I read Between the World and Me in the summer of 2017. The ladies at church have a monthly book club and I usually end up hosting one of the summer months. Generally, the host picks the book and so I chose Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates for our July book club that year. The membership of book club is kind of fluid, so you never know what to expect at book club in terms of attendance, and I especially didn’t know what (or who) to expect that night. But we had about 8 women who came and had an honest, and sometimes awkward, discussion about the book and—more broadly—about race.
One of the sections we talked about at length that night is on page 33. Here is an excerpt: “It does not matter that the intentions of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions…very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of Black people being left for the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility…Good intention is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the dream.”
There is a lot to unpack there! All of the women at the book club that night had, or would soon have, school aged children so we talked about our experiences with our own local schools with respect to how inequities appear and how they are or are not addressed. We also talked about the language of personal responsibility and how that gets embedded into a lot of assumptions/expectations in schools, faith communities, and policies. We also talked about “good intention” and how white people (including us) sometimes have good intention, but often we want our good intention to take the place of any actual work done in the area of racial reconciliation and the pursuit of equity.
The image of a “hall pass through history” is something that sticks with me. When we don’t understand history in all its complexities, it is easier to give pat answers or to assume the whitewashed version is the absolute truth.
I have never assigned this book outright in a class, though it appears on a list of suggested books that students can choose for a book critique assignment. I have used quotes from the book, including the one above, to initiate discussions or to give students something to center their minds on while they are in those few minutes of waiting for class to begin. The passage above is especially good for a beginning discussion of education policy for students in social work, education and related fields. Also it is a good discussion starter in other settings to think about how we generally teach and learn history.