Ta-Nehisi Coates’ incredible book, Between the World and Me, is a brilliantly written story of his struggle to learn how to live in a black body in this country. Throughout the book, Coates repeatedly refers to “the Dream” and how the vast majority of Americans are under its spell. He describes the Dream this way,
“The Dream seemed to be the pinnacle, then—to grow rich and live in one of those disconnected houses out in the country, in one of those small communities, one of those cul-de-sacs with its gently curving ways, where they staged teen movies and children built treehouses, and in that last lost year before college, teenagers made love in cars parked at the lake. The Dream seemed to be the end of the world for me, the height of American ambition. What more could possibly exist beyond the dispatches, beyond the suburbs?”
Yet the realities of living as a black man in America taught Coates that the Dream was actually a terrible nightmare and he takes the reader on a journey that led to his own awakening,
“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”
“These theories justified the jails springing up around me, that argued for ghettos and projects, that viewed the destruction of the black body as incidental to the preservation of order. According to this theory “safety” was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value.”
“I knew that I wasn’t so much bound to a biological “race” as to a group of people, and these people were not black because of any uniform color or any uniform physical feature. They were bound because they suffered under the weight of the Dream, and they were bound by all the beautiful things, all the language and mannerisms, all the food and music, all the literature and philosophy, all the common language that they fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream.”
“I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.”
“The changes have awarded me a rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to, when you have rejected the Dream. But even more, the changes have taught me how to best exploit that singular gift of study, to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers.”
The book is written by Coates to his son with the goal of helping him avoid the trap of the great American lie.
“You must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”
“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.”
The central feature of the Dream is that there are winners and there are losers, it is the only way the game works and without this central feature, the whole thing would fall apart. In this powerful passage, Coates reveals the horrible truth about the Dream and his son’s assigned role to it.
“You and I, my son, are that “below.” That was true in 1776. It is true today. There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream.”
The most sinister part of the Dream is that most American’s don’t even realize that they have been infected by it and that every day they make decisions that keep it alive through their unconscious participation in this game of winners and losers where the deck is stacked against people of color. Coates warns his son of the dangers that he must face as one awakened from the dream.
“But part of what I know is that there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur.”
Coates does an amazing job of exposing the hidden inner workings of the machine that keeps the Dream alive and well in our country.
“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.”
“The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream. But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.”
“The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”
Coates shares his angst over Dr. King’s peaceful approach of the civil rights movement that subjected blacks to public humiliation and how his view of the movement changed when he realized the real intent.
“And all those old photographs from the 1960s, all those films I beheld of black people prostrate before clubs and dogs, were not simply shameful, indeed were not shameful at all—they were just true. We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.”
His final words of instruction to his son are very telling of the struggle that faces us all.
“I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”
There is no way to do justice to Coates book in a short blog post. It is such a rich and multi-layered story. However, his portrayal of the under belly of the American Dream is what continues to haunt me more than a month after reading the book.
In prior posts, I had shared insights from McKnight and Block and their book, The Abundant Community, as well as their work with Walter Brueggeman’s, An Other Kingdom which point to the impact of America’s shift toward a consumer culture. While the American Dream was always a part of our cultural identity, it changed from one of endless opportunities for advancement to one of materialism as we moved from a nation of producers to a nation of consumers. I also recently shared my friend Chris Burton’s insights in which he names individualism as one of the causes of white American’s refusing to awaken from the Dream, this is certainly at the core of what allows us to believe in the Dream.
After reading and wrestling with all of this, I am left feeling a little like Neo in the Matrix. I am not sure if I should take the red pill and discover the truth or the blue pill and continue in the dream. There is a nagging voice that tells me there is a reality that I am blind to but that reality is an ugly harsh one and perhaps staying connected to the machine is not such a bad idea. Sleep walking through the Dream is all most of us know. Fellow white American’s, is Coates correct? Would we rather live in the beautiful Dream than to live free and fully awake in the harsh ugly truth?