BY STEVE NUZUM
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There is some passing acknowledgement of the bad old days, which by the way,
were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. The mettle that it
takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces
transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged
overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the
work of one’s hands.
-Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
My most vivid memory of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me for the first time is of sitting in my car in downtown Columbia, reading a passage…and sobbing.
As protestors gathered only blocks away at the South Carolina State House, holding signs and chanting about yet another killing of a young, unarmed Black American, Coates’ book suddenly became more than an abstract series of “issues” to reflect upon. It was raw and human. It made me think forcefully of young Black men I had worked with in English classes over the years, about their past experiences, about their possible futures.
That is the obvious power of literature: without warning, it transports you into another person’s existence. The best literature does this in a way that is painful, jarring, uncomfortable. It strikes your psyche with its weight and moves you, perhaps against your will, out of your own being and briefly into a glimpse of someone else’s.
Throughout Coates’ book, he intentionally and repeatedly uses the word body — writing about a physical reality for many Americans of color, one that many of my students lived with and thought about all the time. It seeped into their lives like a constant background noise, coloring everything they saw and everything they learned. While many of us have the luxury of debating “racism” as if it were a political issue, for many the threat to the body is real, ever-present, a tangible threat that doesn’t care whether our politics accept it or reject it.
Between the World and Me was removed from an AP Language and Composition course in Lexington-Richland School District 5 in February. A few students in the class claimed (in language that sounded suspiciously like the language adult politicians have been using for the past several years) that the lessons around the book made them feel “guilty for being white.”
The ban received enough national attention that Coates himself attended a July meeting of the Lexington-Richland 5 board of trustees.
The book didn’t make me feel guilty for “being white,” but it did involve me emotionally in the experiences of Black Americans; my friends, my students, my neighbors. And when I read it with students in my own AP Language course — most of whom are Black — it inspired deep conversations and connections.
The text uses allusions to poetry, lyrics, and American history to weave a fabric that connects America’s past, present, and future with Coates’ own past experiences. Seemingly modeled on James Baldwin’s powerful essay “A Letter to My Nephew,” Coates frames Between the World and Me as a long letter to his son, an attempt to explain what it means to grow up Black in America, to warn him about the dangers of being Black in a society suffused with racism, and shares with him the specific beauty of being a young Black man.
Students often struggle with the idea that literature is not created to teach them lessons, but Between the World and Me does serve the purpose of introducing students to concepts appropriate to a class on rhetoric and composition very effectively, while also using Coates’ relatable pain and joy to illustrate the personal motivations of authors.
This is perhaps why the teacher in Lexington 5 — whose student pass rate on the AP Language exam this year was significantly higher than both the global and state pass rates — chose to teach the book, and why the school initially approved of her doing so, before politics got involved. Ironically, the students who were most “uncomfortable” might have benefited most, on an academic level, from engaging with the text.
Like most teachers, in my classroom I had a standing policy that students or parents could come to me with any concerns about a text — but I never had a student or parent ask for an alternative to Coates’ book, even though not everyone agreed with his assessment of race in America.
Because engaging with a text does not necessarily mean agreeing.
The study of rhetoric, the art of argumentation, requires the analysis of perspectives other than your own. This is also what is so inconsistent and dangerous about the book banners’ perspective on “appropriateness” in schools.
Members of the South Carolina “Freedom Caucus” have attended meetings to encourage the censorship in Lexington 5. The Caucus also brought a flimsy lawsuit against a neighboring school district (which the district settled without admitting wrongdoing) and generally champions the idea that authors like Coates and Ibram Kendi should be banned from classroom use.
Why? Because these works discuss anti-racism, which book-banners mistakenly call “critical race theory” and define as racism against white people.
The South Carolina budget proviso that was used to ban texts like Between the World and Me defines anti-racism as encompassing the ideas that:
(1) one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex; (2) an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously; (3) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his race or sex; (4) an individual's moral standing or worth is necessarily determined by his race or sex; (5) an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex; (6) an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his race or sex…
However, the authors in question don’t define anti-racism this way. Here’s what Coates writes in Between the World and Me:
Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism — the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them — inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.
But race is the child of racism, not the father.
Of course, no one — including students — should be forced to agree with the idea that race is a social construct (as Coates clearly argues here), or that a belief in “race” is an essential feature of the American psyche.
The definition of racism in the proviso is the opposite of the implicit definition in Coates’ text. If you believe that race is a social construct, then you cannot think that someone is “inherently racist by virtue of his race or sex.” Those concepts are mutually exclusive.
Book banners might be able argue that the subtext is somehow racist, that Coates, Kendi, and many actual Critical Race theorists don’t really believe race is a social construct, but I have never seen them do that. Instead, they cherry-pick a line here or there and trot out the claim that it’s making kids uncomfortable.
But true learning and developing empathy require discomfort. The reason to read a book like Between the World and Me is to encounter the kind of discomfort that breeds learning, to grapple with an argument with which you may not agree.
The reason to teach such a book is not to require students to agree with the author but to allow them the opportunity to consider, analyze, and understand that author’s argument — with the facilitation of an expert teacher and the diverse viewpoints of their peers.
The most compelling fact about the Lexington-Richland 5 case is that the teacher received approval to teach the book in advance. Rather than offering an alternative to the individual students who complained, administrators chose to appease a minority of students and parents at the expense of everyone else. When we advocate for “intellectual freedom,” I believe this is what we mean: the freedom for communities to make decisions about content based on the expertise of teachers and librarians, the needs of students, and through a democratic process, not motivated by partisan political conflict.
From The SCEA:
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