Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A cultural commentary and book review

I don’t remember the day I became embodied. But I know that the way I am now is different than the way I was before. And through reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I understand that this feeling is a privilege.

I now have an agency about this inner self that I have. Before I had an inner self yearning for the ground upon which to build my agency, but did not know how to bring that self along all the time. Felt I had to be this person here or that person there. I felt I had to be different than who I was to belong.

I don’t feel that anymore – well in full disclosure, maybe occasionally for an instant, but not frequently. I think this is what being embodied feels like.

In the book,Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his son about being black in America. A nation literally built on slavery, “They were people turned to fuel for the American machine.”

Pretty heavy huh.

To drive the point in further, Coates says, “Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains – whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.” This country that we live in – the one where as a black person you have to be watchful, say the right things, wear clothes that are not scary, not be out on the street after dark, because if you don’t do any of those things, then you might die, even if you are a kid – this country, condones the disembodiment of black people.

Coates says, we “call ourselves white,” – I am still digesting this line – and we live in the dream. The dream insulates us from the world in which people that do not call themselves white live. These dreamers move through the world thinking that everyone has the same opportunities, everyone has the same chances. We feel justified that we support causes that help people to take the next step and get out of a life that holds them down. But we are holding them down, through being in possession of the dream. To give up the dream means that we don’t have exclusive rights to it anymore, and didn’t we earn the rights “as a natural result of our grit, honor, and good works?”

“To acknowledge these horrors [of a country built on the theft and enslavement of black people bodies] means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans.” “But,” he says to his son, “that is your work. It must be if only to preserve the sanctity of mind.”

As an embodied person, these lines scar my heart. I believe that embodiment or the possibility is a birth right, but clearly I was wrong. It is not a right for all, just for dreamers. To become embodied is to wake up from the dream and be present to “murk and unknown.” It means I have to let go of the dream, fling away my right because I call myself white. I must share my privilege. And to do that I need to admit I am human, have flaws and that simply to have this privilege, I am in alignment with the people who plunder our earth in the name of progress. This hurts too.

In the book, about ¾ of the way through, Coates talks about the disembodiment of black people. If to be embodied is to be fully in one’s self, to have agency to bring the soul forward and our gifts to the world, to claim and move toward what is right and just. Then to be disembodied is the opposite. Coates says,

“disembodiment is a kind of terrorism, and the threat of it alters the orbit of all our lives and, like terrorism, this distortion is intentional. …Disembodiment. The demon that pushed the middle-class black survivor’s intro aggressive passivity, our conversations restrained in public quarters, our best manners on display, our hands never out of our pockets, our whole manner ordered as if to say, ‘I make no sudden moves.’ Disembodiment.”

In our countries cultural history, black people are viewed as objects, their bodies are still plundered, and jailed, and killed without retribution, “because it suited some other person’s ends.”

I write this today because I am moved. And knowing that if I can stand embodied for me, I can stand for the embodiment of all. And if the dreamers break bodies, then I must offer mine to be broken as well. To use my privilege to protect and speak for those that have no voice, or are too disembodied and afraid to use it.

Are you embodied? Invite perspective. I am not sure what will happen for you, but I know that I feel more deeply and know my soul and can move forward with agency and this is my gift to the world.

And, buy the book. If you believe in a just world for all, it must be read.

Confusion on the Path: building emotional capacity

As I travel the path of life, occasionally I look around and think, “Sweet, this seems to be working!”

But most of the time on this path, I look around and think, “Shit, is this working? This doesn’t seem to be the direction I wanted to head…”, and other thoughts of confusion and doubt.

Over time, on this path, I have noticed that just because I have a sense of where I want to go, it doesn’t mean that the path will be straight or that the path will lead me to my desired end point.

Why is this? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to tick off the list of destinations as we go along to feel some completion?

Well, actually no. We would miss out on life if we did that. It is important to remember that we could live a life that flows in a single direction, that is uninterrupted, that is linear, but then we would miss out on the experience of being human. Of feeling all of the emotions – confusion, despair, sadness, joy – of life. This is the gift of our human birth. Not simply to move from one thing to the next however satisfying that might be, but to revel in our capacity to feel.

When we are experiencing something, there are tendencies that we have – linger, move quickly through, wallow – whatever your tendency, what would it be like to try something different?

I am not suggesting bury the pain, decide just to make a decision more quickly, or create pain in order to wallow. What I am asking is for you to notice. Become acutely aware of the confusion, the anger, the indecision, the sadness. Find the nooks and crannies of that experience. Because that experience is what make us human and what allows us to be compassionate with ourselves and others.

The goal is not to be perfect, however appealing that may be, and trust me, I feel the pull of being perfect. Yet the perfect I yearn for is to be able to not let my shit get in the way of experiencing life with people. I don’t want to be Teflon perfect, and I am far from visually or intellectually perfect (that is overrated anyway), but to be perfectly able to go to the depths in myself and with others, well, I think that might just be heaven on earth. To feel the endless capacity we have to care deeply. To open my heart with full confidence that it won’t be crushed. I long to feel that.

Yet that invitation into the depth of my capacity means that there will be confusion. I will wonder is this mine? Is this theirs? Sometimes I won’t know right away. And it might feel extra painful. But if I wait, and notice, be mindful, whatever word you want to use, it will eventually change and then the path will be revealed.

Do you long to feel – love, sadness, let go of remorse or regret, move through shame and guilt – then invite perspective. Here is a practice that I use to help me. You can also search ‘mindfulness’ on the internet and pull up a plethora of techniques if this one doesn’t work for you.

  • Find a place to sit or lay down (if you fall asleep, that is the path your body needed to take, let it go there).
  • Take a breath.
  • Notice where you effort to pull in breath.
  • Try to breathe without any effort (this in and of itself is a lifetime practice!).
  • As you relax and take in breath, begin to make the breath deeper.
  • Every time you feel yourself efforting, notice and tune into the area of effort, the emotion of effort, the thought behind the effort. Then let all that go, you are simply noticing.
  • Then return to the effortless breath at the capacity you can before you hit the effort threshold.
  • Do this for as long as you want.

Over time you will gain capacity in effortless breathing. Which will be like a life raft when the path takes a turn and you feel confusion.

At least it is for me.