Early in Between the World and Me, a memoir addressed to his fifteen year-old son, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”
Between the World and Me is the story of Coates’s questioning, as a fearful boy in the brutal streets and failed schools of Baltimore; as a young man in the library at Howard University, Mecca to young black scholars; as an adult, an anxious father, doing the best he can to raise his son to be real and free in a country where the lives of black boys become increasingly expendable.
In the process, he addresses the paradox at the root of America’s long history of racial strife: our country, whose Constitution declares freedom and equality for all people, was built on the backs of black people whose lives and bodies were and continue to be fodder for the American Dream.
“America understands itself as God’s handiwork,” Coates writes, “but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.
The result of this is a legacy of visceral, constricting fear at every level of Black culture. Coates’s parents weren’t religious, so there was no retreat to the comforts and mysteries that so often sustain believers. They were strict, pragmatic, afraid. Coates remembers his mother holding his hand crossing a busy street, telling him that if he ever let go and got killed by a car she would beat him back to life. At six, he wandered away while visiting a local park; when his parents found him, his father reached for his strap. “Later I would hear it in Dad’s voice—” Coates writes. “‘Either I can beat him, or the police.’ Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t. All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us off at the exit.”
Even wealthy, privileged Blacks suffer the consequences of the Dream. Coates tells the story of the death of a college friend, Prince Jones, at the hands of the police. Jones’s mother was a doctor, he was raised in an affluent community, yet he was stopped by the police for the same kind of vague reason that hundreds of young black men are stopped and all too often killed by the police: they were searching for a young black man who looked nothing at all like the young man they’d stopped and about whom they had no cause for suspicion…but he was there. The police officer who made the “mistake” was not prosecuted.
Early in the book Coates writes about his son’s reaction to learning that the police officers who killed Michael Brown would not be punished. “You said, ‘I’ve got to go,’ and you went to your your room and I heard you crying.”
Coates goes to his son, but does not comfort him because he felt to comfort him would be wrong. He doesn’t tell him that it would be okay, because he didn’t believe it. What he tells him was what his own parents had tried to make him understand when he was the same age: “…that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find a way to live within the all of it.”
Between the World and Me is the most honest, courageous, original, and heartbreaking book about race in America that I have ever read. It offers little hope. How could it, given the world as it is? There are no easy answers, either. How could there be when we can’t bring ourselves to ask the questions that matter?
About his own thwarted search for answers to the essential question of his life, Coates writes, “It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was a process that would not award me my own especial Dream, but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, of everywhere, and would leave me only humanity in all its terribleness.”
May we all have the determination and courage to experience such discomfort in (finally) facing the real issues surrounding race in America. If we fail to do this, we cannot survive.
NUVO Newsweekly February, 2016