Challenging the Dreamers: Ta’Nehisi Coates on the deadly power of stories

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With the fiercely honest, gorgeous language storm that is Between the World and Me, Ta’Nehisi Coates offers no prescriptions, plans or programs. He simply holds up the chipped, tarnished mirror that we call “civilization” to show us what he calls “the dream.” I love this book. It has broken my heart in a way that few books have. It has cracked me open and turned me upside down. To say that it challenges my assumptions about the state of race relations in this country is as far off the mark as saying that Silent Spring is a book about songbirds.

It’s not a long book and yet it contains everything. Worlds, galaxies, histories, ancestors. Having lived for the past twenty-five years in Baltimore, I enjoyed listening to the recorded version, hearing his words in his Baltimore-tinged voice. Even though I’m well aware that his Baltimore was vastly different from mine, a tiny part of me feels connected. So many thoughts, reactions, fears, despairs, and hopes are swirling in my body in this moment—a sure sign that this is one of those books that changes everything. I will listen again and then read it too and insist that everyone I encounter read it. It’s that important.

Every time Coates came back to “the Dream,” I thought of “the Story.” In his words, I heard echoes of stories of human superiority; of hierarchies enforced through threat and violence; of the enslavement and exploitation of those who are labeled “weak” (women, animals, black people, the Irish, forests—the list has varied throughout history, depending on who is dominating and to what ends). These are the stories that our civilization is built upon, and that most human civilizations have been built upon.

My focus on the fallout from these stories has emerged from an environmentalist perspective, yet I have always felt the pull of something far broader. The abhorrence of all social injustice, of all forced hierarchies, of all plunder. And so, in the closing paragraphs, I was not surprised to hear Coates connect these dots:

“Plunder has matured into habit and addiction. The people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of our private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy, but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.

Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves and the damning of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the earth itself. The earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the method of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.”

Having slogged through my own upheavals and had the ground fall out from under my precious stories, maybe I was ready for Coates’ unsparing honesty. I don’t feel threatened by it so much as I feel great despair. Not the despair that makes me want to sit in a dark room for a few months, but the one that Rilke speaks of in “The Knight,” as the “undeserved and liberating blade/that will fetch me forth from my hiding place/where I’ve been so long compressed.”

The erudition, vulnerability, and sheer beauty of language in this book are intimidating. It feels presumptuous to write anything at all about it. Yet writing is the best way I know to plumb the depths of my own reactions to events. And reading this book has certainly been an event. In the first ten minutes, I found myself weeping, then crying uncontrollably. I happened at the time to be driving through a relatively intact neighborhood on the west side of Baltimore. It’s an area that seems always to be teetering on the edge of stability and decline—not through anything so romantic as “benign neglect,” but as the legacy of decades of official policy to marginalize whole swaths of citizens and deny them the rights and advantages that many of us have the luxury of taking for granted.

“I do not believe we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather. For your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves. To understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers this planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”

Before I close, I must make absolutely clear that I do not exempt myself from being one of Coates’ Dreamers. Even if I were fully awake (which I am not), I would still be caught in the trap of this dream. It’s all I have known. It’s my childhood, my education, my profession, my family, neighborhood, city, country. It’s my son’s future. Writing this terrifies me. I’ve long been clear that we will not fix or change much about the state of things until we take a long, honest look at the stories that we live by, the stories that created the world as we know it. This work necessarily includes acknowledging the damage done by those stories. Coates has done a great service to summon the courage and talent to give us his story. What we make of it is up to us.

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