I just read the New York Times review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, “Between the World and Me” and am struck by the response. The words in the review seem to be formed at some distance from the work itself. I’m surprised because this isn’t the kind of book that requires you to step back so you can see more critically. It’s a work that demands you step in close so you can see, as Naomi Shihab Nye has pointed out, the “words under the words.” This would help in keeping one from writing about confusion in Coates’ use of the term “American Dream” or his “hazardous tendency to generalize” or describe his tone as “Manichaean.” However, I can imagine the anxiety of facing the authenticity of Coates’ experience and feeling the need to turn to some old ways of responding.
I wonder what it would be like to take in Coates’ words in a different way. Suppose as a first step, you could simply witness what is being said, without bringing in assumptions and judgments. I suspect you might say, “How can a reviewer review if without judgment?” Our minds are judging almost every moment of every day – the point is to be aware of the causes and conditions that allow them to arise. So, set them aside and see the words; create space for listening with your whole body to the full experience before you. Being open and accepting of what is presented in front of you leads past the line of defense that might arise. Openness allows the value of the other’s words to land in you so that you can appreciate the other and tolerate a connection that may have a raw aliveness to it.
We who are not black, who didn’t grow up with that history rooted in our being, have never simply been able to witness the experience of those who have. There is always the temptation to distance oneself, to shut down, to defend against, to smile like it’s really okay now or to attempt to identify with the person in front of you. I suggest that none of these reactions are going to move us forward to a more just place.
What’s needed is to begin with offering yourself as an open and accepting witness. Really listening to the person who has the courage and strength to speak or write his own truth opens the door to see that your own truth is reflected in the words under the words. Appreciate that once spoken or written, listened to or read, these are the words that can carry all of us forward to the more just and equitable world that is possible.
Thank you Ta-Nehisi Coates for your strong and beautiful voice!