The Anatomy of Pain

Thoughts on Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Before starting this post, I was thinking of calling it a review. But how does one review raw, visceral pain, and cold and deep wisdom at the end of it? Make no mistake about it, this is not a book. This is a slap. Directed at America, or the white-America to be precise, but it’s just coincidental that that is the target, because it could easily be a book about so many peoples, by so many peoples.

Typically, I’m almost prudish when it comes to handling books. And if there is one rule I never break, it’s “do not write/mark” rule. But two pages into Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book and I broke it. It ironic, because the book talks about violence against black bodies, among other things, and here I was, black pencil in hands, marking furiously over the white paper, underlining black characters, a sort of violence against a body of book. And yet, curiously, it didn’t feel like violence. It seemed like remembering, or rather a battle against forgetting — a great sin that the author talks about.

img_20160910_201919_hdrBetween the World and Me is a black American’s heartfelt letter to his son, about growing up as a black in white America. No I’m not going to write much about it because frankly, this small book is something that everyone should just go and read. I mean no one should need convincing that it needs to be read. It should be made a compulsory reading (I’m kidding of course, but you get it, I assume). Because it’s such writings, that have — if anything has it — a tiny chance at changing the world, in  tiny little way. Because, someone needs to make us look at all that we choose not to look at. It’s relevant for everyone. For black Americans, because really, it’s just so patently obvious; for white Americans (or as Ta-Nehisi Coates would say: “those who believe themselves to be white” Americans) because if he can’t reach them, no one probably can; by anyone really, born with privilege, because it’s only by reading something like this can you start seeing that invisible power and how it affects others; or without privilege, because there are lessons for them, a tiny bit of hope, and a lot of wisdom to draw from.

What is striking about The World and Me, though, is its expanse — on both emotional and ideological  axes. Early on, the author talk about his life as a kid growing up in Baltimore, in black neighborhoods. In that context, he touches upon his son’s disillusionment on hearing that Michael Brown’s killer cop will go scot-free. This is what he says:

I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.

That may come across as negativity, but as you read through the book, which pretty much sets to help his kid to “find some way to live within it all of it”, it’s as much about hope, and wisdom, and compassion, as anything you’d read before or after it. And the whole book is written with this unrelenting honesty, because, understanding is crucial to survival.

He’s scathing about America (and beyond a point, he doesn’t bother qualifying it as white America, because the America that he talk about, the one with agency is — and there certainly is no doubt in his mind — white America):

Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.


But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can protect you only with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or succeeded at something much darker.

And much much more.

But it is not all bitterness. The idea is to understand, be aware, and yet survive, even flourish. To seek one’s answers, one’s way of “getting out”. And hence there is great introspection, within the dissection of all that’s wrong. And so he discusses the process of trying to find the “way out”, or rather a way from the streets he grew up with, full of fear (not just his, but everyone’s, even those with guns, and attitude), to the “dream” presented on the television where kids have mundane little problems to deal with.

But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day. And I was such a curious boy.

One answer for him was the very process of introspection, through putting on paper the feeling, observations, the whys …

Your grandmother […]  taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation. When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions: Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson? I have given you these same assignments. I gave them to you not because I thought they would curb your behavior—they certainly did not curb mine—but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself. Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God?

But this, surely, couldn’t be enough. There were, also, predictably, reading. Although reading can take you either way.

Your grandfather loved books and loves them to this day, and they were all over the house, books about black people, by black people, for black people spilling off shelves and out of the living room, boxed up in the basement. Dad had been a local captain in the Black Panther Party. I read through all of Dad’s books about the Panthers and his stash of old Party newspapers. I was attracted to their guns, because the guns seemed honest. The guns seemed to address this country, which invented the streets that secured them with despotic police, in its primary language—violence. And I compared the Panthers to the heroes given to me by the schools, men and women who struck me as ridiculous and contrary to everything I knew.

There was also the questioning of non-violence of the civil rights movement, because:

How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all they were, and then speak of non-violence.

School, was obviously a part of the answer, but :

I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of 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 could say, “He should have stayed in school,” and then wash its hands of him.

Then there was what Ta-Nehisi calls “The  Mecca” — the Howard University, where his idea of “black” world changed, enlarged. And he wants his son to know about it, because:

My work is to give you what I know of my own particular path while allowing you to walk your own. You can no more be black like I am black than I could be black like your grandfather was. And still, I maintain that even for a cosmopolitan boy like you, there is something to be found there—a base, even in these modern times, a port in the American storm. Surely I am biased by nostalgia and tradition.

In his mind, the importance of this stable “port in the American storm” cannot be emphasized more because, it is there that :

The black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are white.

And it is from this realization, comes a deeper, more profound, understanding :

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons. There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all history. But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been “black,” and this points to the great difference between their world and ours. We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible. They are the ones who came up with a one-drop rule that separated the “white” from the “black,” even if it meant that their own blue-eyed sons would live under the lash. The result is a people, black people, who embody all physical varieties and whose life stories mirror this physical range.

Through The Mecca I saw that we were, in our own segregated body politic, cosmopolitans. The black diaspora was not just our own world but, in so many ways, the Western world itself.

And it’s not being anti-white, or anti those “who think they are white”.  It is not about black superiority. Rather beyond. Understanding the complex history of slavery, including that in black history which was less than ideal.

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 with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this.

This acceptance, this rite of passage, was just an extension of that “introspection”, taken from the personal to the race, one’s race, not the other.

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.

I could have stopped right there. I was saturated. I was stunned. I was moved. I was taken on a whirlwind ride through the heart of pain. But I kept reading. Because, what else can one do, faced with writing of this caliber?

Of course, The Mecca, can enlighten, but the world is still the same world, even though you see it with different eyes. Later in the book, Ta-Nehisi talk about losing a friend to the machine — cops killing him, and getting away with it. The world changes slowly. Painfully slowly. Wounds open before they can heal. There is a lot of poignant writing about it, including his meeting with the friend’s mom, a successful Doctor. Her son, who could have possibly got into any college of his choosing, but chose Mecca, and was killed one day, as police tailed him, and shot him.

I asked [her] if she regretted Prince choosing Howard. “No,” she said. “I regret that he is dead”.

She said this with great composure and greater pain. She said this with all of the odd poise and  direction that the great American injury demands of you.

There is the realization, again, and again, that not much has changed, although a lot has:

And she could not lean on her country for help. When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best—it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

It’s through all that, that he has to find his answers. And pass them on to his son. Hoping they would fit, at least partially. This book, is that labor of love, of knowledge, and understanding, of pain and suffering, and of surviving, when even the bare basic survival seems like a challenge. I cannot think of anything that I should have been reading in those times when I was reading it. This has to be read. These excerpts cannot do justice to the book. This commentary is superfluous. He has to be read. Maybe, then, the “dream” would be less harsh for others. Maybe, we would see more of hell around us. Maybe, we will learn to be better humans. It’s a tall ask. But so was starting where Ta-Nehisi started and to write this book.


One thought on “The Anatomy of Pain

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