I promised to post more about my essays and projects and stuff this school year, so today I’m sharing a paper I wrote for my Black Fiction Now class! The assignment was to analyze one of the books we read in the second half of the course, so I chose Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the best book I read last year. (I just realized I never wrote a review of it… oops! Well, maybe I’ll get around to it one of these days. We can always hope.)
My paper topic kept changing as I got more and more ideas, so it was really interesting to write this piece because even I wasn’t sure what the end result would be! Eventually, I decided to write about how racism can both cause and exacerbate mental health problems. I’m very interested in examining how being part of a minority or marginalized group can affect your mental health in part because I have first-hand experience with that, so I thought exploring the mental health issues of a marginalized group different from my own would make for a good paper.
Of course, since my analysis is based not on personal experience but on what I read in and understood from this book, feel free to respond to this paper in the comments as needed – calling out, clarifying, et cetera. As I said earlier, Between the World and Me was my favorite novel of 2016, so I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about it!
“I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son, Samori, on page 14 of Between the World and Me, a letter to the young man in book form. The fear Coates speaks of is “constant interrogation… confrontation with the brutality of [his] country… ghosts… the sheer terror of disembodiment” (12).
Throughout his book, Coates highlights the tremendous amount of pressure anxiety exerts upon black parents, who can never be sure if their children will come back to them unharmed. When apart from his son, Coates feels troubled about the distance between them, knowing that there is no guarantee that he will return alive and well, that his son’s body may be taken from him and from his family.
The repercussions of police brutality and racism upon the mental health of black people, such as Coates and his father and his son, linger throughout their lives.
From very young children learning to be watchful of their actions to parents whose anxiety about the safety of their children prompts them finds relief through physical violence to parents who have lost children telling others’ children to be strong, Between the World and Me illustrates the ubiquity of mental health issues caused and exacerbated by racism.
On pages 91 and 92, he gives the example of the time Samori, at age four, scampered off to play with other children during a preschool visit, causing Coates to feel that he should hold his son back only to consider what kind of message that would send to him: “…that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time.”
From a very young age, a sense of fear and watchfulness is instilled in black children out of necessity; interactions with white people, especially figures of authority, feel very scripted as a result. Since they are pressured by society to act in a certain deferential way, these children lead a very different childhood than the one experienced by white kids: “This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our smile… It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three-hour days for us.”
In Between the World and Me, Coates also charts the ways his ideas about black fatherhood were influenced by his own childhood in Baltimore. He recounts the story of how, at age six, he slipped away from his parents at a local park one day and caused them to panic. “When they found me,” he writes, “Dad did what every parent I knew would have done – he reached for his belt” (16). Coates continues,
Later, I would hear it in Dad’s voice– ‘Either I can beat him, or the police.’ Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t. All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit. What I know is that fathers who slammed their teenage boys for sass would then release them to streets where their boys employed, and were subject to, the same justice. And I knew mothers who belted their girls, but the belt could not save these girls from drug dealers twice their age… We were laughing, but I know that we were afraid of those who loves us most. (16-17)
Out of an impulse to protect their children from the violence that would likely be enacted against their black bodies, these parents tried to teach them – out of “fear and love” what they could and could not do in this racist society. They did this in an attempt to instill this knowledge in their children before the police beat them, to paraphrase what Coates’ father articulated. And yet it also caused a deep hurt, which Coates puts words to on page 63 when he asks the question, “Why was it normal for my father, like all the parents I knew, to reach for his belt?”
As is shown in the excerpt above, Coates realized that no matter the intent behind those actions, they didn’t always work. The parents, despite their fear and “more anxiety than anger” could not save their children from their futures: “Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body” (15, 28).
The parents in the Baltimore of Coates’ youth sought a middle ground, one where their children were resilient but not too outspoken, and tried to achieve this by enacting physical violence against them to allay their fear of police brutality being enacted upon their children. If their children knew to toe the line at home, these mothers and fathers reasoned, perhaps they would be more likely to survive the violence of racism.
These parents were making the best of a bad situation and, based upon my reading of this book, I think one of the questions Coates struggles with is how to do better with his son.
At the same time, he realizes that no matter what, he too has to make sure his son understands that the rest of the world may not be so forgiving of hoodies and baggy jeans, of music played at top volume, of swagger and loud voices and impetuousness – of young men acting like young men do, in other words.
Because these young men are black, the rest of the world reads more into their appearance than there really is, transforming them, as Trayvon Martin and many others were, into “murderous juggernauts” (105).
On pages 111-114, Coates allows his son to accompany him to an interview with the mother of a slain young black man, and she tells Samori this: “You exist. You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid to be you.”
Coates is grateful she said this. “I have tried to say the same to you,” he writes, “and if I have not said it with the same direction and clarity, I confess that it is because I am afraid.” There are no easy answers here, but this much is clear: These young people need such words from their elders if they are to navigate life in a white supremacist world.
Coates himself takes a stab at providing an answer on pages 107 and 108 when he tells Samori that he is sorry he cannot make things okay, that there are no guarantees of safety and respect and growth in this world but that thinking through these issues will ultimately sharpen his son’s mind.
“You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels,” he writes, but adds that, “I am speaking to you as I always have – as the sober and serious man I have always wanted you to be, who does not apologize for his human feelings, who does not make excuses for his height, his long arms, his beautiful smile. You are growing into consciousness.”