Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Kennedy Center

Bela and Michelle Wilson after performance of Between the World and Me
Bela & Tony Award®–nominated actress Michelle Wilson

When I heard my friend Michelle Wilson was going to be performing in a production at the Kennedy Center, I immediately went online to buy a ticket. The 8 pm performance of the show, staged reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Mewas sold out. However, I was luckily able to get a ticket for the afternoon matinee, which then quickly sold out.

I knew the production would be powerful… and it was. I left the theater feeling that this is something all white people in America should be knowledgeable about – they should see the production, they should read the book. 

The performers read from Coates’ book  a letter to his son – his childhood, his experiences into adulthood, and his experiences as a black manThe actors added another dimension to the narrative of Coates life, similar in some ways to other African American men’s lives. Coates’ fear for his son, as he enters adulthood as an African American man, was performed with such incredible emotion, and it moved me – I felt angry. I felt angry about the difficulties, imprisonment, hatred, fear, and inequality African Americans face in this country, in our country, every day. I felt angry that we ALLOW them to be treated in such a way. 

When a performer read Coates’ passage about the time he was pulled over as he drove his car in Prince George’s County, Maryland, just before the unjustified and horrendous shooting of Prince Jones by PG County police, I felt his fear, his need to comply, without complaint, so he too would not be shot.  I thought to myself – I cannot imagine having to live like that. I’ve been pulled over before – and the only fear I had was the fear of receiving a ticket. I’m lucky and privileged. And while we say we understand the hardships African Americans have to endure, I don’t think we, as white people can ever truly understand what it’s like to be black in America. 

Another example that stood out to me was a time when Coates was out with his son.  As they were walking, leaving a crowded theater, a white woman suddenly pushed his son out of the way. Coates was upset and confronted the woman, as any parent would do. Soon a white man came to the woman’s defense, and more white people, making Coates seem like the aggressor. He was angry, but he was trapped because he could not express his anger completely. The police would come. He would be blamed, he thought through this and controlled himself. The white woman would not be blamed, she would be the victim.  Coates was upset at himself – he felt he overreacted to the situation, even though in my opinion, he controlled himself far better than some people would. But perhaps he was right. As a parent, I would have been angry if someone treated my child in the same way. The difference is that if I confronted someone for pushing my child, people would have probably come to my defense. 

I am not nor have I ever been a racist. I believe in equality for all, be it race, sexual orientation, religion…respect and understanding, and tolerance. However, just because I believe that does not mean I am not acting subconsciously “racist”. In my white world, I never really knew or understood what it’s like to be black. We are privileged as white people in America. It’s actually really complicated, always walking a fine line, between being yourself and being cautious. Why didn’t I speak up for African Americans? I have seen this subtle racism that exists, and in the past, I was tuned out to all of it. I wasn’t paying attention. effectively, I was perpetuating MY place in the hierarchy of American society. If we, as whites, learn to speak up when we see injustice, perhaps more will follow suit and we can help eradicate hatred. Am I idealistic? A dreamer? I hope for a country where people can feel that they are truly equal, treated with respect, dignity. 

Although I already understood this, the performance brought it all together for me. This is what we need. We need more works like this, out in the open, for all whites (and other races) to see, hear, feel. I think the message needs to be out there even more. We need to tell more about ourselves, and we need to listen actively so we can develop understanding and empathy.  Let’s talk, discuss, try to figure out a way to bridge this gap that has grown far too wide. 

This quote, powerful, deeply painful, and true, sums up a part of the African American experience. Coates, speaking to his son says: 

“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful – the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive moments…you have to make peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie.  You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Perhaps it’s time that we took some of this responsibility off of the shoulders of African Americans, find it within ourselves to become seekers of equality and justice by making our voices also heard in support of their cause. 

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