn this invective”, and in fact, I felt so strongly that I actually put the book down to reconsider whether to continue reading it.

After sleeping on it, I decided to pick it up again to finish the read and see what Coates’ total message really was. He. Is. So. Angry. He also seems to have little belief in any individual agency that people can change their lives for the better, blaming all (almost all?) of America’s recent ongoing racial troubles on the troubling history of entrenched cultural racism stemming from the years of slavery.

As an English (and American) white person, I felt personally attacked and blamed for something over which I had no control. Slavery happened way before I was born, and so one side of me thought that this was something that was old news. Yes, it happened. Yes, it was horrible. Yes, it should never happen again, but at some point, one should consider the tenet of “History is not Destiny”…

coatesBut then I realized that I come from a background and history of never-ending white privilege. I have never had to deal with racism directed towards me in a negative fashion, so how can I judge whether Coates is over-estimating his views? I can’t, and I have no right to do so even if I could. He is entitled to his opinions and how he views the world, and I, as a privileged white woman, should pay attention to that. His opinion of life in America for POC was shocking and sad for me to read. No one should have to live in fear every day.

The essay in this book is not focused at me, a white person who has not felt the daily fear of day-to-day life as an African-American person may well feel. As a white person, society usually reflects my race in the ads, the films, the books, the very life I lead. I can usually guarantee that someone who looks like me will be reflected back to me on the TV screen and similar, that I can (and am) living the manufactured Dream that Coates refers to: the Dream of green lawns, picket fences, and all the other fixtures of the American ideal. However, if I was a person of African descent, how often can one say that? How can I believe that Dream is achievable for me if I don’t see people who look like me in it? If I only read reports of people who look like me getting killed, incarcerated, addicted?

It’s true that Coates is very angry about life in the U.S., and fears for his son and his future. Just witness the endless numbers of police shootings, black-on-black crime, poverty, unemployment, and disproportionate numbers of black men in the U.S. prison system, and one can’t rationally deny that racism is not alive and well in the world of today. If I was an African-American person growing up here, how could I not be angry at the way that America has treated me? I’d be mad as hell as well.

So this was quite the provocative piece for me. By the time I had finished this fairly short read, I had definitely revised my views of U.S. race relations and of Coates. It’s an emotional piece of writing for me to read and I admire Coates in some ways. I wish that he did not feel so angry about the world in which he lives as there must be happy pieces in his world somewhere but there is no mention of that. He seems to have a very all-or-nothing view of the whole situation which seems to be rather extremist in some ways and to foster little hope for improvement on any level.

But then I consider what he says about how America in the twentieth-first century is based on public policies which have their roots in slavery and segregation, and for me to deny that would be foolish.

Of course life today is impacted by the life of yesterday. But how to change that? Should we take the perspective of recognizing what’s better and still continuing to strive for more improvements? Or should one take Coates’ perspective of “not enough, we deserve more and we won’t rest until we get it”?

As a privileged white woman, the argument could be that as I’m already in a comfortable position, it’s easy for me to have the former perspective. Is it me being too much of a Pollyanna to view the world in that manner? Should I get my (white and idealistic) blinders off and more fully realize that life is still hugely affected negatively by race in the U.S. and, according to Coates, always will be?

I think that that is the biggest strength of Coates’ narrative piece here: that his book invites everyone to take a closer look at how racism affects people (even if it’s not you), and how its insidious effects can chip away at a whole people one day at a time. It’s also a muscular “take no prisoners” letter to a son from a father who passionately wishes to protect and prepare him for his adult life.

This ended up being a fascinating read which really opened my eyes about modern life in America for people of color. I recommend this book to anyone (wherever you may fall on the spectrum) as it will be certain to shake up how you see the world. And isn’t that the point of any good book?

(And if you’re interested in another really thoughtful read by Coates, check out his article in The Atlantic about reparations…) It will make you think of the situation in a whole new light and that, I think, is the be-all of reading non-fiction – at least for me. Does it affect your world view in some way by opening new worlds of thought about something or someone? That’s the very definition of powerful writing, if you ask me.)

Coates, BTW, is the son of a former Black Panther and so understandably has strong views. Link this with Beyoncé’s SuperBowl half-time show, and it’s interesting to consider how this will all play out with a new generation. Food for thought, indeed.

There are, of course, tons of reviews et al. out there around the interwebs, but here are several that I really like about this huge important issue:

What are your thoughts?

Praisesong for the Widow – Paule Marshall (1983)

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As part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition, this novel was a fine way to kick off the month-long project. It also happens to be one of the Viragos that I’ve had on my shelf for absolutely AGES and so it checked all my boxes, even more so when I had finished it because it was REALLY good. (Sorry. Got a bit shouty there for a second. It’s that good.)

