I am enjoying my summer off in Croatia, by the sea, for weeks now, an incredible heat has been protecting me from activities physically demanding.
I came here with a suitcase full of books, most of them by writers whom I hope will enrich my conversation with the people at Davidson College. I got a book from Scott before I left for Croatia. I knew this book would be required reading not only because Toni Morrison says so on the back, but also because Junot Diaz says so on his Facebook account and maybe because you feel it when there is book that will provoke people´s thinking. I reread Toni Morrisons´ „The Bluest Eye“ before I turned to Ta-Nehisi Coates´ „Between the World and Me“.
„The Bluest Eye“ more than once was almost too much for me in the sense that fiction in its purity can be so much more brutal than non-fiction. But more on „The Bluest Eye“ later. „Between the World and Me“ is a book that asks of you a grounded standpoint to read from. Reading Coates´ prose pulls you into Coates´ world, you see the world through his eyes and magically so, his eyes open up a new perspective not only for your view at his world but also for your view on your own world. In the New York Times Michelle Alexander confesses her disappointment about Coates´ unwillingness to give us answers to big questions in this book. To me this is the beauty of the book: It is a way of mapping the streams of our conscious and unconscious thinking and remembering into a map of who we are – at this point. While reading, you can follow Coates´ own ways to the Voice he is now writing in. You read about his questions. About his truths shattered.
When looking at the United States from Europe, Germany, you can hardly believe the news about the killing of what Coates calls the Black Body. Last year´s news to pass your media-drenched mind is all it takes to start to deny reality by almost remembering it like fiction. This can´t be true, not in 2015. The killings seem so brutal and drastic that you think the whole problem is so singular, so incomparable to the problems of any other minority and society in the West at the moment. It is overwhelming, observed from here, it seems so unreal, and through his personal prose Coates makes it not only real to me, he makes it close. And then in a moment of epiphany that Coates describes for his own thinking, you realize you can´t free yourself from the problems and pain by calling them American Only. It is about the vulnerability of people not in power. And each of them deserves his or her own story.
„In my survey course of America, I´d seen portraits of the Irish drawn in the same ravenous, lustful, and simian way. Perhaps there had been other bodies, mocked and terrorized, and insecure. Perhaps the Irish too had once lost their bodies. Perhaps being named „black“ was just someone´s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.
This heap of realizations was a weight. I find them physically painful and exhausting.“
In so many moments I find this book physically painful and exhausting. But at the same time – not only because of its poetic and tender language – a source of strength for the struggle he sees so much value in.
There is a tone throughout the whole book that is somehow non-American to me: Coates doesn´t believe in the Happy End. He doesn´t believe in the narrative of a civilization turned better, doesn´t believe in our successful way to more humanity. He might be unrealistic or unjust, unfair to those who need that belief in order to keep the struggle up. But his achievement is to be able to believe in the struggle in spite of not believing in a possible victory. He certainly does not allow defeat. To find the strength for struggle when you don´t believe in victory is not only humble, as some critics put it, it is realistic. By writing and thinking this way, he denies them his contribution to the Narrative of the American Dream and builds on something he wishes for in this world: A better Reality.
I love how Coates ignores Obama’s Dreamers, young illegal immigrants, and makes North America’s suburban white middle class the Dreamers. He turns the Myth the US has created around dreams against the Dreamers. Just for seeing the Myth of Dreams being used in this reversed way this book is worth a read. And then there is his non-macho, tender way to write about his son and women. There is a whole new tone in this, something we normally like to label as female. The male voice needed someone to write about women and love this way. Perhaps it would be useful for Philipp Roth to take a close look.
So much for now. There is more to come, I´m afraid.