On Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”

White supremacy is so insidious.

This is the phrase that has stuck with me the past two days.

I have been meaning to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me since it came out, and I finally purchased it a few weeks ago from a local used book store. Normally, I would consider myself a fast reader. For example, I read the original 400+ page version of Richard Wright’s Native Son in about 6 hours. Coates’ book is only 150 pages–  It took me four hours to read 50 of them. It’s not necessarily a dense text, but the content is such that you are doing yourself a grave disservice if you don’t give yourself time to reflect on what you’re reading. that’s why I started this blog (among other things).

The main excerpt that gave me pause when I first started Coates’ book is from p 25-26. He writes:

The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls. … Algebra, Biology, and English were not subjects so much as opportunities to better discipline the body, to practice writing between the lines, copying the directions legibly, memorizing theorems extracted from the world they were created to represent. All of it felt so distant to me. I remember sitting in my seventh-grade French class and not having any idea why I was there. i did not know any French people, and nothing around me suggested I ever would. … Why, precisely, was I sitting in this classroom?

The question was never answered. I was a curious boy, but schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.

I was at my second job (I’m a host and sometimes it’s pretty slow, so it allows me lot of time to think/read) and I stopped after this page for about an hour.

I thought, and thought, and thought about all of the black kids sitting in rooms around the country feeling that they have no reason to be there. About all of the black kids being taught a curriculum where they are the “other”.

I thought about myself, and how being the one black kid in the advanced classes made me feel in my own body (more on that in another post).

And I thought about an education movement that’s going on right that feels we need to “get back to the basics” meaning simplifying curriculum and focusing on achievement. A former math teacher purported that motivation arises from achievement, not the other way around.  When thinking about the context of Coates’ book, how does that make any sense? The rote tasks, which a colleague of mine strongly believes are the key to success, are what made education feel distant to Coates. These rote tasks, abstract ideas, and rituals, as Coates’ says, are extracted from the world they were meant to represent– a white world– in which a black body feels distant, out-of-place, and without belonging. If Coates’ had received an A in that French class (aka achieved), would  his bottom line change? Even though he was complying with what the rules were, what the teacher (likely white) said, and he was subscribing to the ideals of what the dominant culture (also white) says is good, he would still ask the question, “Why precisely, [am] I sitting in this classroom?”

This leads me to think about my own position as an educator. Out of principle, I generally don’t believe in binary positions. Binaries inhibit the nuances of each position and force you to disregard anything that the other position may have of value– it’s all or nothing.

That being said, I wholly realize that some rote tasks e.g. being able to focus on a task for a determined amount of time, are required to be successful in the classroom and in whatever career the students choose (whether that career be a trade, university, or other). My issue is the idea that our curriculum doesn’t have to reflect our students. That somehow, achievement is the fix-all solution.

Can you imagine going through 12 years of school, never having had any of the content made to be a part of your world, or made so that you could see yourself as a part of it?

As a Black teacher who has spent most of her life in white spaces being the only black person (or one of the few), I can’t begin to explain what it would have meant to me to feel like I belonged in these spaces. Everything I was surrounded by was white. Success, achievement, was shown to me as white. Yes, I got A’s. Yes, I was achieving and was motivated to achieve. But at what cost?

I hated myself. I hated that I was black. And wished I could be white because THAT was what really sets you apart. I wanted to inhabit that space, so getting good grades was the first thing I did to access their world. I straightened my naturally curly coarse hair to inhabit their world. I deleted my family’s language– got rid of the finna’s and she be’s– and changed the way I spoke to inhabit their world. I fundamentally altered who Jasmine was, based on this premise of achievement, so I could try to fit myself into a world that didn’t look like, sound like, or act like me, the black girl from the north side of Minneapolis.

So yes, students should achieve. They should learn and grow and have the opportunity to decide what their future looks like. BUT– and this is a big but– if your curriculum is not meaningful to your students, does not reflect them, does not allow them to position themselves and see themselves within a world where they belong, you are positioning these students to feel like an other for the rest of their lives.

2 comments

  1. Ethnocentrism does exist in American; however, in order to level the playing field, we must become educated in a system that does not consider us, value us, and views us as the other. African Americans spend a life time wondering why? What have we done to deserve this type of treatment. Many African American are lashing out, basically due to the why, white America act confused as to why we keep asking. Walk in my shoes for one day, I dare you.
    Once educated, we are able to begin a metamorphosis, as you have done. I embrace my blackness knowing full well that I am an African living in America. I love my country and all people but have some ambivalence as to whether white America will ever love me back. I am a Christian so whether I will ever feel love by white American , I have no choice but to love despite the fact the it is not reciprocated. This I do know, I am unable to predict the future, but as for today this is the status quo.
    Embrace your blackness, beauty, sassiness, and the essence of being black. We have a uniqueness that no other culture have: we can be fully black and the outward appearance is white, then black as midnight, with ever shade of red to yellow undertone. Our music tells our stories of pain, love, triumph, and power. Our history is rich and bold, I fear that younger generation do not have knowledge exists. American was built on the back of slaves, and the White House, guess who were the builders. Now how about that!!!!! XOXO keep blogging. We can only make it with God moving us forward.

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