I assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates’s award-winning book Between the World and Me to my Introduction to Sociology students during both the fall and spring semesters of this last academic year. In both classes it was the last assigned reading. The book gave me an opportunity to do a number of things:
- Build on the conceptual work we had already done by training students how to identify sociological concepts when they are presented in different language than what they are learning in the classroom
- Show how ideas we are learning about in the classroom circulate in the real world
- Provide space to reflect on racial inequality as experienced by Coates’s life story and his efforts to pass on his knowledge to his son, for whom the book is written.
- Learn a bit more about Howard’s history and help students get excited about using their time there to learn and grow (Coates attended Howard University and writes glowingly about his time there in this book)
The first time I taught the course, I had students practice identifying concepts we had learned about in the as they appeared in the book. I used a variation of this worksheet to do so. After they worked on this task in small groups, I had students read the passages aloud and describe which sociological concepts they thought each illustrated. (This led to one of my favorite moments in that class when the students broke into spontaneous applause at the conclusion of a particularly impassioned reading).
Here are the concepts they worked with:
- essentialism and anti-essentialism
- structural racism
- structure and agency
- race as neither “essence nor illusion” (from Omi and Winant)
- race vs. class
Here is one of the excerpts they analyzed (from p. 103):
It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.
The students discussed how this excerpt illustrates the concept of structural racism because of the way that the disproportionate death of black Americans at the hands of the police is not dependent on individual racist intent of any single police officer.
In the second version of the class, which was much larger, I read the excerpts aloud myself and we discussed them as a large group without the benefit of small group work first. I also showed this video of Coates speaking about his book. I thought the video would help bring the text alive and underscore that authors are real people, just like them.
Next time I teach a small version of the class, I’ll return to having the students fill out the worksheet I provide in small group, followed by large group discussions. This approach gave them the best chance to really work through the ideas and learn from how others did the same. Then I’ll consider skipping the video and instead have students read and discuss reviews of the book from a wide variety of political perspectives. I would assign at least one from the left that criticizes the book for not going far enough, perhaps written from a feminist perspective, and one from the right that sees the book as racially inflammatory in a world that is now “post-race.” This would broaden the students’ thinking about the book itself, and could also be used as an opportunity to learn about intellectual and political discourse.