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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

January 2, 2016

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Where I grew up, I never had to worry about my own safety when I walked down the street. I never worried about guns or drugs. I never worried about the police—I had always been taught that they were there to protect, not to be feared. Although we’re the same age, I grew up a world away from Ta-Nehisi Coates.

There are many things I can’t personally relate to in this book. But as a father, I can relate to wanting nothing more than being able to provide protection for my children. To be able to provide answers to their questions. To be able to, at the very least, offer words of comfort. So while I don’t know what it’s like to grow up on the west side of Baltimore during the crack epidemic, I can deeply empathize with the needs of a father.

This book is a missive from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his fifteen-year-old son, Samori, at the announcement of the verdict in the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As his son grapples to understand, Coates tries to explain a world that makes little sense. He provides few answers, instead tracing his own development as a writer and thinker, someone who questions the world around him. Someone who, as the title suggests, has yet to close the rift between him and it. The search for answers has “taught me how to exploit that singular gift of study, to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more, than the answers.”

On the surface, this book asks the question: What does it mean to be an African-American man in today’s world? How should one think about the rift represented by that hyphen? But it’s as much about what it means to be an American. Coates steps into a long lineage of interrogators—Frederick Douglas, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X. On the jacket, Toni Morrison is quoted: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual voice that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

It is a timely book, as in 2015 the question was flirted with (but rarely thoughtfully addressed) almost daily on the news shows. This book addresses it in the context of the now and in the arc of history. It is intensely personal, but about society broadly. It is intellectual, it is sentimental, it is pragmatic and poetic. It is a testament to Coates’s skill as a writer and thinker to successfully operate on all levels.
It feels like a cheat, but Michael Chabon nailed it in his review:

I know that this book is addressed to the author’s son, and by obvious analogy to all boys and young men of color as they pass, inexorably, into harm’s way. I hope that I will be forgiven, then, for feeling that Ta-Nehisi Coates was speaking to me, too, one father to another, teaching me that real courage is the courage to be vulnerable, to admit having fallen short of the mark, to stay open-hearted and curious in the face of hate and lies, to remain skeptical when there is so much comfort in easy belief, to acknowledge the limits of our power to protect our children from harm and, hardest of all, to see how the burden of our need to protect becomes a burden on them, one that we must, sooner or later, have the wisdom and the awful courage to surrender.

Coates opens the book recounting when a television news host asked why he believes the “…progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence.”

He says: “The answer is American history. There is nothing extreme in this statement. Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God.” The torture, theft and enslavement of people is a factual part of America’s history, as it is a part of the history of most every western nation. “The question is not whether Lincoln [in his Gettysburg Address] truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term ‘people’ to actually mean.”

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He then deconstructs the idea of racism by attacking the notion of race itself. “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world…racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature…But race is the child of racism, not the father.”

In other words, the notion that we are separated by our race (or that all white people are of the same race), is in itself an erroneous and racist notion. And belief in race as a natural taxonomy paves the way for systems, actions, and patterns of thinking that divide us. It paves the way for oppression of one by the other. The history of the world bears this out, “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.”

This motif, this notion of violation of body, is central to the book. The linchpin of Between the World and Me is Coates’s ability to connect his personal experience with the history of the world through the visceral question: who owns your body? It is the essence of freedom. It was the essence of slavery too.

Today, the assumed notion is that we are all free. We take freedom for granted. The obvious answer to the question of who owns your body is “You do, of course.” But in Coates’s world, that’s not the answer. High levels of street violence, city development strategies that ghettoize the poor rather than lift poor neighborhoods, and an oppressive criminal justice system support an environment that poses constant danger to the body.

Coates knows this firsthand. Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Baltimore in the 80s and 90s, he was surrounded by drugs, violence and poverty. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” He saw violence everywhere—on the streets with the drug dealers and gangs, in the homes where parents beat their children to keep them in line, and from the police themselves. “When I was a boy, no portion of my body suffered more than my eyes.”

