I have discovered the joys of audiobooks. As an Angeleno, who spends some time behind the wheel, an audiobook streaming on my Bluetooth stereo is a veritable boon. I always resisted them, as I didn’t want someone else’s voice in my head. But they’ve made the reading experience so much easier and efficient.
The first audiobook I listened to was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. A book aimed at his son, in the line of De adminstrando imperio, it is a tour de force, detailing what it’s like to be black and American.
Now, allow me to crow a bit. I’m as woke as a woke white male Cuban can be. I’ve lived in majority-minority neighborhoods my entire life—Washington Heights in New York, and Inglewood in California. The two years that my wife and I spent on the Westside of LA were miserable. I missed the Mexican bakeries, and I missed the soul food joints. When my brother decided to get hitched again to an amazing woman, and rented his house in Inglewood to us, I sang hosanna.
But as woke as I am, I will never know the feeling of taking your son to a movie in Village, having a white woman shove him aside so she can get to her very important appointment, and grow so livid that you would risk your son and yourself to speak out your pain.
That episode is the most jarring in Coates’ narrative, and it’s aimed not at his son, not at African Americans, but at me, and people like me. People who think we’re woke, but as much as we empathize, as much as we work, will never experience that.
The leitmotif of Coates’ work is that black bodies are expendable. Blacks don’t own their own bodies; they’re on loan from a system which has very little use for them, and will take them at a moment’s notice. He may have put this out as a book for his son; it is, however, a book for every one who has my hue, who has my privilege (and yes, despite my Spanish surname, I have a privilege I fully acknowledge), a book to once again prick the conscience. African Americans know the story; white Americans need it drummed into their heads. Racism didn’t end with “I Have a Dream”, it didn’t end on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. If anything, it got worse. Donald Trump’s triumph is evidence of that.
Coates doesn’t offer bromides. He’s not here to assuage white sensibilities. He grew up on Baltimore’s streets, chose as his life path to document those white America ignores or castigates. His writing isn’t aimed at the African American community, which already knows the stories. It’s a dagger at white America, especially that comfortable, liberal white America, which isn’t as woke as it thinks it is. Between the World and Me slapped me across the face. And for that, I thank Mr. Coates.