'Between the World and Me' Examines Race in America with Sharp Intellect, Gorgeous Prose

By Hartman, Chris | The Christian Science Monitor, August 13, 2015 | Go to article overview

'Between the World and Me' Examines Race in America with Sharp Intellect, Gorgeous Prose


Hartman, Chris, The Christian Science Monitor


In his 1978 biography of James Baldwin, Louis H. Pratt called the eminent 20th-century African-American writer a man "concerned with the destruction of the fantasies and delusions of a contented audience ... determined to avoid reality." Baldwin was born poor in New York City and personally knew racial intolerance. With regard to race, Pratt's Baldwin was a "disturber of the peace" - one who revealed uncomfortable truths to a society mired in complacency. Thirty-five years later, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison now invokes Baldwin's legacy in praising Ta-Nehisi Coates's powerful new memoir Between the World and Me: "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates."

Coates, a national correspondent at The Atlantic, has, in "Between the World and Me," crafted a highly provocative, thoughtfully presented, and beautifully written narrative concerning his own misgivings about the ongoing racial struggle in America. In this slender (176 pages) volume Coates is also, like Baldwin before him, set on revealing similar "uncomfortable truths" to 21st- century America. Coates's prose is addressed to his 15-year-old son Samori. In the wake of all the recent tragedies involving black men and boys at the hands of police - Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri in particular - Coates says he cannot help but fear for Samori's life.

Writing ruefully and with a hint of resignation, Coates writes to Samori about the way that "those who believe they are white" have been essentially "pilfering" the bodies of African Americans throughout the course of American history. In the wake of these many recent and lethal confrontations between law enforcement and black Americans, Coates expresses little hope that there will be meaningful change any time soon. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, slain with eight parishioners in a church in Charleston, S. C.; the alleged "suicide" of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas; and the death of Samuel DuBose at the hands of a University of Cincinnati police officer, are all just more grist for what Coates sees as a mill of misery, mistrust, and hopelessness.

Coates refers to the greater white American population as "Dreamers" - living in a "Dream" festooned with sentimental mythology such as "perfect houses with nice lawns," "ice cream socials," "the Cub Scouts," "block associations," and "Memorial Day cookouts." In Coates's mind, this mythology has clouded any real appreciation or empathy for those for whom the "Dream" is unattainable. As Coates writes to his son, "even your relatively privileged security can never match a sustained assault launched in the name of the Dream." In Coates's telling, there are just too many who have become victims of it: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Jordan Davis, and Kajieme Powell, are just a few.

In one powerful passage, and in a direct appeal to those who would look away from the numerous black fatalities in recent years, Coates asserts: "America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist.... One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard."

Having grown up in West Baltimore, the son of William Paul Coates, a former Black Panther and Vietnam War veteran, Ta-Nehisi Coates (his hyphenated first name is the Egyptian translation for ancient Nubia, from which his family originated), was prodigious at reading and writing in his youth and subsequently attended Howard University - "The Mecca" - in Washington, D.C. As a teenager, Coates eagerly consumed the writings of historian and Howard professor Chancellor Williams, whose book, "Destruction of Black Civilization" became a revelation to him. This introduced Coates to the excesses of European colonialism and its disastrous effects in plundering the cultures and economies as well as the bodies of Africans and their countries. …

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