Other than the streets, he had the option of the schools. But he found little meaning in the education offered by the school system.

What did it mean to, as our elders told us, “grow up and be somebody”? And what precisely did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline?…When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of higher learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing…Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them.

Education was not for the learning—it was a means of escape in some ways, incarceration in others. “If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left.” And if one could not tow the line in the schools, he was fed back to the streets. “I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast.”

He was told that, as an African-American, he had to be “twice as good”—an unfair challenge to anyone, let alone a teenage boy. But he had a strong, tight-knit family who valued education, respect and community. His mother was a teacher, his father a black activist, publisher and librarian. When he got into trouble, his mother made him write about it. It was a form of punishment that demanded introspection. “Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself.”

He spent much of his youth buried in his father’s library. “I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”

In his father’s library, Coates found a connection with the black thinkers of the 60s, particularly Malcolm X. “My reclamation would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.” Coates attended Howard University, the “Mecca,” where his eyes were opened further, by professors and other intelligent, culturally aware people, including his wife.

All this, in a letter to his son, is more than biography. The story of his development as a thinker is almost archetypical. But, importantly, it is context for his son and for us the reader. It is “here’s where I’m coming from.”

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In the context of today’s nightly headlines, answers are hard to come by. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, Walter Scott, all examples to his son of the dangers that lurk, of a world that has the power to take his body from him. When the killer of Michael Brown was set free, Ta-Nehisi had few words for Samori.

I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not even tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay.

This, as a father, is a terrible feeling. Every father, to some degree, fears the dangers of the world. But being able to, at the very least, offer reassurance to your children, tell them it’ll be okay, is a small but important thing. When history and the nightly news says otherwise, what is a father left with but fear?

You still believe the injustice was Michael Brown. You have not yet grappled with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder everywhere around us.

Coates’s belief in a just America was been shattered through personal experience, beyond what he saw on the streets of Baltimore. He visits the mother of Prince Jones, an acquaintance from Howard. She, Dr. Mabel Jones, was born to poor share-croppers in the South. She was one of the children who integrated a Southern school.

At football games the other students would cheer the star black running back, and then when a black player on the other team would get the ball, they’d yell “Kill that nigger! Kill that nigger!”

She served in the Navy. She took up radiology. She became the head of radiology at a hospital in Philadelphia. She made sure her children had everything anyone could want. Coates describes her as the model of poise and dignity, “what people once referred to as ‘a lady.’” In every way imaginable, she did everything right. “She did not speak of herself as remarkable,” he says, but “something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mabel Jones to an exceptional life.”

On September 1, 2000, her son, Prince, 25 years old, was followed by an undercover police officer, illegally, out of his jurisdiction. It was a case of mistaken identity and should have been clear from the license plates. Nonetheless, there was a confrontation that ended with Jones, unarmed, shot once in the arm, five times in the back, dead.

The police officer was black. Mabel Jones was a well-off, educated mother. Nothing about it was the all-too-common “white cop shoots poor black kid” story. But the outcome was the same.

Coates is in many ways like Dr. Jones, one of the most successful writers of the past year, removed from the Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up. But he has not escaped the fear. It’s a fear I can relate to as a parent, but the world is disproportionately unsafe for African-American boys. That is not just a feeling, it is a statistical reality. “You are the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country. What I want you to know is that this is not your fault, even it if it ultimately your responsibility.”

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Coates takes his son along to meet another mother. Her son had been playing his music loud and had gotten into an argument with a white man who told him to turn it down. In the end, the man had emptied his gun into the car of the boy, killing him. The perpetrator claimed, erroneously, that he had seen a shotgun in the boy’s car. The boy’s mother makes an impassioned plea to Samori:

You exist. You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid to be you.

She is essentially telling the teen to be a teen—to be free to rebel and express and explore and do all those things required of a teenager searching for his identity. To which Coates adds:

I was glad she said this. I have tried to say the same to you, and if I have not said it with the same direction and clarity, I confess that is because I am afraid.

