When Samori Coates learned the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown would go free, he immediately left the room. “I’ve got to go,” he said to his father, the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who later that night heard the teenager crying. How do you watch your black child come to the realization his life is worth less than another’s? How do you admit you cannot shield your child from this bitter truth, much less protect his body?
This is the miserable dilemma black parents face, and it is at the heart of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” an eloquent blend of history, reportage, and memoir written in the tradition of James Baldwin with echoes of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Coates is a correspondent for The Atlantic, probably best known for his 2014 cover story “The Case for Reparations,” in which he argued that blacks are owed compensation for slavery and centuries of institutionalized persecution. His book takes the form of a letter to his son, passing along hard-won wisdoms gleaned from growing up black. It is less a typical memoir of a particular time and place than an autobiography of the black body in America.
The book was scheduled to be released in September but was moved up in the wake of white supremacist Dylann Roof’s murderous spree at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Coates draws our attention to another string of violent events — the recent high-profile killings of African-Americans by police in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere — and bookends it with an interview with the grieving mother of a much-admired college friend killed by a police officer.
For Coates, all of it represents a logical conclusion to what he describes as the deadly dream of whiteness, requiring a brutalized blackness to sustain it. “There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment,” he tells his son. “The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy . . . But 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, extracts testicles. You must never look away from this.”
Coates grew up in the crack-ridden West Baltimore of the 1980s, where the journey to school could mean beat-down or arrest or even murder. “The streets could take your body,” Coates intones like a chant throughout the book. School was encouraged as a weapon of survival, though if you were not “twice as good” as a white student you went back to the streets “that could take your body.” Coates recalls Black History Month films in which nonviolent black bodies, bloodied and battered, responded with love. He much preferred the position of Malcolm X, who threatened anyone who threatened him. Coates is the son of Paul Coates, a former Black Panther and the subject of his previous memoir “The Beautiful Struggle.” In that book, he discusses the harsh beatings his father delivered out of a fear of losing him to the streets.
Coates obsessed over the vast distance between his own world and the one he saw on the small screen. “Fear ruled everything around me,” he writes, “and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the world out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and the green lawns, nightly beamed into our television sets. But how?”
At Howard University — which Coates calls “My Mecca” — he fell in love with all the beautiful black people, a whole wide world of blackness together in one place. It was there that he began his inquiry into the history of the black body in America — the gothic tale of abductions, murders, stolen labor, and confinements that spans from slavery till today. This intense course of study spawned his career.
Coates writes with tenderness, especially of his wife, child, and extended family, and with frankness. After all, this is a personal communication from father to son, the epistle of one black man to another. At the same time, he addresses a wide and mixed audience. Coates’s success, in this book and elsewhere, is due to his lucidity and innate dignity, his respect for himself and for others. He refuses to preach or talk down to white readers or to plead for acceptance: He never wonders why we just can’t all get along. He knows government policies make getting along near impossible.
What concerns him most is that he not be asked to lie. Most vociferously, he refuses to participate in the dream of the Civil War as a sad tale of brotherly strife. Instead he celebrates it as a glorious cataclysm that unchained black bodies. A passionate reader of Southern history, he cites passages from Mississippi’s declaration of secession as a retort to contemporary claims the war had little to do with slavery. “Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free,” Coates tells his son.
Coates believes African-American culture was formed like a diamond from the pressure of white racism, but that is not the whole story. Many scholars point to elements of African culture that survive in black America; for one, our voices; for another, our enduring spirit. Coates dismisses out of hand the idea of a spirit separate from the body. But it is his son’s youthful spirit that this book will embolden, and his own magnificent spirit that informs it.
Between the World and Me
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau, 176 pp., $24
Donna Bailey Nurse is the founder of BlackIris.co and a regular contributor to Maclean’s Magazine.