Ta-Nehisi Coates: Essential Summer Reading (and why freedom of the press was invented)

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Though the idea had been around for millennia, the 1662 book Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality by John Graunt generally gets credit for awakening European governments (and insurance companies) to the usefulness of aggregating data.

We don’t think much about it nowadays when we hear how many Americans will die of Type II Diabetes or shark attack, but the patterns revealed by what we now call big data have become so much the basis of modern life that we call national governments “states,” based on the term “statistics.”

Then there are those statistics that by design do not get collected nationally, such as the number of injuries on rollercoasters every year and the number of police shootings each year. People choose to get on rollercoasters; few people choose to be be killed by police.

It took social media to begin the work of aggregating the incidents that add up to the shocking pattern of violence against people of color in the United States. The summer of 2015 won’t go down as another Freedom Summer, but perhaps it is a Wakeup Summer for many Americans who have chosen to look the other way.

That’s what makes Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me essential summer reading and essential reading for this decade and the next: it tells the truth behind what Coates calls “the Dream.”

Using the frame of a memoir addressed to his son, Coates lays out in stark detail what it means to be black and American—“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

This sort of truth-telling is why freedom of the press exists. Responsible citizens have an obligation to read this book and face its truths: “As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom.”

“White” Americans used African Americans first as the most valuable capital in a new nation, and, more recently, as the excuse to fund private prisons. As the British author Charles Dickens pointed out long ago, slavery is the original sin of the US and, if it is not faced, may be its undoing.

Why has the United States continuously flubbed chances to answer the “race question” positively? James Baldwin, a hero of Coates, best summarized the Euro-American inability to face the problem: “because they think they are white.”

Whiteness is debilitating. Coates leaves the ball in the court of Euro-Americans. Will those who “think they are white” face the truth and solve the problem? Dickens thought not. Coates isn’t sure. But even great writers can get it wrong . . .

That’s the hope Between the World and Me offers.

The question is not “why don’t they . . .”

It is . . . “Why don’t we?”

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