By Jan Worth-Nelson
A “Community Read” series focused on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestselling book Between the World and Me is underway in Flint, with the second of nine discussions scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10 at Flint Central Church of the Nazarene, 1261 W Bristol Rd.
Coates’ book, written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, confronts from its first page the sorrow and dangers faced by young black men in an America Coates says has been built on “looting and violence,” often at the cost of the bodies of black men.
Writing in the year of the deaths of Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice and others, Coates mournfully warns his son, “Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed…All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people.
“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it,” Coates writes.
For Todd Womack, one of the coordinators of the Community Read program, a social work lecturer at UM – Flint, and the father of three sons, aged 8, 12 and 15, the topic is not just professional but deeply personal and urgent.
In the time of profiling, fatal misunderstandings, distrust between police and minority communities, and one tragic shooting after another, African-American parents feel compelled to teach their sons “black boy rules,” Womack noted. They are trying to help their sons navigate a system they were born into but which often seems bound to imperil them.
But there is anguish and ambivalence in that for Womack and others.
“I want my son to come home safe, but why does he even have to play by ‘black boy rules?'” Womack said, adding that an equally compelling and urgent response is to try to change the system.
Womack said the discussion series is aimed at “trying to get people engaged” – not just with Coates’s explosive contentions, but with the injustices and challenges of the system that the book addresses. Womack contends the topic is deeply relevant to Flint and needs to be opened up further.
Part of the discussion, he said, is “how to close the distance between black children and white children,” suggesting that many black children experience the world as far more threatening and unwelcoming than white children.
Further, the series aims to “strengthen the Flint community by promoting inclusion and understanding about differing points of view – to promote literacy and foster community through shared experience,” Womack said.
“In order to get to know somebody, you have to share life with them,” he said, noting that at the first book discussion held at the Flint Public Library, about a third of the 27 attendees were white.
The discussion sessions are organized around 20-page sections of the book, with facilitators scheduled for each conversation. Facilitators include UM-Flint professors Dr. Traci Currie and Dr. Erica Britt, along with community members and local law enforcement officers attempting to grapple locally with the issues Coates dissects. Womack says the aim is to encourage “organic and inclusive” conversation.
The Community Read project is an offshoot of the University of Michigan – Flint’s Common Read program, supported by the UM-Flint Provost and Chancellor and spearheaded by the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching, the Social Work Department and the Department of Communication Studies.
Here is the upcoming schedule of Community Read discussions:
5-7 p.m. Nov. 10, Flint Central Church of the Nazarene, pp. 21-40.
11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 10, Neff Center, Beecher Middle School, pp. 41-60.
5-7 p.m. Jan. 12, 2017, Flint Public Library, Room 205, pp. 61-80.
11 a.m. – 1 p.m. Jan. 13, 2017, UM – Flint, presentation by Akil Houston,
filmmaker, DJ, social critic, and nationally-known hip-hop scholar from Ohio University.
11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 11, 2017, Flint Central Church of the Nazarene, pp. 81-100.
5-7 p.m. March 9, 2017, Neff Center, Beecher Middle School, pp. 101-120.
11 a.m. – 1 p.m. April 8, 2017, Flint Local 432, pp. 121-140.
4-8 p.m. May 11, 2017, Memorial Park, Celebration and pp. 141-152.
Womack said free copies of the book will be available at Community Reads “until we run out.” It can also be purchased on Amazon, at the UM – Flint Bookstore in the University Pavilion, at Totem Bookstore, and at Barnes and Noble.
More information on the Community Read project is available at umflint.edu/tclt or by calling 810-237-6508.
During most of the University’s Common Read observances, the author comes to Flint. This year, however, Coates was unavailable, according to UM-Flint organizers. He is scheduled to speak at Michigan State during the winter semester, however, and Common Read planners said some tickets may be available for UM – Flint students.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.