4/52: Between the World and Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates

"This book is required reading." 

Those are the words of Toni Morrison on Between the World and Me, and I'd have to agree with her. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about the marginalization of the black community while reflecting on his journey to selfhood. This book is written as a letter to his teenage son and touches on some serious and relevant issues, such as police brutality, housing discrimination, and mass incarceration. 

Throughout the book Ta-Nehisi uses two phrases repeatedly: "the Dream" and "the Black Body." The Dream is the wealth, comfort, security, and prosperity that white people have created, which is built on the control and domination of the Black Body. As an atheist, Ta-Nehisi focuses on the body intently because to him, his body and the bodies of his loved ones are all he has. I find this view important and refreshing because so often racial violence can be given to God to take care of as an excuse to stay silent and immobile. There is urgency from Ta-Nehisi because this is it; this body, this breath, this one life. 

I devoured this book in less than 48 hours. The writing is visceral, beautiful, and heartbreaking. I've heard some people call this book "too angry," but of course those people were white. As a person with white skin, I feel indebted to Ta-Nehisi Coates for his story. The beauty and power of his writing was an experience I felt I did not deserve. This book is a thing of raw truth that cuts through the layers of falsities which encapsulate racism in America. 

So, I'll say it again, this book is required reading. 


Quotables: 

“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself.” 

“So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.” 

“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.” 

“You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.” 

“Then the mother of the murdered boy rose, turned to you, and said, 'You exist. You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid to be you.'"

“The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.” 

“The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. 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."

“And still 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.” 

 “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. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live—and there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else’s country, but in your own home."


Ta-Nehisi Coates also writes for The Atlantic, here is a link to his award winning article, The Case for Reparations.

Buy Between the World and Me here

Borrow it here

2/52: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - Annie Dillard

Oh Annie Dillard, you mystical woman you. To be honest, I'm not sure where to begin with this one. Perhaps I should start with a quote from Dillard herself, "I am no scientist, I am a wanderer with a background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts." And that is truly what this books is, a blend of science, facts, observations, mysticism, and theology. I found myself sludging through page after page of "quirky facts"  about grasshoppers, eels, water bugs, and muskrats, when suddenly, in a way that only Annie Dillard can, you are slayed with some serious existential thought. 

Written in 1974, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the Walden Pond of the 20th century. Dillard makes Tinker Creek her world, her universe, her galaxy. At one point, Dillard marvels at how much life is in just one square inch of soil, that square inch is its own earth. Dillard zooms in and gets deep in the details, even the details that one may not want to look closely at, such as parasites and bacteria. Nothing is left unspoken, no part of nature is left without a voice. All life speaks to why we are here. 


Quotables:

"We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence... 'Seems like we're just set down,' a women said to me recently, 'and don't nobody know why.'" 

"The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there." 

"Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why."

"Living is moving; time is a live creek bearing changing lights. As I move, or as the world moves around me, the fullness of what I see shatters... The present is a freely given canvas. That it is constantly being ripped apart and washed downstream goes without saying; it is a canvas, nevertheless." 

"I do not understand even what I can easily see. I would like to see it all, understand it, but I must start somewhere, so I try to deal with the giant water bug in Tinker Creek and the flight of three hundred red wings from an Osage orange, with the goldfish bowl and the snakeskin, and let those who dare worry about the birthrate and population explosion among solar systems."

"The wonder is—given the errant nature of freedom; and the burgeoning texture of time—the wonder is that all the forms are not monsters, that there is beauty at all, grace gratuitous, pennies found, like mockingbird’s free fall. Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator’s exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques and horrors bloom from that same free growth, that intricate scramble and twine up and down the conditions of time."

"We value the individual supremely, and nature values him not a whit." 

"Is this what it's like, I thought then, and think now: a little blood here, a chomp there, and still we live, trampling the grass? Must everything whole be nibbled? Here was a new light on the intricate texture of things in the world, the actual plot of the present moment in time after the fall: the way we the living are nibbled and nibbling - not held aloft on a cloud in the airbut bumbling pitted and scarred and broken through a frayed and beautiful land."

"We are people; we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God look at what you've done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste."

"This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you."


I would recommend reading Annie Dillard's childhood memoir An American Childhood before Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It will give you some context of her fervent curiosity, plus it is a beautiful read. 

Buy it here.

Borrow it here.

1/52: Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson

It's hard for me to write about this book because all I want to say is "EVERYONE MUST BE REQUIRED TO READ THIS BOOK," which can come off as quite abrasive. But truly, I really think everyone should read this book and be aware of the realities of our criminal justice system. 

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who started the non-profit The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI works to reform our criminal justice system, educate the public on race, and exonerate the innocent from death row. A good portion of this book follows the story of Walter McMillian, a black man who was sent to death row for a crime he didn't commit in Monroe County, Alabama. Monroe County is the same county where To Kill a Mockingbird was set; and the irony couldn't ring louder throughout the book. Stevenson becomes Walter's lawyer and from there begins the gruesome, uphill battle through the criminal justice system. 

There were some facts I read that were so shocking I couldn't believe they were true. Stevenson, probably knowing how unbelievable some of these facts could be, put a note section at the end, citing all the facts he made throughout the book. What shocked me most was how recent some of the facts were. For example, in 2002 the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities and in 2005 the Court banned the death penalty for children. The closeness of those dates to our present time irks me. Stevenson shows those of us who think we've made progress how much farther we have to go. 


Quotables: 

"I was developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice... The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong."

"Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days. Prison growth and the resulting "prison-industrial complex" -the business interests that capitalize on prison construction- made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem... like drug addiction, poverty... child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, and even immigration issues generated responses from legislators that involved sending people to prison."

"We've become so fearful and vengeful that we've thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak -not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us look tough, less broken... But simply punishing the broken -walking away from them or hiding them from sight- only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity."

"I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we just owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn't want to kill the broken among us who have killed others. Maybe we would look harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized."

"Our self righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion... we have to be stonecatchers." 


This book was as moving as it was infuriating. There were times where I had to put it down and just rant and scream, and then there were times where it brought me to tears. It is a beautiful book, give it a read if you can.

Buy it here or borrow it here*

*I will be putting in links to buy books from local bookstores. You can order them online and have it shipped to you if you don't live nearby. The link to borrow books will be through WorldCat which is a cataloging system that will connect you to your local library. 

Small Wonder - Barbara Kingsolver

Where was this book read? On the couch while ignoring a football game and in the "in-betweens." A chapter squeezed in before bed, pages devoured while waiting for the bus, and snippets sneaked during quiet moments.

Where did this book come from? A serendipitous encounter with a Little Free Library on a foggy October day.

Barbara Kingsolver is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. She is an incredible story teller who delicately weaves the natural world into our human narrative. This posts focuses on the first essay in this book, sharing the title Small Wonder. This essay is inspired by a news article that Kingsolver found roughly one month after 9/11 in 2001. The headline reads "Iran toddler found safe in bear's den." What a wonder to find this snippet of news a month after such a tragedy. In light of recent events, I reread this essay, desperately praying that we all may find our greatest weapon in the "ultimately defiant act of loving one thing and then another, loving our way back to life," even in the most unexpected of places; between a bear and a baby. 


Quotables: 

"Roosters gave milk here, bears lay eggs. The lion lay down with the lamb. A frozen groundswell just beyond our senses heaves and buckles, daring the world to dismantle these walls on enmity and use the stones to build ovens for baking bread. It would be the death of something, and the life of something. Somewhere there must be a door through. The alternative is only to construct higher walls, and the higher they grow, the harder they will fall." 

"We see so much, understand so little, and are simultaneously told so much about What We Think, as a populace polled minute by minute, that it begins to feel like an extraneous effort to listen at all to our hearts... I try with all my might to duck under this wire, not to believe in polls or allow the TV bluster anywhere near my face. At moments I have to stop taking in more news so I can consider what I've gathered so far and pay attention to my own community, since that is the only place where I can muster a posse to take on our local disasters of the day."

"Some forms of enemy are made more deadly by killing. It would require the deepest possible shift of our hearts to live in a world of fundamental animosity and devote ourselves not to the escalating exertion to kill, but rather, to lulling animosity to sleep. Modern humanity may not be up to the challenge. Modern humanity may not have a choice." 

"The changes we dread most may contain our salvation." 

"It's the same struggle for each of us, and the same path out: the utterly simple, infinitely wise, ultimately defiant act of loving one thing and then another, loving our way back to life... However much I've lost, what remains to me is that I can still speak to name the things I love."

"Small change, small wonders - these are the currency of my endurance and ultimately of my life... I have stories of things I believe in: a persistent river, a forest on the edge of night, the religion inside a seed, the startle of wingbeats when a spark of red life flies against all reason out of the darkness."


Here is a link to a good portion of Kingsolver's essay. I would highly suggest reading this book of essays, it is full of words that desperately need to be heard in this world today.