What happens when a dream lasts for hundreds of years?
Dreams aren’t supposed to last. They flicker in our R.E.M. cycle, playing through our memories, remixing elations and fears. They are set in wonderful, terrible worlds that run on logic that should never be seen in reality.
So what happens when a dream lasts for hundreds of years?
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a surveyor and victim of this dream. He describes it in the capital, always referring to it as the “Dream.” It’s needed, as it’s not just a proper noun, but the ultimate, central part of a young but powerful myth: the American Dream.
Coates has become a renowned writer for his brilliant work in The Atlantic, touching on topics from learning foreign languages to unraveling plot lines in the Spider Man comics. But no topic has been as entrenched or important as racism for Coates. His groundbreaking article “The Case for Reparations” wasn’t just a microscopic look at how the subtlest political maneuvers can disrupt thousands of lives, but as he walked through the streets of segregated cities, he reminded us that hardline, investigative journalism never needs to be weighed down by dry prose. Indeed, Coates’ knack for stunning lines only underscores the struggles of millions of black Americans, sectioned off and caged in ghettos.
Between the World and Me is infinitely more personal than “The Case for Reparations,” but Coates’ dominating, beautiful prose is left completely intact. The book is set as a letter to Coates’ teenaged son, but it’s just as much a therapy session for Coates, exhaling the injustice that he sees on a regular basis. “The only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid,” he says at the beginning, remembering his childhood when the unconditional love from his family was a shield, constantly under fire from the outside world.
The sections of Between the World and Me follow Coates from his early days in Baltimore, to his college life at Howard University, to his more direct conversations with his son. With a few notable exceptions, his childhood is filled with the darkest recollections. “I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon,” Coates says, still haunted by the images of guns that came so close to taking his life.
This is a potent point to make, that at the youngest age, black children must become adults. “A little girl wanders home, at age seven, after being teased in school and asks her parents ‘Are we niggers and what does this mean?’” We see the macro effects of this in real time on our televisions – riots from coast to coast and politicians greedily snatching at the support of bigots. Yes, the macro is heartbreaking; the micro will tear your soul asunder.
Coates’ time at Howard (a historically black college) allow for rays of hope. Coates describes walking through campus “like listening to a hundred different renditions of “Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key.” Still, it does not last because it cannot last. A close friend is gunned down by a police officer. The world collectively shrugs or, worse, blames the black body now bleeding in the street. In sections like this, Coates releases waves of dense prose, detailing the cages and limits assured by the Dream, but a simple sentence stops the flow cuts to the heart. “We could not get out.”
That’s the most damning aspect of Between the World and Me. Millions scream that they are being beaten, tortured, raped, and America responds by proclaiming “the glories of being beaten on camera” and quotes Martin Luther King without irony. All with the best intentions of course, but, as Coates says, “’Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.” A pill that gently induces a comfortable amnesia, reinforcing the Dream and an America that never really existed. The idea of liberty in a land built on a million unmarked graves is dark comedy.
Coates mentions rappers fairly often here, the specters of Tupac and Biggie the most relevant, but, while reading, I can’t help thinking about Mos Def. Both are wordsmiths of the highest order, and Coates’ devastating points reflect Def’s humiliating figures about crime, corruption and racism on his 1999 single “Mathematics.” “It’s simple math,” they both say, drawing out effigies and graves in the ash. But there’s no gut-busting flip-side like Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty.” The decimation is ultimate.
My copy is dog eared like no book I have ever owned. I have made it unfit to re-sell or return, because I must have it with me. Coates offers no visions of hope, no Deus Ex Machina that will swoop from the wings, because it would be an affront to do so. Instead, he has taken the fear, the panic, the brutality and crafted something otherworldly from something all too real.