Lisa was leaving around midnight. We said goodbye, opened the door, and found a few oranges split open, the juice staining the door and the nearby plants. Oranges thrown from a distance split interestingly, they split in a cross-style, as though they were round bread buns which had bloomed too well. Lisa looked us in the eye, and made us promise that if we were in any sort of trouble we should call her and she’d come to help. She also gave the suggestion of a security camera.
The next day my parents chalked it up to the neighbours. Unruly kids who didn’t want to eat their five a days. We still sometimes get oranges, today we got an apple. They add colour to our front garden, Mum doesn’t throw them out she leaves them in the plant pots as though they were intended decorations.
There is fear everywhere.
This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contributed to the fast breakdown of our bodies. So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason.
— Between the World and Me by Ta-Nihisi Coates, pg 90
Marcus Wicker wrote about this specific fear, the fear that governs black bodies, in his angry, vicious poem Taking Aim at a Macy’s Changing Room Mirror, I Blame Television. Garrett Hongo wrote a similar piece with his hands governed by fear, his heart acknowledging this fear in the poem The Legend, a mourning piece for the unnamed Vietnamese man shot and left for dead whom Hongo painstakingly searched for and dedicated the poem to.
Channel 4 and BBC News have only just started reporting the spike in acid attacks in East London, but ever since the London attacks through Whatsapp messages passed on from countless other people, practically untraceable, we were warned about moving in groups and the “friend’s cousin who had been attacked not just an hour ago”. I refused to believe it, it wasn’t in the national news so it can’t be that bad right? Thing is, local hate crimes aren’t even reported in local news at times: perhaps not even three days after the Weavers Fields attack did I search for a news report covering it and found only endless uploads of the same video where a group of boys (they could have been my classmates or my brothers or my relatives or my local chicken shop men) surrounded the attacker whom they had violently assaulted in exchange for his hate-fuelled assault on a Muslim hijab-clad woman.
Ta-Nehisi Coates says there is no such thing as a white race, rather there are only people who believe themselves white. Italians, Englishmen, Franks, Scots all push down their national identities in exchange for the identity of superiority. Perhaps there is something to be said about those assigned to the black race, to the non-white race, do we box ourselves into an identity of inferiority? Coates argues alternatively: we embrace a much more glorious, “better” identity of struggle.
I have not spent my time studying the problem of “race” – “race” itself is just a restatement and retrenchment of the problem. You see this from time to time when some dullard – usually believing himself white – proposes that the way forward is a grand orgy of black and white, ending only when we are beige and thus the same “race”. But a great number of “black” people already are beige. And the history of civilization is littered with dead “races” (Frankish, Italian, German, Irish) later abandoned because they no longer serve their purpose – the organization of people beneath, and beyond, the umbrella of rights.
— Between the World and Me by Ta-Nihisi Coates, pg 115
This admission from Coates reminds me of Marxism, the central obsession with class struggle. To be black is to be part of a struggle, is it not? We are not white, if only because we don’t lazily accept such privilege. The junction between race and class is always touched upon. I come from both: I am relatively poor and I am not white. Race and class are often intertwined, Zadie Smith does so in On Beauty. Yet both Smith and Coates irresistibly reject class struggle in place for the struggle of being black: On Beauty itself is a response to E. M. Forster’s Howards End which focuses almost completely on the ridiculous injustices of poverty – Smith gives him one back with examples of ridiculous injustices of race.
“The two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but the white and the black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is – the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there is someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.”
— Between the World and Me by Ta-Nihisi Coates, pg 104
This fear is not only everywhere it is encompassing everything. Acutely, this is a feminist struggle too. Have you heard of the rape and murder of Nabra Hassanen who embodied the liberties of typical Western Muslims, these liberties proven to be just wishful-thinking and an illusion of safety? I am an eighteen year old Bengali woman in London. Many of my friends are not allowed to travel to East London or Central London. I live in the junction between both. Where do I go? How can I go? Where I could have argued for my independence and freedom I am instead stunted by fear. Perhaps it is my stupidity that makes me square my shoulders back and go about my daily life despite the fear.
This is difficult to do so. It is the holidays so whenever I do go out it is not a necessary outing. But I do. And whenever a car speeds past me I cover my face with my hand or my scarf. I hold my breath. I try and walk faster but the fear makes me walk slower. Trains have always been difficult to navigate in a scarf and long dress because of the stares. After the London Bridge attacks no train commuter stared at me and I did not look at them. We were all too scared. The fear means flinching at an open window, rolling the car windows up, staying away from the edge of the pavement. It is incredibly difficult to avoid or defend oneself against an acid attack. There were mentions of stabbings and beatings and of Finsbury Park Mosque, but it is the acid attacks that struck fear in me from the start.
It is a wonder I had managed to survive Ramadan. This fear has meaning and the meaning is that somebody I know will suffer from an attack soon enough. We will mourn. We will always be afraid. I might be next and there is nothing I can do.
And, Toni Morrison called this required reading. This book has a slow upward curve, the slope of it so slow it might be mistaken for a flat line. There is comfort here, Coates wrote this unabashedly for his fifteen year old son. Coates didn’t lie, but this is a book of comfort somehow.
Then the mother of the murdered boy rose, turned to you, and said, “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.”
— Between the World and Me by Ta-Nihisi Coates, pg 113
This is comforting too.
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 apologise for his human feelings, who does not make excuses for his height, his long arms, his beautiful smile. You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.
— Between the World and Me by Ta-Nihisi Coates, pg 107-108
I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it.
— Between the World and Me by Ta-Nihisi Coates, pg 107
Fear is also obvious, not needing to be mentioned. For example there is fear in violence, we know this. There is fear especially in petty violence because it is sickening. Because it escalates easily. Because William Golding had it so right in Lord of the Flies, with the modern equivalent being drones accidentally murdering wedding parties instead of enemies.
The struggle is attractive because it is to do with the mind and as Coates proves in his book it is more so to do with the body. And the body, the body is painstakingly, obviously between the world and me.
And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do. In America, the injury is not being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after.
— Between the World and Me by Ta-Nihisi Coates, pg 120