“It’s definitely about race,” Rita Johnson ’18 says to me during our conversation this past weekend. “That’s about all I’ve got.”
As a prominent member of ACSU and BSU, Johnson said she has felt the intense pressure by her peers to read this tiny, yet somehow daunting book. Over the past two weeks, several people have begun unnecessary and most definitely forced conversations with Rita about the arrival of the celebrated writer, journalist, and educator, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a man she had not heard of until last May, when President Biddy Martin announced the event. In anticipation, Amherst College has done its part to provide students with a free copy of Coates’ 150 page book, Between the World and Me.
“I was like, great, now I have to pretend I’ve read it,” Rita says. “I mean at least before I could say I wasn’t buying a glorified pamphlet for $17.95 at Amherst Books.”
Coates’ visit has caused Rita intense psychological strain. As more and more black classmates ask if she’s “excited” for Coates’ visit, Rita often breaks into a terse smile and then recites something from the book’s Wikipedia page. “I try to look deep into their eyes, and wonder if we’re all in on the same big joke.”
This weekend, Johnson is spiraling. “I don’t know who to trust,” she says, clutching her hair in her hands. “I mean, everyone’s totally lying about reading Ralph Ellison,too, right? Do people actually like Langston Hughes poems? I mean I tried reading Americanah but it was like, really, really long.”
Studies show that Johnson is certainly not alone. 73 percent of black students on campus have admitted in polls to not having opened the book until today. Of that 73 percent, 30 percent admitted to having lied about knowing who Coates was.
“Have you read it?” Johnson asks me, grabbing my arm and speaking in a low whisper. “Please tell me you’ve read it.”
“A true masterpiece!” I say.
Two copies, untouched, lay in pristine condition between us.
At the time of print, Johnson has said she’s “Making progress,” and that she thought the excerpt of the poem on the first page was “really something.” The writer of this article has given up entirely, but vows to nod vigorously throughout Coates’ talk tonight.