The Most Important Book I Read This Summer

I love reading non-fiction as a way to challenge myself to understand topics that stretch my understanding of the world around me. I love history and biographies and even novels that are “faction.”

This Summer I read “The Third Chimpanze” by Jared Diamond and since he’s my favorite history writer I of course loved it. If you haven’t read Diamond, though, I’d recommend starting with “Guns, Germs & Steel” & then “Collapse” but all three are worth reading.

I also listened to the book on tape, “Shoe Dog,” the memoir by Phil Knight about the founding and evolution of Nike. This is truly an inspirational read or listen for any entrepreneur and I can’t recommend it enough. It exemplifies how difficult it is to build a company — even one that extraordinarily successful — and the perils of the trade-offs between growth and cash.

But the single most important book I’ve read this year is “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is a “hit you over the head with a frying pan” type book that forces you to think about the problems that exist in American society and our shared responsibility for owning solutions. But it is also a book written with amazingly descriptive prose, cutting insights about society and compassion for the family unit.

The book is philosophy with far-reaching conclusions about the responsibility America has for ameliorating the injustices of slavery and the ensuing policies that have led to endemic urban poverty. 60% of African American men who don’t graduate high school will be incarcerated and 75% of African American men grow up in a household without their father. 
This is truly a stain on American society.

This injustice is a result of history and policies and we all should be embarrassed that it is so.

If you didn’t grow up in a lower-income black neighborhood in America then you owe it to yourself to read and better understand the journey of somebody who didn’t walk in your shoes. Of course many of us want to show empathy for people whose life journey’s were more difficult than our own but unless you seek to truly understand that journey you can’t really grasp the alternate course their lives have taken and how that shapes their world views today.

Coates grew up in a rough neighborhood of Baltimore (the same streets portrayed by my favorite show of all time, “The Wire.”) He describes his existence as having to have 1/3rd of his attention dedicated always to personal safety. On the one side are the rough children growing up in his neighborhood who brandish guns (and he outlines a scene where one is pulled on him). On the other side he is constantly feeling a threat from the police, knowing that his chances of a negative run-in is much higher than growing up in a white neighborhood.

Luckily for Coates he has strong, activist parents who emphasize the importance of education (which he doesn’t get in school) and as a result he gets into Howard University (Mecca) where he comes to grips with the fact that there are African Americans who come from all types of geographies and socio-economic statuses. This expands his world view beyond the hood and hood mentality.

Yet he can never shake the role society has forced upon black men in America. He talks about how every black man must be encouraged by family to be “twice as good as white men” in order not to risk being arrested or getting into trouble. But twice as good means “being half a man” in the eyes of society.

It’s hard to argue and he piles on. He uses the analogy of the American “Dream,” which is a white dream of suburban neighborhoods and white picket fences and a world apart from dealing with urban blight.

A Howard colleague of his grows up with a mom who his chief radiologist of a prominent hospital. She grew up poor in Louisiana and wanted to build a better life for her family so she studied hard her entire life and achieved much and her aim was for her son to go to Harvard or Yale or similar. He wanted to go to Howard to connect with his black roots.

Her son, Prince Jones, is in a Jeep that she bought him and is trailed by an undercover policeman and is tracked across three jurisdictions and then confronted by a gun and a policeman without markings. He is shot and killed. The policeman said he matched the specifications of a criminal he was pursuing. That suspect was 5'4" and 200 pounds and the son who is killed is 6'4" and slender.

The policeman is found innocent and in this act any possibility of innocent for Coates is forever squandered.

The framework for the book is a letter to Coates’ son who is a teen ager. He talks about the world he will face being a young black man in America and how although his son’s journey is much better than his own he is now experiencing the injustices of Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe”) and Michael Brown (Ferguson).

Coates tells a story in which any compassionate and empathetic father can identify with. They live in largely black Harlem in NYC but he & his then 5-year-old-son travel for a show in the Upper West Side in a largely white neighborhood. His son is dawdling — as 5-year-old’s are apt to do — an an impatient white woman pushes him to hurry him along. Ta-Nehisi tells her not to touch his son (as I would have done) and another stranger — this time a man — gets in his face to tell him to back off from yelling at this woman. In the confrontation this white man says, “I could have call the cops and have you arrested.”

And there is was. The start reality. Coates was angry at himself for losing his temper yet much more inflamed with a society in which he knows that if the police were present he would be presumed guilty. A society where he could actually be shot and killed or handcuffed and humiliated with little recourse.

It’s tiring for me to hear every story about an unarmed black person in America being shot but I can’t begin to imagine what it must like to be black or to raise a young black man in our country. Before you discount this fact I would encourage you to watch this recent short video from Florida where an unarmed black man is holding his hands up the entire time while laying on the ground and is STILL shot by the police (he was working in a home and caring for the other man who has a toy firetruck in his hands and has autism). It’s not graphic and is doesn’t show the shots being fired — just the circumstances.

“Between the World and Me” is an angry book but justifiably so. And as a white man in America I felt angry reading it, too. I accept the criticism’s Coates places at the footsteps of white America and I feel helpless to make any impact in making it better. Still — I feel enriched for having read this book and I would encourage you to as well. It’s small and a quick read.

Next up on my docket: Hillbilly Elgy by J.D. Vance who grew up in poor White America before attending Yale. I read an except from the book and was also moved. I read quotes about how socially liberal white Americans (like myself) go out of their way to be racially and ethnically sensitive yet are quick to look down on poor White communities. It’s the only form of intolerance that seems acceptable in white, liberal, social circles. It’s hard for me to deny this — I hear comments all the time and of course many of us don’t really know what it’s like growing up in poor manufacturing and mining towns.

I want to read it to better understand this group of people supporting Donald Trump. I find it utterly unacceptable for anybody to support a demagogue and race-baiter. But it’s equally unacceptable for me to try and not understand the root causes of why people would turn such a blind eye to such an unacceptable, narcissistic, leader who clearly doesn’t understand or support their issues.