Toni Morrison calls Between the World and Me “required reading”. That’s enough for me. It’s a slim book. Ta-Nehisi Coates looks at me from the back cover with eyes that might be hopeful.

The book is a beautifully written, short essay. Between the world and me is a personal view on social and political topics that are familiar to most black people and to some white. The fantasy of race is familiar, even to people who, as Coates puts it: “ believe themselves to be white”.  Coates is wide awake and scared, sad and scared. He reflects on the black body, its vulnerability, the direct and subtle violence that black men experience and often hide or inflict themselves. This is an unusual perspective in a society where masculinity can be violent but must be unafraid.  It is a fear I recognize from every time one of my daughters steps into the world outside our apartment.  When I say I am scared there is usually a chorus of reasons not to be.  But when resistance is personal and lonely, fear is a reasonable emotion.

Coates’ experience is male and urban American, so it connects to mine only in some ways. His gradual realization of how race works makes me think of coming to know my social value as a black woman in Africa and Europe. He doesn’t shy away from the violence of the streets, of what some people call “black on black”, and use to justify the deliberate indifference of the American state to deprived urban areas. Instead Coates explains street violence as a necessary and logical companion to state abandonment.

Until quite recently I felt that Africans born on the continent were different from those born into majority white societies. These people did not grow up aware of the implications of race, of how people use the proportion of melanin in the skin as an excuse to ignore individual character. And how many black children like Tamar Rice and Trayvon Martin, have been brutally murdered for being black. I recognize from my childhood the sometimes harsh strategies of black parents to save their children from the streets, by driving them to overachieve at school or sports. The violence is primordial. The explanations change but the violence remains. Coates struggles in this essay to explain to his teenage son the social phenomenon of police officers killing black children with impunity.

Now I know that being black has little to do with accepting Blackness and that loving Blackness is a step too far for many. It’s thought-provoking. Although Martin Luther King is never mentioned by name I read Coates, perhaps wrongly, as rejecting the religiosity of MLK for the militancy of Malcolm.  The political consciousness that Malcolm X formed in prison led him to see how Blackness skews the outcome of simple choices towards disaster. Looking a policeman in the eye, walking on the street, opening your own front door.  What this essay does for me is to show that  I am one of many, help me recognize those who have gone before. I draw on a body of bitter-sweet knowledge.  Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Steven Biko, and now Ta-Nehisi Coates.

This post is part of our quarterly theme “Contemporary African Stories.” Click to learn more about this series.

Clementine Burnley

Clementine Burnley was born and raised in Cameroon. At the moment, she lives and writes in Berlin, Germany.


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