About 60 listeners absorbed lines from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” Coates himself was not present, yet his words rang out through church pews, resonating with those familiar with struggle.
Led by Rev. Dr. George C.L. Cummings, a senior pastor at Imani Community Church, the audience’s sentiment for Coates’ words was evident in the sacred space as light peeked in through stained glass windows. The book discussion drew people from all over the Bay Area on Feb 6. Voted one of the top 10 books of 2015 by The New York Times, the book focuses on a message from a black American male to his only child.
“You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact,” Coates writes in the book to his teenage son.
The book explains how capitalism’s success in the United States is due to slavery and embodies an experience many Americans aren’t aware of everyday — living under racism. Coates contextualizes the reality of living in a nation where 1,134 black men died at the hands of police in 2015 alone. Coates delves into the beauty in struggle and the illusionary “dream” of an individualistic, capitalist white America, presenting the experience of a black male in the United States.
In the church, Rev. Cummings stood at the podium in front of a multicultural palette of ages and styles. He spoke with a calm and wise demeanor while addressing the social construction of race, his hopes for the future and the United States’ reliance on free labor, as underrepresented groups, generation after generation, continue to struggle for status as mentioned in Coates’ book.
“What places him as a black man on the opposite side of that world?” Cummings asks, in reference to the white America that dreams of picnics and Fourth of July barbecues, a motif in the book.
“He identifies right in the beginning, the little boy playing in the woods who encounters the results of a lynching,” Cummings said. “That establishes a child coming into the world. Race is a social construct. The acknowledgment of that means that maybe there is hope if we appreciate and understand what is happening.”
After the initial sermon-style presentation, the attendees broke into groups to discuss their thoughts. Minister Rob Newells, who works in the Life Care Ministry at Imani was one of the discussion leaders.
“The diversity in the group really helped the discussion, it was helpful to hear other perspectives,” Newells said.
Struggle as it relates to “the dream” was a focal point Newells acknowledged throughout the discussion. For one attendee, that meant parents dreaming of putting their first-generation child through college. For another attendee, it was his parent’s dream of living in the next model minority community in Little Rock, Arkansas in the ‘50s.
The notion of the next generation’s success segued into the ways communities of color are forced into consumption to become the right kind of American.
Attendee Diana Bell’s openness in a discussion about dreams prompted others to speak, and soon the discussion filled with perspectives on what “the dream” means, and ultimately how to return to a community that doesn’t buy into it. Bell spoke about a mall in her hometown that was damaged during the Baltimore protests.
“Black kids could work there, shop [there] and it was a big source of community pride,” she said. “This was a thriving black community that people aspired to live in.”
Her demeanor switched from wide-eyed to analytical, as she explained the way she felt watching this source of pride turn into a symbol of dysfunction for so many young black Americans during the protests in Baltimore.
“It was so symbolic to me, this place that had been a center of home and pride had been reduced to kind of the scene of the crime,” she said.
Though harsh realities and perhaps pessimistic perspectives came forward in the two-hour event, people smiled on their way out. Mothers shared what it was like to raise black sons and daughters and students offered perspectives on immigration rights. People shook hands, introduced themselves and thanked each other for sharing.
Cummings closed the discussion with the ways struggle resonates with all who have faith in something bigger than themselves.
“We’re all caught up in the dream,” Cummings said. “We have to call ourselves out for being cowards and then challenge each other and hold each other accountable.”