This novel focuses on a few days in the life of a well-off African-American woman who impulsively decides to leave a Caribbean cruise, but is uncertain why. She has a strong feeling that she has to leave, but why does she give in the impulse? That’s the spotlight of this great feminist novel – what exactly is going on with protagonist Avey Johnson? “It’s completely out of character…” according to herself and her friends. But jump ship she does.

It’s an ethereal novel, very dream-like in places with time and scenery floating by at odd times. I found this to be unnerving at first, but once I gave into the flow of the writing and went along with it, it seemed as though it could not be written in any other way. Most of the novel is written from the POV of Avey – her thoughts, her dreams, her ideas, her experiences – and as the story progresses and we get to know her, her actions start to make perfect sense as the pages fly by.

Avey is a widow, her former husband fairly rule-bound and straight-forward, upwardly mobile and with fairly successful grown-up kids, all of which makes it even more perplexing why she suddenly jumps ship on the small island of Granada, without tickets or a plan or her friends. She seems to have done everything “right” as a middle-class African-American woman of the time – married carefully, raised the children, kept the house… And yet, for the first time during this cruise, she has been unsettled with memories of her childhood holidays with her great-aunt in the south with whom she danced on the beach and reached towards Africa…

By decamping from the expected cruise trip, Avey finds herself with a day to spare before her plane can take her back to New York and as she wanders around Grenada’s port town, she’s bombarded with new experiences and new languages, with different people and with different experiences, none of which really fit into her life as it was previously lived.

Avey ends up meeting an older Granadian man who invites her to travel along with him and other islanders back to his native island of Carriacou where they return every year to reconnect with family and community. And it’s here in Carriacou where Avey finally pieces together the puzzle that she’s forming in her head, where the trance-like feelings that she’s been experiencing and which she experienced with her great-aunt as a child would be clarified…

It’s a novel rich in colors, sounds, music and dancing. It’s a novel about returning to your roots and understanding your past in order to live your future, and it’s a novel about respecting things that may be hard to understand when you first meet them. One could also argue it’s about expected gender roles and expectations as well, as this experience only occurs now that her husband has died and she is with other female characters (her friends).

I loved this book which should be no surprise as I’ve loved the other two Paule Marshall books I’ve read (Brown Girl, Brown Stones  and Merle and Other Stories ), and this novel was a super way to kick off Black History Month.

Next up is….

 

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 110

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Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 110: Pony tail hair things. (Technical term.)

 

Background Note: Cowboy is one of our cats who showed up out of the blue one snowy January day three years ago. Since then, she has made us her Forever Home (which works with us). She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) and she eats a lot.

All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

Reading Plan: African-American History Month

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Just as I did last year in February, I’m interested in focusing my reading on books about POCs (specifically people of African descent) and by POCs (again of African descent). So I’ve pulled together a small pile of books from my TBR (plus 1-2 from the library), and thus begins JOMP’s recognition and celebration of Black History Month.

Af-AM books

From bottom to top:

  • The Known World – Edward P. Jones (F)
  • The Color Purple – Alice Walker (F)
  • Native Son – Richard Wright (F)
  • Saturday is for Funerals – Unity Dow/Max Essex (NF)
  • Kaffir Boy – Mark Mathabane (NF)
  • They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky – Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, Benjamin Ajak (with Judy A. Bernstein)
  • Bud, Not Buddy – Christopher Paul Curtis (YA F)
  • Mighty be our Powers – Lemah Gbowee (NF)

Not pictured include:

  • Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (NF)

(And the two rectangles are titles whose authors don’t meet the criteria that I’ve set for this month. I’ll read them at some point, but just not at the moment.)

I’m excited to do this again this year, and I’m looking forward to some great reads!

 

Aya: Love in Yop City – Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (2013)

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This was another good read from Abouet and Oubrerie. (See my review of the first volume here.) Still set on the Ivory Coast in Western Africa, the story continues to follow Aya (now a young woman at university) and her small circle of friends. This Aya is a more mature character, although still young in situations, and she works her way through various issues: boyfriend problems, love and friendship issues, loyalty and other weighty subjects, all of which are handled in a realistic fashion. (Another reason that I enjoy the Aya series: she’s a female role model with problems that a lot of people worldwide can recognize regardless of where they live.)

Aya now has more grown-up challenges to deal with: sexual harassment from an authority figure, rumor and speculation, LBQT issues – and so the story is gradually woven together with several threads. Along side these, the narrative also jumps from city to village in Cote D’Ivoire but also to Paris at times. So not only does the reader have to contend with a large number of fairly random characters, the story also jumps very suddenly from an African village to the arrôndisements of Paris without much explanation.

