In Between the World and Me1., Ta-Nehishi Coates describes growing up black in Baltimore. His life was shaped, not just by the physical neighborhood nor the people around him, but “the array of lethal puzzles and strange perils that seem to rise up from the asphalt itself. The streets transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beat-down, a shooting, or a pregnancy.”1. Each day required that he pay careful attention to who he chose to walk to school with, the manner of their walk, the number of times he smiled, who or what he smiled at. Any wrong action could result in violence, sometimes death.
I don’t understand. Growing up white in the southern Appalachians, being a child wasn’t easy for me, either. My father neither yelled nor pulled out the belt, but when he was drinking, which meant frequently, he could be scary mean. That meanness was directed mostly at my mother, who was physically quite capable of holding her own. I remember hearing him ridicule and humiliate her, yet hiding in my room, filled with abject shame that I was unwilling to march my 8-year-old self out there to defend my mother in martial combat. Clearly I was not Sir Galahad or John Wayne; I was not even a man.
It wasn’t physical abuse or even danger. It was the deep sense of being helpless, powerless to put a stop to it, and totally at the mercy of whichever of his capricious moods I’d encounter when he arrived home.
I did have places where I could escape. Our near-by church, for one. Small, uninspiring, with a string of pastors who offered the dullest sermons on record, yet it was peopled by adults who loved me, taught me faith, and made me feel safe. Later, I escaped to my high school, where I learned that a person could have both acne and friends, even an occasional girlfriend as long as I didn’t bring her home to meet my father.
Growing up Appalachian, a lot of us white children swallowed our dosage of what Coates describes. Growing up urban black, on the other hand, is not a dose that chokes; it’s an avalanche that buries. It’s a life of pervasive, ever-looming, systemic threat. The location of my danger was home, and I could leave it by leaving home. The location of a black child’s danger is the world; it’s impossible to escape the world.
I don’t get it. Comparing my experience is like measuring the difference being forced to do chores compared to forced slavery. Coates has helped me begin barely to perceive it, but I’m a long way from understanding what it is to grow up black.
Jesus didn’t teach us to understand our neighbor, but to love them. I will not wait for understanding to come before love. Perhaps a step forward in one will result in a step forward in the other.
1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegal & Grau, 2015, p. 21-22.