“ You are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country.”
These were the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son in his novel Between the World and Me. In his epistolary memoir, Coates, an American author and journalist, attempts to explain to his son about his own fear and insecurities on this “terrible and beautiful world.” As a man who faced discrimination at a young age, Coates traces his own experience and intertwines it with examples today to touch on one of the most sensitive and grave issues of America today: the lives of African Americans.
I am a Korean Australian teenage girl who has fortunately experienced little racism. The most serious encounter being only when three Australian boys yelled at me “die Chinese girl! Die” as I was entering my mom’s car. Worse, I have seldom witnessed racism in the lives of Blacks. For me, my connection with them was through texts: the countless U.S. history textbooks that fill the chapters with the Civil War, the lengthy essays and speeches in AP Lang prompts that inundate students with topics on slavery and equality, the limitless passages in the SAT that continuously highlight the Black struggle. My relationship with racism was felt inauthentically. They never felt tangible.
When you enter Mr. Brondel’s class and see the screen with the word “slavery”; when you flip over to the essay prompt as Mr. v starts the timer; when you open the SAT package and the proctor says “start the reading section”; you groan and sigh to find that the topic is on African Americans again. Even I as someone who tries to appreciate texts, it is at times frustrating to read about a topic that I have so little relation to.
However, Coates’ use of rich language drew me in to take a peek at their lives. The use of ‘body’ as a fragile belonging of African Americans elucidates what it means to live in fear. For us, the body is just an identity that we own. But for Coates, it is a precarious, delicate part of their lives that could be broken, stolen, or even abused: a part of his son’s life that is prone to be vulnerable. Coates, by doing so, makes such struggle real; the multitude of textbooks, prompts, passages in my shelf slowly took form into life. For once, the words and feelings started to make sense.
Some of my fellow peers, on the other hand, may argue the contrary. I asked my friend the other day whether or not she could empathize with the struggle of African Americans. She told me that she did because she was once an Asian in a country of White. Sure, perhaps she felt excluded from the majority. Sure, she may feel as if she was marginalized. But as I was reading Between the World and Me, I realized how her thought, which many other teenagers around me may agree, is false. The African American’s fight for equality is so unique and ingrained in such complex heritage that it cannot be generalized to mere ‘racism’ or ‘discrimination.’ No matter how much I face marginalization or discrimination, I can never fully understand, empathize, or feel their pain and fear. Their experience and story are distinctive; it isn’t something we can completely understand.
But by no means am I saying that we should all now relinquish our fight for equality just because we cannot wholly feel their experience. I am not in any way pitying their lives or degrading ourselves. I am just arguing the need to realize that the struggle of African Americans can never be completely felt by those who say that they were merely excluded in a society. I do not know what the solution is to gaining equality for all race and peoples. But what I do know is that Coates has shown me that the struggles are more profound, more complex, more humane than just a chapter in a textbook or a passage on an exam. And for that, I want to thank Coates for showing me a glimpse of their lives and for making my connection to them more real.
– Sarah Se-Jung Oh (’19)
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