I can’t believe it’s mid-August already. I’ve been reading, but not writing. Ever since I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, I’ve been dithering about how to write about it.
I’ve not felt confident enough in my ability to do it justice. But if I’m ever going to write another post, I apparently need to just get this one out and get on with it. Simply put, this book lit me up. I finished it around midnight one night last week and my brain felt like it was on fire. I was so electrified by it that I couldn’t get to sleep. I wanted to purchase many copies and leave them in public places for strangers to pick up. I wanted to make friends and loved ones read it. I settled for purchasing a copy for myself, since I had read an ARC that I won in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. (Thanks, Goodreads!)
He writes this memoir as a letter to his teenage son, and this is where it connects with me the most, as a parent. Reading this made me painfully, shamefully aware of the kinds of conversations that I don’t necessarily have to have with my son, simply because of how our skin appears. (I love that Coates uses the phrase “people who believe they are white” over and over – I bet a lot of people would be surprised if they had genetic testing done and knew their actual genetic makeup.) Parenthood is fraught with frightening vulnerability anyway, and then add to that a layer of racism, where you never know if the way your son is dressed or how loudly they play their music makes someone think they have the right to kill them. He wants to simultaneously protect his son but also never hold him back from experiencing life fully, which is something every parent can identify with. There is a haunting passage where he describes taking his son to visit a preschool.
Our host took us down to a large gym filled with a bubbling ethnic stew of New York children. The children were running, jumping, and tumbling. You took one look at them, tore away from us, and ran right into the scrum. You have never been afraid of people, of rejection, and I have always admired you for this and always been afraid for you because of this. I watched you leap and laugh with these children you barely knew, and the wall rose in me and I felt I should grab you by the arm, pull you back and say, “We don’t know these folks! Be cool!” I did not do this. I was growing, and if I did not recognize my anguish as the wall, I knew that there was nothing noble in it. But now I understand the gravity of what I was proposing – that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children, I am ashamed.
Here’s another passage that affected me, about his educational experiences:
I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast.One enjoyed the official power pf the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both. Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body. And I began to see these two arms in relation – those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society would say, “He should have stayed in school and then wash its hands of him.
There is so much here in such a slim book. Painful, challenging, necessary things to read and absorb about what our country is like and what it has been like for so many of its inhabitants. The writing alone is transcendent. Mr. Coates has a gift. But combined with the ideas and the experiences he relates, this book is a modern masterpiece. I feel like this book has the power to open eyes, minds, and hearts. I was thrilled to see it at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, and I hope it makes it into the hands of a wide ranging audience.
I just finished reading Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, written in 1981. It’s set in that time period, mainly in the Caribbean island country of Dominica. It’s been far too long since I’ve read anything by Morrison. In high school we studied Beloved, and as a college freshman I studied Sula. But that’s been almost twenty years! How foolish I feel to have waited so long to read more of her work. This one hooked me from the opening passage. It was hypnotic, lush, compelling. It’s a love story, a class story, a race story, a magical story. Millionaire Valerian Street (that name!) and his much younger wife Margaret have retired to a secluded mansion in Dominica, bringing along with them their hired help, Sydney and Ondine. Also staying with them is Sydney’s and Ondine’s niece, Jadine, a successful, beautiful fashion model. Margaret and Valerian’s marriage is in trouble, and relations between them and their help are strained as well. Enter an enigmatic stranger, a man literally found hiding in Margaret’s closet, a man whom Valerian invites to dinner, much to the dismay of everyone else in the house. Things get turned upside down, and every relationship is put to the test. I couldn’t put this one down. The writing just had this magnetic pull over me. I will definitely make more of an effort to read more Toni Morrison now – I’ve realized the error of my ways!
What’s up next? The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I’m late to this party as well. I’ve heard nothing but good things from many sources, and when I read that Jennifer Lawrence was going to star in the upcoming movie, I decided to give it a shot. (And Richard Linklater is rumored to be the director.) I think I need something lighter now anyway.
Anyone read The Rosie Project or Between the World and Me? Have a favorite Toni Morrison novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts.