Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”: A Meditation

Every person, country, and culture carries a wound. For all its wonder and joys-a-waiting, life leaves virtually everyone bruised and torn by some deep hurt, some natural catastrophe, personal betrayal, shattered dream or misguided intention that leave us chastened, sobered, aware not only of our intense vulnerability to being hurt, but also our own capacity to fail others and cause pain in return.

We are born into a broken world, a stark fact that every religion this side of the most happy-talking prosperity gospel has affirmed throughout history.

America’s deep, still festering wound is slavery and the institutionalized, abiding racism and oppression it has left in its wake. Slavery was so monstrous, its premises and practices so inimical to our stated beliefs that “all (people) are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” so contrary to our goal of paving the way for our peoples’ “pursuit of happiness,” that it could not help but carve a dark destructive path through subsequent generations.

And so it has.

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Slavery poisoned everything with its lethal assumptions and the cruelty flowing therefrom, whatever even the most benign-seeming slaveholders and their descendants told themselves to explain away its horror. Like a particularly noxious waste site, its legacy continues to pose overwhelming challenges for ready remediation.

Slavery’s wound was too deep, too much blood was lost, and multiple secondary infections of intractable racism among whites and lost identities among blacks rendered quick healing impossible.

So here we are in 2017, hearkening back ruefully to dreamy times of a “post-racial America” after having elected our first black president nearly nine years ago. And we are a mess.

Not as bad a mess as we were in 1861, or a century later in Selma and Watts and Detroit and countless other sites of unrest while Jim Crow still held sway. But a mess nevertheless.

Our immediate era has its Charleston and St. Louis and St. Paul, after all. In these cities and many far beyond, the black body count in coffins and jail cells remains unconscionably high.

And even the reception afforded our first black president—the opposition dead-set against giving even one inch to anything on his agenda, a large and persistent swath of that opposition challenging his very right to call himself an American and a Christian—told everyone, but particularly African-Americans, who had seen all this delegitimization many times before—that the road to true equality was still tangled and full of vipers.

Today, even as slave descendants’ incomes and presence among the professional, entertainment and sporting classes continue to rise, too much of the African-American population remains mired in poverty, in downtrodden communities, suffering drastically higher rates of family breakdown, addiction, incarceration and unemployment than does white America.

Bodiliness figures prominently in Coates’s rhetoric, rendered in a haunting, poetic tone that one could imagine being presented as a one-act soliloquy from a darkened stage, its sole spotlight fixed on the acute, agonized mental labors of the protagonist.

And then there are the young black men, gunned down at dismaying rates not only by each other, which is malignant symptom enough, but also by the police who are sworn to protect them.

Something is clearly still wrong, and only by the most artful mental gymnastics can we absolve our historic, deep-seated racism, institutionalized into the very birth of our country and its founding documents, of culpability.

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Into this long-running maelstrom steps Ta-Nehisi Coates with “Between the World and Me,” a 152-page meditation on what it has been like to grow up as a black male and father in these times. Published in July, 2015 and framed as a letter to his then 15-year-old son, the book serves as approximately equal parts memoir, history and warning to his son, offering a broad historical context for the unique dangers he faces as a young black man coming to maturity in these fractious, hair-trigger times.

Bodiliness figures prominently in Coates’s rhetoric, rendered in a haunting, poetic tone that one could imagine being presented as a one-act soliloquy from a darkened stage, its sole spotlight fixed on the acute, agonized mental labors of the protagonist.

The black body and its vulnerability is the lens through which Coates views his and his people’s experience of the world. And it frames a fundamental question that goes to the heart of human freedom, encompassing the physical, psychological and spiritual realms: “Who owns your body?”

For slaves brought to America beginning in the early 1600s and their countless progeny who have since been lynched, beaten, burned, set upon with firehoses and dogs, and gunned down by police in questionable circumstances rendered all the more so in this age of video, the terrifying and tragic answer has been: “Not you.”

“I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this is the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you now know that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice,a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.”

This theme of the black body’s ownership and ready annihilation at the hands and whims of its white overlords is particularly acute for Coates, whose rationalist-atheist perspective on reality leaves him without the dreamy consolations of religion. Sans the succor of the black church and its promise of redemption in the hereafter, Coates’s commitment is to this life and the bodies he and his son inhabit and need to protect.

“The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious.”

And then the warning of how easily that preciousness can be lost:

“Here is what I would like you to know: in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

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Coates grew up on the troubled streets of Baltimore, where he had to negotiate battlefields of gangs and their leaders who controlled various patches of turf and who were every bit as inclined to control their black brothers’ bodies via intimidation and lethal action as was any police department. That was a given, which Coates, bookish as he was at an early age, learned how to manage as a matter of sheer survival.

But a layer of anguish is added when he learns that nearby Prince George County, 65 percent black, sported a predominantly black police force whose members were known to wield batons and guns with uncommon abandon on the black population.

That anguish becomes barely contained rage and then abiding grief when his friend Prince Jones, a brilliant and well-spoken Howard University grad and ardent Christian whom all agreed was destined not only for survival but greatness, is gunned down senselessly and tragically on a lonely road just yards from his fiancée’s house.

The perpetrator in this case of purported “mistaken identity” is an undercover cop with a checkered professional history. No witnesses, no culpability, and the cop, as Coates knew down to his bones would happen, goes free and back to his job.

And the cop is black.

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Any romantic notions he had held about relative safety at the hands of fellow blacks thus rendered moot, Coates grapples with hard questions regarding Prince’s slaying, including the issue, proffered by those with religious inclinations, of forgiving the killer. He answers:

“The need to forgive the officer would not have moved me, because even then, in some inchoate form, I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.”

Herein lies the root of Coates’s fear for his son and his race. If America were comprised of individual racists of varying degrees, the system could likely identify and contain them adequately via legal and social sanctions. But American racism isn’t like French and other countries’ historic racism, with various individuals’ private resentment toward foreign interlopers needing containment.

America was built, its great economic engine got roaring, on the backs and from the blood of human beings who were forcibly removed from their homelands and treated as a cross between animals and machines. This was a massive industrial operation of wholesale oppression and exploitation that swept everything into its maw, including all morality, compassion, and respect for the sovereignty of human beings. In a sentence, Coates sums up the cost and the wages it afforded the exploiters:

“You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold.”

The depravity of this arrangement, its outlandish moral wrong, was not lost on either party, and it was rendered more troublesome, with loud echoes to this day, by the exaltation of supposedly groundbreaking human freedoms espoused by the Founders.

“Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then claim mortal error.”

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So on one hand, the soaring foundational rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with their commitment to a new view of human rights and self-governance.

On the other: the one-fifth of our population who were slaves was regarded as only three-fifths of a human being in a famous compromise that managed to get enough Southern legislators on board to pass the Constitution. Nearly two centuries later, there were still legally segregated schools and pools and drinking fountains across much of the country, with de-facto segregation persisting to this day.

In response, many voices are heard pointing to the great strides made by legions of slave descendants, and the easy fraternization across races seen often enough across the country today. This suggests times truly have changed. So isn’t it time for black Americans to finally “get over” the legacy of slavery so they can busy themselves with the abundant opportunities available in dedicated-to-diversity America?

Here is where Coates suggests, if I am understanding him correctly, that it’s not a matter of black Americans “getting over” slavery’s legacy. The more important and still unfulfilled promise is for white Americans to do so.

He almost bleeds across the page at times, worrying himself sick with dread on what could, on any given day in any given community, still beset his son—or even himself. Driven to read book after book in African-American history searching for context to these terrible dawning truths, Coates writes:

“The gnawing discomfort, the chaos, the intellectual vertigo was not an alarm. It was a beacon. It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own special Dream, but would break all the dreams, break all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness.” 

This, truly, is what it means to “wake up,” to accept the mantle of doubt, conflict and incompletion, to become fully adult, aware of the abiding stark reality on this uneasy plane of existence, whose healing balm of love, compassion and mercy is hard-won from the world outside and perhaps even more so from within ourselves.

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Near the end of this slim work that can nevertheless set a reader through an intellectual and emotional wringer just as surely as it did its author, Coates does three things:

• He goes to Paris, first by himself and then with his wife and son, and an entire new world of visionary possibility opens up to him. It is a world where lovers, partying teens, and families of every background laying blankets down along the Seine for an evening of fearless social engagement suggests all that he missed in his own upbringing.

• He begins to realize the different life his son lives with his parents in cosmopolitan New York City, with his different personality and emotional colors, far less ruled by the nearly all-encompassing fear that Coates faced a generation earlier on the far harder streets of urban Baltimore.

• He visits Prince Jones’s mother, a prominent radiologist who maintained an almost inhuman (or was it the very best of human?) dignity and steely resolve to go on with life and do right by her fallen son, for whom she had striven ceaselessly to provide every possible educational and cultural opportunity, none of which proved enough, in the end, to save him from the fate so many of his brothers had suffered over such a long time.

How long, Lord? How long?

Coates doesn’t deign to answer the question, but observing his then-toddler son rushing headlong into a playgroup at a preschool they are sizing up on an initial visit, he is both amazed and deeply fearful:

“I watched you leap and laugh with these children you barely knew, and the wall rose up in me and I felt I should grab you by the arm, pull you back and say, ‘We don’t know these folks! Be cool!’  I did not do this, and if I could not name my anguish precisely I still knew there was nothing noble in it.”

Here is the wise and battle-scarred and all-too-aware-and-thus-afraid father, ultimately feeling ashamed of his own timidity and acknowledging, with however much difficulty, that the world is changing, as it unceasingly does, that his kid is not him, that his history and sociology and psychology are his own.

And that maybe, just maybe, his kid is inheriting, at least most of the time in most places, a less dangerous country and neighborhood than the one Coates grew up in.

Not danger-free, by a long shot. Not one ever to take for granted or not be alert in. But one worth diving headlong into nevertheless when the opportunity presents itself—as long as he always remembers and honors the fierce and costly price paid for his dive throughout its long historic trajectory.

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4 comments to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”: A Meditation

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    We just read Coates’ Between the World and Me in our book group and it sparked a most impassioned debate amongst our group of 10 long time friends… clearly the issue of “race” (even the construct of race is debunked by Coates, as it is by most social scientists) still has our nation confounded… one of the things that really struck me reading this book was not the particular details and nuance of the 400+ yr struggle for true equality/justice for African Americans but the emotional reality of being a Black father in America today … I, and a number of us in the book group, shared how moving it was to be enveloped with empathy/compassion for Coates, in a manner that facts and figures just can’t convey – however, heart felt stories of his first hand experiences most certainly does… While painting a rather bleak picture, Coates does leave open the generational door as noted in your post that hopefully many millennial Blacks, like his son, may be carving out a different reality to contribute to this glacial process of becoming a more just society (of course the darker voices in my head scream about the thousands/millions of other young Black men who are growing up just like Coates did and worse, who don’t have the gifts Coates was able to provide his son, due in large part to the cultural / institutional constraints and blindness that is still omnipresent in America… one recent Pew poll for example found 38% of whites thought our nation has already made the changes necessary to give Blacks equal rights with whites, whereas only 8% of Blacks agreed… even more distressing, 43% of Blacks stated our country will never do so!)… A provocative post about a provocative book – thanks again!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Indeed, Kevin, the most striking aspect of the book for me was its emotional color, the experience of listening closely to thoughtful reflections on the actual daily lived experience of someone who grew up in a world drastically different than mine. The device of framing it as a letter to his son gave it an intimacy and directness that I suspect resounded as closely with his readers as it did with his son; a shared close encounter among millions! (It’s gone through some 40 printings.)

      Yet it was also lifted out of mere memoir with a deeply historical grounding that forces readers to grapple yet again with slavery’s awful history and its continuing reverberations. As for that 38% figure you cite: the implications of that strike me as reprehensible, so I think I will seek solace in the 62% who don’t see the issue the same way!

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    Brililant essay Andrew. Thanks.
    I wonder: and how much of this comes down to us? How many African-American friends and clients do you (and I) have? How many belong to your church? Do you (or I) go to places where we are one of the few non-black faces in the place? Are we loud and direct when somebody says something racist?

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thank you, Joan. My original intent in this post was to intersperse some of my own experience of race & ethnicity as an immigrant to this country way back when, my awakening to racism thru the tumult of the ’60s & ’70s, the particular context of sports and race that undergirded much of my direct experience, etc. But I realized partway in that it would be a distraction and prevent me from fully exploring the riches of Coates’s story, so I set all that aside. Thought of picking it up in a subsequent post, though, and your questions prompt me to consider it even more seriously.

      But meanwhile, in answer to only your first question for the moment, I’d say (it comes down to us) “Some.” We’re all responsible to some degree to do what we can for racial harmony, including more intentional efforts at healing-via-relationship. That said, given our basic orientation to the issues swirling around this gigantic gnarly hole in the middle of America’s story, I don’t think we’re holding up much progress. Probably not doing enough to push it along, could always do more, but there are far more difficult, intransigent fish to fry for the movement than NorCal liberals supportive of progressive causes, inclusion and a truly level playing field for all. That is said with the full understanding that residual racism no doubt lives still inside me, and there is work yet to be done. (There is ALWAYS “work yet to be done,” damn!…)

      And then there is the whole question of white guilt, which is enormously complicated and layered and something that someone probably already wrote a book about, which I shall look up soon!

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