“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, in his newest book “Between the World and Me.” Coates wrote the book as an admonitory letter to his son about the dangers of being Black in contemporary America, where news of an African American’s death at the hands of the police has become almost a rote expectation of weekly life.
Coates surveys history both personal and national, creating an epistolary memoir filled with searing social and political commentary. He discusses his adolescence, fraught with the latent violence of the Baltimore streets and the frequency with which it was realized; his collegiate years at Howard University where he developed his intellectual purpose, meeting his wife, his struggles as a young writer, etc, and he augments his memories with caustic, cogent meditations on race and American history.
According to Coates, race is the legacy of American history. Race, and its son racism, is not a blight on the otherwise fair face of America, but the face itself. The plunder and subjugation of Black bodies created the wealth and power enjoyed mostly by white Americans.. These are the foundation of what Coates simply calls “the Dream.” As formulated in the book, the Dream is a moral effacement, a convenient innocence that allows the continuous destruction and exploitation of Black bodies.
Coates digs into history quite a bit, noting, for example, that in the pre-Civil War South slaves “were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry,” but his analysis of the contemporary political situation, especially his own experiences, proves more powerful. In fact, the most compelling part of the book is Coates’s telling of the promising life and tragic death of Prince Jones, a friend and fellow student at Howard University. Jones — a young, unarmed Black man like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and many others — was shot by a policeman who followed him through three jurisdictions in search of a suspect who had nothing in common with Jones other than the brand of their vehicle and the color of their skin. The officer claimed that Jones tried to run him over with his Jeep, and, since only one witness lived through the encounter, the prosecutors believed him.
Jones’s life differs from the narratives usually ascribed to Black victims of police violence. He was affluent, born in the suburbs, a stellar student. His mother overcame abject poverty by attending college, becoming a radiologist and building a privileged life for her son so that he, unlike most other Black children, would not have to be “twice as good.” Jones’s story elucidates a crucial point in “Between the World and Me:” that even when African Americans achieve the American Dream, when they break into the suburban landscape “organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens,” race imposes a limitation that is both ineluctable and, possibly, fatal.
In another intriguing passage, which is sure to become notorious if taken out of context enough, Coates says that he did not feel sympathy for 9/11 first responders:
“I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body.”
The attack on the World Trade Centers — a place where, as Coates notes, slaves were once traded — occurred in the wake of Prince Jones’s death, an event that seems to have shaped much of his political views and writing since. He’s not being contemptuous, but rather brandishing a brutal candor that aims to evince the vast disparity in what the forces of American history, the American state and the American legacy mean for him and what they mean for most citizens.
In form and theme, “Between the World and Me” explicitly invokes James Baldwin’s essay “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” He’s more Malcolm than Martin, but Coates compares better with Baldwin than other prominent Black intellectual figures, although these are all shadows too large for any man to fill.
In his essay, Baldwin writes that “it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime,” an idea concurrent in “Between the World and Me.” Both writers posit an absolute moral culpability in the benefits white America enjoys because of its enslavement of Black bodies. But Baldwin, writing half a century before, has what Coates lacks: a legitimate sense of hope; he writes that “If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.” There are moments when Coates let’s rays of hope pilfer through (“They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”), but they don’t break his dark evaluation of our contemporary situation. After fifty years with more stasis than change, it feels absurd to expect him to share this sentiment.
Coates’s book is not without its faults. At times, he has a tendency to generalize, and he writes with such severity that, in some instances, it seems like no progress has been made. However, it is easy to point out, “we’ve had a Black president,” and leave it there. But this is a dangerous conciliatory gesture that eradicates the impetus for change. It is important to realize there has been progress, but essential to realize there hasn’t been enough.