When these shootings occur, the reaction is predictable and sensational. It is engineered for shouting heads and ratings, not actual dialogue around the issues. Ferguson turns to whether or not Michael Brown stole a pack of cigarettes. The debate turns to proper parenting or “black-on-black crime.”

“Black-on-black” crime is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects…The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, were created by the policy of Dreamers, but their weight, their shame, rests solely upon those who are dying in them…To yell “black-on-black crime” is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.

His assessment of America’s system is damning, at times fiery, to be sure. The Dream—the classic American Dream—was built on the plunder of nations, the disenfranchisement of a group of people (at least one). That plunder and disenfranchisement has morphed into a more insidious, less obvious form of oppression. It takes the form of violence, the violence of the street and the institutionalized violence of a state that empowers its police to take lives with ease. Or, to be more generous, a state that frequently puts its police officers into situations where they must make decisions they are not adequately trained for or capable of getting right. Regardless, the results are the same.

Add to that the poverty, the criminal justice system, drug policy, the way municipalities generate revenue, a history of housing discrimination (see Coates’s award-winning Atlantic article, “The Case For Reparations”). Add to that American history.

In a recent interview, Coates said that he often gets reactions of people who are offended by what he says, who takes it as a personal attack. They feel like they are being called racist, or that he’s saying their father or grandfather was racist. But the problem is rarely personal. It is systemic. The oppression and suppression boils into personal moments—a police officer shooting a young man—but the root is much deeper than that. Michael Brown being shot, high incarceration rates, street violence, these are symptoms of deeper problems. And yes, they involve education, poverty, criminal justice, drugs, personal responsibility. But it is also about a willful forgetting among those who have benefitted. The forgetting has become ritualized—a ritual that takes about 2-3 days, depending on what other news comes along. But there is a bigger forgetting that has happened. And this is perhaps the most damning point he makes in the book. Referring to Prince Jones’s mother:

When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best—it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free…To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

It is this passage, and a few others like it, where I would argue with the characterization. In soaring prose, Coates portrays a willing ignorance of history, a history intentionally forgotten as a means of self-preservation, a sinister intent of the “other” (in this case, white people). It is dramatic and it sounds good. But I think the truth is probably simpler and less interesting. I think he better characterizes it with a later metaphor. He considers the predictions of Marcus Garvey, who “promised a return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors.” But he rejects this as too pat. “Plunder has matured into habit and addiction…This is not a belief in prophesy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.”

That, I think is where we are now. Cheap gasoline. An acceptance because it is the way it has been and it is easy. The inertia of a country where engagement is people sitting on their couches shouting at the nightly news. It is a system rigged to demand that we keep doing what we have been doing. The fight is not just against ignorance, it’s against ambivalence.

The book leaves one feeling empty, because it is about the problem, about the fear. The closest thing to a solution offered is this:

Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.

Otherwise, this is a book engulfed in the problem. In taking the form of a letter to his son, it shields Coates from the responsibility of something as dull as, say, suggested solutions, ramifications, paths forward, etc. His son is fifteen. He’s ready to head out and start living in this world. It isn’t going to change before he gets there. So I read this and think, Okay, so what do we do? But the ostensible purpose is simply to prepare a boy for what to expect. It is a warning.

The questions are necessarily big. The answers will undoubtedly be big as well. But as a starting point, I can think of little as emotionally sharp as a father’s love for his son and his concern for his body in the world. And in terms of America’s responsibility, he appeals to the that ideal the media loves to hold political candidates to—our sense of American Exceptionalism:

America believes itself exceptional…I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.

Well, here you go. If Between the World and Me isn’t questioning American innocence, if this isn’t an inquiry, I don’t know what is.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His article The Case for Reparations, about discriminatory housing practices in Chicago and elsewhere in the 1960s won the 2014 George Polk Award for Commentary. Between the World and Me won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015, is on nearly every “Best of 2015” list. It is by far the most thought-provoking book I read this year.

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