“The question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenage son. In Between the World and Me, Coates confronts the anti-Black racism of US history and the present day, raising critically important questions and refusing to pretend the answers are easy. Get this acclaimed book by making a donation to Truthout today!
In Between the World and Me, Atlantic magazine national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates articulates the shared experiences of Black folk over the centuries. His story is singular, of course, as he employs the first person and bears witness to his own life, but it is edified by the communal I, the self that remembers and tells not only what one person endures, but what an entire people endure.
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In many ways, the story is unremarkable: close encounters with violence both in the home and in the streets, parents and other elders who insist on passing certain wisdom and necessary truths to youngsters, and then the sudden increase in joy upon attending Howard University, the loveliest of historically black colleges and universities. Even the certainty that the best historically black college or university is one’s own particular alma mater (and for Coates that would be DC’s Howard University) is a kind of friendly boast that, among folk, is as customary as a multi-generational electric slide at a Black wedding reception.
And, yet, Coates’ epistolary narrative is remarkable. There are many, many things that distinguish his work. Things that make this book, as Toni Morrison has called it, “required reading.”
Coates examines the interior, entering the Black body, his own Black body and the Black bodies gathered all around. Rather than direct the reader’s gaze outward, onto the capricious landscape that Black bodies traverse every day, Coates insists the reader peer instead into the Black body moving through each changing, unpredictable scene. Black bodies all around huddle, pose, cower, dance, collapse, align. Black people inhabit these Black bodies. Always. Black people are there, inside.
The experience of being Black in the United States is so contradictory, it can only be described as surreal. We are on the one hand centered: spotlighted (literally on stage), debated (in the public discourse), profiled, stopped and frisked (everywhere). Seen, we are at the same time unseen. We are marginalized: shadowed (as in existing in the shadows and shadowed by predatory officials), ignored (in those debates), profiled, stopped and frisked (everywhere again). We are Black masses of flesh that call attention even as we remain invisible. We are like ghosts, felt but not flesh, not really human, and so vulnerable to the abusive power of the Dominant Other.
Coates understands this Ellisonian abnegation of Blackness, this erasure, and writes in the tradition of W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin as well as Ralph Ellison.
Du Bois, pan-Africanist and cofounder of the NAACP, was an architect of the Harlem Renaissance. Baldwin was a mid-20th century civil rights activist who spoke truth to power. For some time in the 1930s, Ellison was associated with the Communist Party of the United States of America. The social justice movement that offers Coates symbiotic political momentum and amplifies his literary art is, of course, Black Lives Matter.
In this letter to his son, Coates offers his own body as evidence of the surreal pain experienced by Black folk, but he also remembers and tells the story of his friend and fellow Howard University alumnus, Prince Jones, who was stalked and murdered by a Prince George’s County Police officer just steps from the suburban Maryland home in which Prince’s fiancée and baby daughter awaited his arrival. That Jones was a talented young man who had been smart enough to attend a magnet high school for science and math and earn college credit well before entering college meant nothing as he drove to his family. Coates insists his own son know this: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the Black body – it is heritage,” he writes.
We are desecrated. We are probed.
Because what Coates calls “the dreamers” see us – in music videos and in the next cubicle, against shadowy corners and against each other on a crowded elevator, on the 6 pm news and online – they think they know us. But, of course, they don’t.
Coates insists the dreamers begin to know.
Those dreamers also think that they, Americans, know the United States. But what they know about the United States, Coates explains, is limited to “the dream myth, in Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways.” What these dreamers don’t really know, as Coates says directly to his son, is that “the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”
To see Black people in chokeholds, flesh rotting on Midwestern streets, a Black child gunned down in a matter of seconds while playing in a local park, another while sleeping next to her grandma, to hear a Black father saying “I can’t breathe” as he dies at the hands of police … To see all that, on TV … And then to question the survivors who very simply ask the state to please stop killing us. To wonder, “What could the killed one have done to avoid the bullet?” is to confirm that no knowledge, no knowing, exists in the dreamer interrogating the victims. This one who questions, and there are countless millions who do so, tacitly supports state terror against Black and Brown people. This not knowing America, these are the people whom reviewers of Coates’ book have urged, insisted, read Between the World and Me.
One thing that the dreamer should learn after reading Coates’ book is that “all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”
To begin to understand what it is, this Black body in the United States, Coates’ book is indeed essential reading. Beautifully written, with an intention to communicate hard truths to his only son, Coates does not write to secure the comfort of non-Black readers. His explicit statements on the experience of Blackness in the United States resonate with authenticity and authority. A literary heir of Baldwin, as Morrison has dubbed him, Coates has contributed a defining voice of our time to American letters.