I just finished Between the World and Me, National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates’s loving and uncompromising letter to his teenage son. It is worthy of daily broadcast on the streets and in the shopping malls of America’s towns and cities.
This is not a book review. The message of the book is so huge I wouldn’t know where to begin. What I do know is what the book prompted in me—65 year old woman considered “white,” mother of two daughters, former wife in two marriages, Southerner, divorce lawyer, politics far left of center, and deep spiritual yearnings—identities that provide the orientations in which I received Coates’s message.
I have no clever hook to relate the letter Coates wrote his son to divorce—generally the topic of this blog and which I experience daily in my work and have for myself exhausted. I’ve just looked at what the internet yields for statistics on white versus black divorce. Various studies (their validity I will not vouch for) indicate that the black divorce rate is considerably higher than the white divorce rate. After Coates has educated me about the fallacy of race—calling it the “child of racism, not the father”—I’m hesitant to even bring up this comparison.
I’m not surprised that “black” divorce rates may be higher than “white” divorce rates. What would one expect after more than two centuries of slavery—that justice and access to it have been doled out equally in the great playing field of “whites” and “blacks”? Certainly Americans categorized as black make up a huge underclass. The way I see it that’s not even debatable—but it doesn’t mean most Americans categorized as white have an understanding of that fact, assuming they consider it a fact at all.
Toni Morrison was right to call this book “required reading.” It will tear your heart out if you bring to it even a modicum of honesty.
Between the World and Me stretched my understanding as it opened my heart to the suffering, nobility, and awfulness of humans—on many levels and in so many forms. With sufficient reflection and study maybe I could relate racism to divorce in some or many ways, but I don’t need to. Rather, I want to let Coates’s insights invigorate me to greater caring and more effective deeds in my own life, not on a grand scale, nor even on some kind of racial scale—after all, virtually all of my clients are “white.”
People come to me who suffer, act nobly, and do awful stuff—all in a day’s work of sorting out the effects of divorce. They (mostly) and I are part of the horror Coates invites his son to look at—both because of what was done by our forefathers and foremothers and our collusion in the continuing myths that justify domination. Coates asks his son to recognize that the lives of those who believe themselves white are not more inviolable than those who are not part of that group—
These events may, for those who have the capacity to see clearly, turn fixed viewpoints inside out and uncover that which gives rise to privilege. By searching with unshielded eyes for who pays so that I can be “white,” I am required to see whatever arises in my life through a wide focus lens. That broad view includes the most ordinary and the least appealing, like tasting the anguish in the life of the person with whom I am speaking.
When I see a couple who is wracked with grief over the ending of their marriage—a grief they likely will never truly share with each other—I may be seeing people who are for the first time in their lives deeply suffering. I also see people who have suffered enormously before divorce became yet another element of loss in their lives—and all those in between. I am grateful to those who show up at my door in order to go on with their lives—as they tolerate the burden of my being with their suffering and witnessing their vulnerability—and more mundanely, helping them organize their futures.
If my livelihood were not in divorce law, would I be writing about Coates’s book in another way? Almost certainly. I could write about it as a Southerner, as I did in my response to the film Twelve Years A Slave. Or as a mother—Coates tells of his visit to the mother of yet another young black man gunned down by the police—such a common horror, yet nothing hackneyed about how he holds it.
The truth is that we receive awakenings—and Between the World and Me was nothing short of that for me—where we are.