It’s a lot to keep up with, dear reader, and I must confess that when I had finished my initial reading, I was mightily confused as to who was who and why they were doing what they were doing with whom they were doing it and where they were doing it.

(To prevent this experience, I would recommend that (a) you read Aya Volume I fairly close to reading this volume, and (b) you study the friends/family diagrams at the front of the book.)

So although I was so confused about everything and everyone in the story when I had finished, I still went back and read it through again. Why? Because my initial experience of enjoying the read of Volume I had me convinced that I was missing a lot and should read it again, hoping that the narrative would make more sense this time around. It did. In fact, it was a completely different reading experience this second time around, and I was glad I had taken the time to do that. Learning who the characters were and how they related to one another was like unlocking a code to the narrative so I highly suggest that you take the time. LFMF.

As with Aya Volume I, this was an enjoyable read about a smaller country in Africa during a time when it was fairly stable both economically and politically speaking, and where its residents enjoyed fairly normal lives with fairly average concerns and not the huge staggering problems (a la LiveAid) that one usually associates with the continent such as HIV/AIDS, hunger and drought.

I am so glad that I stayed the course and read it through that second time. Hopefully, you won’t have to do a second read, but if you do, just know that it’s worth it. Great art work as well.

 

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 109

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Background Note: Cowboy is one of our cats who showed up out of the blue one snowy January day three years ago. Since then, she has made us her Forever Home (which works with us). She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) and she eats a lot.

All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

Catch-Up Time…

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I’m still recovering from my December brain surgery, but progress is good and I’m gaining more energy and more concentration/memory every day. I occasionally have troubling finding the exact word that I’m looking for every now and then, but am learning to just pause until I can grasp the correct term. I wonder if this is my “new normal”, as they say? We will see as it is still early days (only six weeks post-surgery).

I’m also back at work (mostly) full-time and work is picking up very fast which is mostly fun and exciting.

Reading is coming back slowly but surely, but my January #s will be low as I still get distracted and/or fall asleep rather quickly. (See above paragraph re: energy levels.)

book365I did finish up a lovely read of the recently published “Village Christmas and Other Notes on the English Year” by Laurie Lee. (See my review of As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning here. My reading of “Cider with Rosie” was pre-blog but loved it. ) This volume was more of a collection of reminiscences of his rural childhood (you can tell he misses those early days) along with some pretty grumpy essays about “modern progress”. (These were mostly written in the 1950’s and Lee was clearly turning on his inner Grumpy Old Man for a number of these chapters. Not so fun to read as the others.) Overall good.

I also finished up “Oliver Twist” (Dickens) which was a lovely rambling saga. I may not have blogged about it, but that was more a question of time than of reading quality. I encourage you to read some Dickens if you can. He is a master scribe. :-)

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Speaking of essays (linking back to Lee earlier in the post), I also finished up “The Points of my Compass,” a collection of essays by E. B. White (above illustration), a book that I had found with glee at last autumn’s FoL book sale. Similar to the Lee book above, it was a mixed batch of joyful old memories combined with essays about world politics. These were written during the heyday of the Cold War, and not being so familiar with much of that, a lot of what he wrote went way over my head as I don’t know the names etc. I skimmed most of those, but there were some good essays in between.

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My lovely mum sent me the recent Ladybird books in the “How it Works” series: “The Wife” and “The Husband”. Sort of snarky tongue in cheek guidebooks for people in relationships, these two small books are worth tracking down as they match the old classic Ladybird illustrations with questionable advice on the habits and lifestyle of human wives and husbands (or whatever combination you’re working with). J

And outside, the weather here in Texas is starting to become rather spring-like, despite it being early February. Temperatures vacillate rather wildly from temps below freezing when we wake up to mid-70’s when we leave the office at 5p, and then falling very fast again once the sun goes down. This reminds me of being in the mountains for the sudden and rapid drop in temperatures post sunset.) So – lots of dressing in layers right now.

And then I’m preparing for a reading project to start next week in the beginning of February, which I’m rather looking forward to. (Whoops. Ending a sentence in a proposition there. Sorry.) It’s rather fun to have a themed reading series every now and then, but I’ll give you the scoop in a day or two. (Mean, aren’t I?)

Hmm. This turned into rather a longish post from the last couple of months. If you’re still reading, I applaud you and thank you. Here’s some Gatorade to help you recover.) :-)

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 109

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Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 109: Cow Tales sweeties.

 

Background Note: Cowboy is one of our cats who showed up out of the blue one snowy January day three years ago. Since then, she has made us her Forever Home (which works with us). She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) and she eats a lot.

All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)