Sparking Curiosity for Truth in the Classroom: An Appreciation of ''Between the World and Me''
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic correspondent and author of Between the World and Me. (Photo: Nina Subin)
The question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenage son. In Between the World and Me, Coates confronts the anti-Black racism of US history and the present day, raising critically important questions and refusing to pretend the answers are easy. Get this acclaimed book by making a donation to Truthout today!
Last year my students - Chicago teachers and teachers-to-be, educators from a range of backgrounds and experiences and orientations - all read The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I'd put this memoir on the list of required readings because I thought it was a fitting and important educational book, a useful text for city teachers to explore and interrogate. Some students agreed; several did not. "What's this got to do with teaching?"
I chose it because it moved me, frankly, and I thought it might move some of them as well. I chose it because in the details of this one life - the challenges and the obstacles, but especially the elements he assembled to build an architecture of survival - I saw human themes of love and beauty and the universal struggle to grow more fully into the light. I chose it because it took readers inside the life of one Black kid, this singular unruly spark of meaning-making energy negotiating and then mapping the territory between his home and the streets and the schools: necessary reading for city teachers, I thought.
There was a lot to dig into, much to wrangle about, and a lot to send us off to other readings and further research. Soon students were diving into Crystal Laura's Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School to Prison Pipeline, Jesmyn Ward's The Men We Reap, Claudia Rankine's Citizen, and Rachel DeWoskin's Big Girl Small. The book was doing work, as I'd hoped it would.
My students have all chosen to become teachers against a backdrop of corporate-driven school reform accompanied by unprecedented disrespect and hostility toward teachers and teaching. They know that teaching is devalued; they know they won't earn either a lot of money or a fair share of respect; they've been told by family and friends that they could do much, much better. And still they come to teaching, most saying they want to make a difference in children's lives. Some are motivated by memories of a wonderful teacher who'd reached and changed them, others by bitter experiences they hope to correct. They are mostly idealistic, and I admire them for that.
They bring to class a vague hope that they will do great things in spite of a system that they know to be corrupt and dysfunctional. But this knowledge is not yet deep enough, for they also accept - some with greater skepticism and some with hardly any doubts at all - the predatory system's self-serving propaganda: test scores, achievement gaps, accountability, personal responsibility.
Into this contradiction steps Ta-Nehisi Coates with an assertion that shaped and marked the course: No matter what the professional talkers tell you, Coates wrote, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail. That simple observation - or was it an Sparking Curiosity for Truth in the Classroom: An Appreciation of ''Between the World and Me'':