The anguish of racial oppression

By JOE AUCIELLO

 Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me” (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 152 pp., $24.

When Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke to an overflow audience at Boston College last October as a distinguished guest of the Lowell Humanities Lecture Series, he was introduced by the Law School dean as a new voice in the tradition of great African American authors, from Langston Hughes to James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. It was a remarkable statement about a 40-year-old writer whose publications include only two brief books (with an eventual third, a collection of award-winning magazine essays from The Atlantic, etc., no doubt in the offing).

Perhaps it will also turn out to be a prophetic statement about Coates, whose second work just won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. For now, in one sense, at least, the statement about Coates’s literary legacy is certainly true: Coates writes social commentary even when he is at his most personal. He clearly cites not only Baldwin and Morrison but also Richard Wright, Amiri Baraka, and Sonia Sanchez, whose tradition and influence on “Between the World and Me” “is all baked in there,” as he commented in an interview on receiving the award.

“Between the World and Me” is written in the form of a letter to Coates’s teen-age son, Samori. As such, it intentionally follows—clearly in homage—James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in “The Fire Next Time” (1963). Any number of pages and observation from Baldwin’s book could be lifted entirely and placed in Coates’s text.

The point here is not to fault Coates for lack of originality but to praise the quality of his prose—for Baldwin was a sublime writer—and, more importantly, to highlight a social reality that, after more than 50 years has in profound ways remained unchanged. Since America continues to murder the souls and bodies of Black people, and to do so routinely, just as it did in Baldwin’s day, Coates can’t help but describe what he sees and feels. And, in the process, if he punctures the pretensions of “hope and change,” then so be it. Better to be a foe of facile optimism.

Coates writes about racial oppression in the most intimate of terms. The opening sentence of his book finds him explaining to the confused host of a news show “what it meant to lose my body.” As he explained in his talk at Boston College, that which he lost was actually taken or stolen. “The kind of oppression that Black people feel in this country is very, very physical. It’s about people taking possession of your body.”

In “Between the World and Me,” Coates writes: “It is hard to face this. 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. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” Or, as he says more concisely, “The answer is American history.”

While Coates’s book is rooted in history, it is not a work of history, or even reportage. Nor is it an essay in the traditional sense of the term, where an author presents a statement of opinion and supports it by example and argues with appeals to reason and logic. “Between the World and Me” is more of a meditation or reflection that moves, not as point by point, but more by the free association of topic and thought. Here, too, the influence of James Baldwin is evident.

Coates also follows Baldwin in tearing apart the fairy-tales in which much of this nation takes comfort. In “The Fire Next Time,” Baldwin writes, “The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace. … Negroes know far more about white Americans than that…”

Coates’s target is the same; he calls them the Dreamers, the white Americans who without question trust in the American Dream and who are blind to the reality of Black oppression on which this Dream was built and on which its continued existence depends.

As Coates first describes it: “I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. … And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”

Coates develops this point further into the book. “The Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept our bodies as currency, because it is their tradition. … Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value.”

America is dangerous for Black people, and children must be trained—Coates recounts beatings by his father—to know the contours of that danger and to fear it. “Fear ruled everything around me,” Coates writes, “and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.”

One of the most troubling and moving sections of “Between the World and Me” is Coates’s account of the police murder of a friend from Howard University, Prince Jones (and, in the third section of the book, a visit to Jones’s mother). It is a tale so essential to the book, told so artfully, with a climactic point so surprising, that in deference to readers, it will not be summarized here.

What can be raised instead is a possible link between the title of the book and the useless and tragic murder of a young man. Coates includes the opening lines of a poem by Richard Wright and ends with the phrase “between the world and me.” Wright’s poem, originally printed in the 1930s, is included in his talk, “The Literature of the Negro in the United States,” published with three other lectures as the book, “White Man, Listen!” (1957).

Wright’s poem is a “vision of horror” about a man who comes upon the remains of a lynching and gazes at the “stony skull.” In a nightmare sequence of the poem, he becomes the victim: “The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves into my bones.” The mob, too, returns to life, and the lynching takes place again until, finally, the narrator’s skull becomes the skull he had seen.

The terrible merging with the victim in Wright’s poem—a powerful identification—captures the relationship between Coates and his fellow Howard graduate, Prince Jones. The fate of one could easily have been the fate of the other.

In his lecture, Wright comments, “The horrors that confront Negroes stay in peace and war, in winter and summer, night and day.” This is Coates’s conviction as well and is a major reason for the book’s popularity and controversy.

As Coates writes toward the end of the book, “The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, were created by the policy of Dreamers,” and so the incidental and accidental, the latest tragedy on the nightly news, is really typical and deliberate. “The same hands that drew red lines around the life of Prince Jones drew red lines around the ghetto.”

So, for all of Coates’ attention on the personal, the book speaks to a larger condition. He unsparingly depicts just how the powerful social context of America, a culture that can be at the same time blind and hostile, impacts him and his family. Coates would likely agree with the statement that begins Angela Davis’s autobiography: “… the forces that have made my life what it is are the very same forces that have shaped and misshaped the lives of millions of my people.” His account is most sociological when it is most autobiographical.

“Between the World and Me” is no political tract. Readers searching for an overall social analysis and solution, whether reformist or revolutionary, will be disappointed. Coates offers no prescription for social change, no basis even for believing that change will occur, and no apology for his opinion, despite the imperative need for progress. There is, fortunately, no “happy talk,” á la Cornel West.

This point is made more as observation than criticism. The absence of a program does not detract from the importance and value of a book that describes American culture in the most personal and powerful terms. Like Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” a brutally honest account of what is constitutes a large step towards what can be. Raising essential questions is part of that “stride towards freedom,” to cite Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase.

In the book’s concluding paragraph, Coates writes, “The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.” The question of what might motivate white people (all of them, or by class division within white society?) to struggle, and how white people will come to learn and understand, is not even asked.

At the same time, Coates says to his son: “And still I urge you to struggle.” No political platform is suggested here, as Coates discusses the need for struggle only in personal, existential terms. “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom… Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name.”

Essentially, a father is saying to his son, “You will have to find your own way.” For older readers already engaged in any form of social protest and political activity, this answer cannot be fully satisfying, but there is also an undeniable truth to the statement.

A young generation will have to engage socially and collectively, as in fact, it is doing. In the early decades of his adult life, Coates found no adequate body of thought and no substantial organization to further the beliefs and values he felt. He is hardly to blame for the weakness of left movements; yet lessons of the past are still relevant and valuable. Such lessons can be found, analyzed, and applied as a newly developing movement considers appropriate. So, it is necessary to agree with the advice Coates gives his son, “And still I urge you to struggle.”

Photo: Ta-Nehisi Coates hold his son Samori in the summer of 2001.