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Curriculum Opinion

Book Review: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘Between The World & Me’

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 20, 2015 7 min read
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As part of my special summer series of posts, I’ve invited educators Cornelius Minor and Bridget Wilhelm to co-author a guest review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between The World And Me.

I asked them to share what prompted their interest and willingness to write this review. Here is their response:

Bridget and Cornelius’ working partnership is a testament to the power of social media to connect teachers and to cultivate real-world work. The two met on Twitter where they muse about teaching and throw 140-character celebrations whenever the New York Knicks win a basketball game. Upon release, Coates’ “Between the World and Me” was being discussed widely among activists, students, parents and artists, but not among teachers. Bridget and Cornelius connected over the relative teacher silence surrounding the book and the issues that it explores. They collaborated on this review with the explicit intention of filling that silence with honest conversations and real work.

Cornelius Minor is a dad and a Brooklyn-based middle-school teacher. You can follow him on Twitter at @MisterMinor.

Bridget Wilhelm teaches middle-school literacy in Seattle, Washington. You can follow her on Twitter at @bridgetlwilhelm.

If you are a teacher, we are not just peers, we are siblings. Because we are teachers at this moment in history, our familial bond is one that has been forged in the crucible of all the systemic adversity that we have faced -- both as individuals and as a collective.

As teachers, to live each day of our professional lives is to be subtly under attack by a system we can’t quite name and can never seem to repair. Our assailants are a faceless “they”.

When we talk about how “they” have underfunded our programs, or how “they” have made it all about testing, or how “they” don’t see the countless small miracles that we create for children every day, those not in the profession don’t always understand.

Because we know that no change happens unless people outside the profession do understand, fostering a radical understanding is our activism. We tell stories to advance our cause -- so that the young among us can know our struggles, and so that those who do not stand among us recognize our humanity and eventually do.

The business of democratic progress can’t begin without understanding.

So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest work, Between the World and Me. It seeks to cultivate an understanding. To that end, the book is masterful. With it, Coates recognizes in black people much of what we have come to recognize in each other as teachers...

That those who endure America in black skin are bound by their... our experience. Because we are black at this moment in history, our familial bond is one that has been forged in the crucible of all the systemic adversity that we have faced -- both as individuals and as a people.

It is no secret that we are under siege. Like teachers, our assailants are a faceless “they”. But now lives are at stake. Human lives. Black lives.

When we talk about how “they,” with their policy, have orchestrated a pipeline that tracks our young from school to prison, or how “they” keep neighborhoods (and by extension, schools) segregated, or how “they” kill us, or how “they” don’t acknowledge the contributions made by our families and communities throughout history, those who are not black don’t always understand.

Because we know that no democratic change happens unless people do understand, fostering a radical understanding is the activism that radiates from each page in this book. In what starts as a moving letter to his son, Coates tells stories to advance our cause -- throughout the book, he works to render these invisible systems visible and he gives “they” a name that challenges our underdeveloped notions of what racism is and how it functions. White supremacy does not wear a white sheet and brandish a gun. It often wears a suit and brandishes the law.

Coates is not original in this thinking. Nor is he alone. He comes from a long lineage of thinkers and scholars - activists, writers, artists... Mothers, grandpas, teachers, and cousins. What makes Coates different is that he exists and speaks in the dystopia of now -- at the moment where our students are killed on camera and no one is legally responsible. That our young have to take to Twitter to assert that they matter means two things:

1. That we behave as if they don’t.
2. That we don’t listen enough when they say it to us in person.

Written in the age of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland, Coates’ book presents a lived thesis that was percolating in him long before we knew any of those names, that racism at its core is actual bodily violence, that “the weight of an American legacy” built on slavery and Jim Crow continues to necessitate the destruction of black bodies to protect what Coates calls the “Dream” of white America. “Here is what I would like for you to know,” he tells his son directly. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body - it is heritage.”

In abstraction, racism is a difficult concept. Especially for us. As educators, we entered the profession with noble aims: to educate every child who walks through our door, to provide those young people with opportunity. But Coates argues that, “It does not matter that the ‘intentions’ of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions...Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets...No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction.” The system - the same nameless behemoth responsible for our schools running out of printer paper in April - is, in Coates’ view, another agent for the destruction of black bodies. “We meant well. We tried our best,” he writes. “‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history.”

It is easy to read this book and blanch. I’m not racist! My good intentions do mean something! But these sentiments can be both true and not nearly enough. “Now I knew the limits of my caring, the reach of my powers,” Coates tells his son, reacting to the death of a college friend at the hands of police. “And it occurred to me that there were awful men who’d laid plans for you, and I could not stop them.” The inevitability Coates describes can be felt every day in schools like mine, where most of the faces are black or brown, where I live as an educator knowing that one day, one of those brown boys who is lost to prison or death will have been one of my own. Those of us who don’t teach black students run an equally damning risk; that the system can turn our white students into bystanders to this sustained injustice.

Boys. This is where Coates’ work is limited. It pays only cursory attention to the plight of black women and LGBT people. Though this limitation is worthy of note and exploration, it does not diminish the importance of Coates’ work. (It does, however, serve to highlight the troubling absence of prominent black female and LGBT voices in this aspect of the conversation.)

There are those who read works like this looking for some solution -- some hope. Coates believes in something more than hope. He believes in personhood. That’s why he’s writing to his son. He does not believe that hope will net us any progress, but people will. Hope cannot end racism. People who understand and change systems -- legal systems, school systems, media -- end racism. What ultimately concerns Coates is that people are being destroyed. People with potential. Coates’ assurances are not hopeful, but they do reference the vastness of human potential to change systems, and they register sadness that the potential imbued in black bodies is consistently valued less...

As educators, this book presents us with two opportunities. First it gives us a language for naming and seeing aspects of American life that are invisible to us. If systems like schools and law enforcement consistently replicate the same outcomes for a subset of people, we don’t examine the subset of people and ask, “What’s wrong with them?” We look at the system and ask, “Where has it failed?”

Also, this book invites us not just to talk about, but to study how race operates in schools. We know the transformative impact of teacher collaboration on curriculum. We welcome that same impact on community. It’s why we joined the profession.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.