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Between the World and Me

The Beautiful Struggle

Between the World and Me


Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me

what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting

from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote stu-

dio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed

the miles between us, but no machinery could close the

gap between her world and the world for which I had

been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about

my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced

by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.

The host read these words for the audience, and when

she finished she turned to the subject of my body, al-

though she did not mention it specifically. But by now I

am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the

condition of my body without realizing the nature of their

request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt


that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of

those Americans who believe that they are white, was built

on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and

indistinct sadness well up in me.- The answer to this ques-

tion is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American hist01y

There is nothing extreme in this statement. Americans

deity democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness

that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of

their God. But democracy is a forgiving God and Amer-

ica’s heresies-torture, theft, enslavement-are so common

among individuals and nations that none can declare them-

selves immune. In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have

never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln de-

clared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure

“that government of the people, by the people, for the

people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely

being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United

States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage

in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly

meant “government of the people” but what our country

has, throughout its history, taken the political term “peo-

ple” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother

or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me.

Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government

of the people,” but the means by which “the people” ac- quired their names.

This leads us to another equally important ideal, one


that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make

no conscious claim. 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 be-

yond the handiwork of men.

But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the

process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of

genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.

Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the pre-

eminence ofhue and hair, the notion that these factors can

correctly organize a society and that they signifY deeper

attributes, which are indelible-this is the new idea at the

heart of these new people who have been brought up hope-

lessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But

unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced

from the machinery of criminal power. The new people

were something else before they were white-Catholic,

Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish-and if all our na-

tional hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be

something else again. Perhaps they will truly become

American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I can-


not call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of

washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the

belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tast-

ings and ice cream socials, but rath”er through the pillaging

oflife, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs;

the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the de-

struction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of chil-

dren; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to

deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.

The new people are not original in this. Perhaps there

has been, at some point in history, some great power whose

elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of

other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to dis-

cover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse

America, because America makes no claim to the banal.

America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and no-

blest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing be-

tween the white city of democracy and the terrorists,

despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One

cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead

mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of

American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I pro-

pose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral stan-

dard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an

apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face

value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to

look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ig-


nore the great evil done in all of our names. But you and I

have never truly had that luxury. I think you know.

I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you be-

cause this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to

death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that

Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John

Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department

store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and

murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they

were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in

the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s

grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if

you did not before, that the police departments of your

country have been endowed with the authority to destroy

your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result

of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it

originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the

destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes

without the proper authority and your body can be de-

stroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and

it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your

body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held

accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And de-

struction is merely the superlative form of a dominion

whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings,

and humiliations. All of this is common to black people.

And all of this is old for black people. No one is held re-



There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or

even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men en-

forcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting

its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our

phrasing-race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial

profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy-serves

to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dis-

lodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs,

cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from

this. You must always remember that the sociology, the

history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regres-

sions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

That Sunday, with that host, on that news show, I tried

to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But

at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared

picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging

a white police officer. Then she asked me about “hope.”

And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that

I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indis-

tinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I

came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a

calm December day. Families, believing themselves white,

were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were

bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much

as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there

watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then

why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my

body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the


most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It

is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day

cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is

treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like

peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for

so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold

my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never

been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the

bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, know-

ing that the Dream persists by warring with the known

world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families,

I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I

was sad for you.

That was the week you learned that the killers of Mi-

chael Brown would go free. The men who had left his

body in the street like some awesome declaration of their

inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my

expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you

were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 P.M.

that night, waiting for the announcement of an indict-

ment and when instead it was announced that there was , none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your

room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after,

and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I

thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell

you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it

would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents

tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your


world, that this is your body, and you must find some way

to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question

of how one should live within a black body, within a

country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and

the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately an-‘ swers itself.

This must seem strange to you. We live in a “goal-

oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes,

big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time

ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a

gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console

me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preor-

dained American glory. In accepting both the chaos ofhis-

tory and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly

consider how I wished to live-specifically, how do I live

free in this black body? It is a profound question because

America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the

black body is the clearest evidence that America is the

work of men. I have asked the question through my read-

ing and writings, through the music of my youth, through

arguments with your grandfather, with your mother, your

aunt Janai, your uncle Ben. I have searched for answers in

nationalist myth, in classrooms, out on the streets, and on

other continents. The question is unanswerable, which is

not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant inter-

rogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my coun-

try, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.


And I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever

you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this

I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I

knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, ada-

mantly; dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young

life, though I had not always recognized it as such.

It was always right in front of me: The fear was there in

the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large

rings and medallions, their big putty coats and full-length

fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their

world. They would stand on the corner of Gwynn Oak

and Liberty; or Cold Spring and Park Heights, or outside

Mondawmin Mall, with their hands dipped in Russell

sweats. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear,

and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts

of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered

’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black

body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on

in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big

T-shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a cata-

log ofbehaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief

that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired.

I saw it in their customs of war. I was no older than five ‘ sitting out on the front steps of my home on Woodbrook

Avenue, watching two shirtless boys circle each other close

and buck shoulders. From then on, I knew that there was

a ritual to a street fight, bylaws and codes that, in their very


need, attested to all the vulnerability of the black teenage


I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew, the music

that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and

bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty

up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them,

against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of

their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies. I

saw it in the girls, in their loud laughter, in their gilded

bamboo earrings that announced their names thrice over.

And I saw it in their brutal language and hard gaze, how

they would cut you with their eyes and destroy you with

their words for the sin of playing too much. “Keep my

name out your mouth,” they would say. I would watch

them after school, how they squared off like boxers, vas-

elined up, earrings off, Reeboks on, and leaped at each


I felt the fear in the visits to my Nana’s home in Phila-

delphia. You never knew her. I barely knew her, but what

I remember is her hard manner, her rough voice. And I

knew that my father’s father was dead and that my uncle

Oscar was dead and that my uncle David was dead and

that each of these instances was unnatural. And I saw it in

my own father, who loves you, who counsels you, who

slipped me money to care for you. My father was so very

afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which

he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who

beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is


exactly what was happening all around us. Everyone had

lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to

guns. It was said that these lost girls were sweet as honey

and would not hurt a fly. It was said that these lost boys had

just received a GED and had begun to turn their lives

around. And now they were gone, and their legacy was a great fear.

Have they told you this story? When your grandmother

was sixteen years old a young man knocked on her door.

The young man was your Nana Jo’s boyfriend. No one

else was home. Ma allowed this young man to sit and wait

until your Nana Jo returned. But your great-grandmother

got there first. She asked the young man to leave. Then

she beat your grandmother terrifically, one last time, so

that she might remember how easily she could lose her

body. Ma never forgot. I remember her clutching my small

hand tightly as we crossed the street. She would tell me

that ifi ever let go and were killed by an onrushing car, she

would beat me back to life. When I was six, Ma and Dad

took me to a local park. I slipped from their gaze and

found a playground. Your grandparents spent anxious

minutes looking for me. When they found me, Dad did

what every parent I knew would have done-he reached

for his belt. I remember watching him in a kind of daze,

awed at the distance between punishment and offense.

Later, I would hear it in Dad’s voice-“Either I can beat

him, or the police.” Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t.

All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke