Read This Book (Los Altos Town Crier, Feb 3, 2016)
Imagine a dolphin swimming through the ocean depths, and suddenly becoming aware of the water’s being salty – something it had never noticed in the environment surrounding it every day – something it had taken as a universal fact. Then imagine that dolphin struggling with the concept of fresh water.
That would be something of the way I felt on reading Between the World and Me, Ta- Nehisi Coates’ award-winning exposition on what it is like to be “black” in America.
It had never quite gotten through to me, despite reading a fair number of books by African and Afro-American writers, that the concept of “race” which so permeates our society is almost a uniquely American idea. Other societies also make distinctions by skin color, preferring light-colored skin over dark-colored skin in their ideal of beauty, but only America makes the abrupt unilateral distinction between “black” and “white” which places a segment of our citizens irrevocably on one side of a chasm which the rest of the citizens do their best to ignore.
Coates refers to “those who believe they are white” to remind us that pink, peach, ivory, yellow, honey, or copper –colored skin is no more “white” than tan, chocolate, coffee, or ebony – colored skin is “black”. He tells us that racism is part of our American heritage, the dark side of the Constitution, Mt. Vernon, and Monticello. And he offers no suggestion of how to rid our society of this pervasive poison.
My parents grew up in Salt Lake City Utah. Until they were in their twenties and moved to the Bay Area, they had few ideas about race, as they had seen almost no African Americans in their lives thus far. Ironically, their innocence was a direct result of the Mormon Church’s deep-seated racism of the time, a doctrine which identified black skin as being “the mark of Cain” and excluded anyone with this taint from participation in Mormon society.
When my parents moved to East Texas, with two small children in tow, they entered a segregated society, complete with water fountains labeled “White” and “Colored”, separate waiting rooms for “Negroes” at the train and bus stations, segregated schools, and a shantytown. They did their best to keep us innocent, but racism was in the air. My parents almost never resorted to physical punishment, but I can remember my mother slapping my 5-year-old sister for hollering The N Word out the car window at a passerby. I knew what The N Word was about years before I had a clue about The F Word.
Decades later segregation is officially gone, and everyone drinks from the same water fountains. But Coates’ book opened my eyes to the constant and enduring presence of the idea of race in our American lives. Last month’s headlines about the lack of “black” actors and directors in the list of Oscar nominations could be understood only in American newspapers. The “Black Lives Matter” protests could only have caught fire in a society that accepts an artificial distinction between “black” and “white”.
If a dolphin discovers that the water he has been swimming in all his life is toxic, he has no choice – he has to keep swimming in it, even though it poisons him. Coates offers no easy fix” to our deep-seated beliefs about race . But perhaps as he makes us aware of the poison we breath in with every headline, we can somehow purify our toxic environment, thought by thought, word by word, deed by deed. Read this book.