by Mark Naison
Discussed in this essay: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Spiegel & Grau, 2015, 176 pages
LET ME SAY at the outset that I cannot be objective in reviewing Ta-Nehisi Coates new book, Between the World and Me, which is addressed to his 15-year-old son, who burst into tears when learning that the Ferguson grand jury refused to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown. I have an 11-year-old, biracial granddaughter who is the light of my life — she is beautiful, smart, athletic (a nationally ranked middle-distance runner), with a great future. But when Michael Brown was killed, the first thought that came into my mind was, “Thank God Avery is not a boy.” No grandfather should think such thoughts, but those are the thoughts black parents have to think every day. Because as Coates reminds us, with terrifying eloquence, black bodies, for as long as we have been a nation, have littered the pathways that whites have walked toward their version of “The American Dream.” Even today, the life of a black person can be snuffed out if he or she is in the wrong place and the wrong time, and those who do the killing will rarely be punished.
The image of America as a nation whose progress has been built on the exploitation and murder of black people is not going to win any popularity contests in mainstream political discourse. There are historical works, such as Edward Baptist’s The Half Never Been Told, which provide concrete evidence for such an argument, with a tone that is less confrontational, and with a less pessimistic vision of the American future, than Coates’. But what Coates does, with unmatched eloquence, is to describe how black parents, children, and entire communities have been traumatized by the fear that black life is cheap and can be snuffed out at the drop of a hat, with little recourse from the law because the law is complicit in its devaluation. He does this in a way that may be more effective than a historian or a sociologist presenting data, because he takes us into the mind of a parent terrified for the life of his child, a perspective with which any parent can readily identify.
Here is how Coates describes this fear to his son. There is no distance in his writing. Just imagine what it takes to address your own child this way:
I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely when you leave me and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age, the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid….
It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their puffy big coats and full length fur collared leathers, which was their armor against the worlds…. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear and all I see is them girding themselves against the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered around their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T-shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps….
I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew, the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters or their own lives, their own streets, their own bodies….
And I saw it in my own father, who loves you, who counsels you, who slipped me money to care for you. My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away. Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail to drugs to guns…. And now they were gone and their legacy was a great fear…
In all African-American memoir literature, and in all memoir literature I know of, there is no comparable passage to this one, speaking to one’s child. Can you imagine what depths of despair it took for Coates to write this?
HIS BOOK SEES NOTHING but continuity between the slave ship, the overseer’s whip, the slave-market auction, late-night rapes and seductions, the mass murder of black union soldiers, Black Codes and the night riders, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, prison farms, and today’s toxic mix of ghettoization, the drug war, stop-and-frisk, and police murders of unarmed black men and women. All of these, Coates suggest, enable white people to feel virtuous and secure and able to say the violence was all in the past, or that black people’s marginality is their own fault — when, in fact, our entire society, which proclaims itself as a beacon to the world’s peoples, has been based on murder and theft.
Is this worldview credible? Yes, but it is also incomplete, especially when considering economics. Over the last thirty years, the exportation of jobs, the destruction of unions, the financialization of economy, coupled with wage compression and a housing and credit card bubble, have brought unprecedented economic insecurity into the lives of working-class and middle-class whites. Coates talks about the American Dream as though it were still intact for most white people, when it is, in fact, quickly slipping out of their grasp. He erases distinctions between white elites, who are monopolizing the nation’s wealth, a still-secure upper middle class, a floundering and shrinking white middle class, and a white working class that is steadily being driven into poverty and insecurity — and is, in some places, intermarrying and/or becoming part of extended families with Black and Latino working-class people stuck in the same predicament.
And this is hardly accidental. Coates, who grew up in inner city Baltimore, attended Howard University, and found his career in a world of insurgent, countercultural journalism where the whites he would meet were liberal intellectuals. He has little experience living or working with working-class or blue-collar whites, and it is not surprising that their angst, rage, or confusion about their declining status has little place in this book.
But although Coates’ book may erase distinctions between whites and underestimate the ways class and economics shape current forms of white privilege, his descriptions of how black people have internalized the multiple traumas they have suffered, and how they fear for their children at a time when state violence and police harassment against them is an ever-present danger, have an authenticity that cannot be reduced to statistics.
His stories of the Baltimore community in which he grew up, of his family visits in the South, of his friends at Howard, of the people he lived with in New York’s inner-city neighborhoods, show a people who are vibrant, resilient, creative, and at times brilliantly insightful, yet can never shake off the fear that something terrible could happen to them at any moment. And no one can from outside can say that this fear is not real! How can you, in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and many others in the just the past couple of years?
TO THESE DEATHS, Coates adds the story of a fellow student from Howard, Prince Jones, who became his close friend even after successfully winning the affections of a young woman with whom Coates was in love. Jones was chased down and murdered near his own home by a Prince George County narcotics detective, even though Jones was unarmed and had no criminal record. The police officer who killed Jones was black, and most public officials in the county were black, yet no criminal charges were filed in Jones death. If a popular talented student at a historically black college could die this way, Coates concludes, what black person would really feel secure? It would be no exaggeration to say Jones’ death left Coates with something approaching PTSD, with symptoms recurring with a vengeance in the wake of the police murders that have taken place during the last two years.
Significantly, the book ends with a meeting Coates had with Prince Jones’ mother, a well-respected physician who grew up in a black working-class family in Louisiana. She is calm, dignified, yet permanently scarred by what would have to be called the worst tragedy that could ever befall a parent, the premature death of a child, made all the more horrible by the fact that is was done by agents of a government that is supposed to represent her, and protect her and her loved ones.
This is how Coates interprets the outcome:
And she could not lean on her country for help. When it came to her son, Dr. Jones country did what it does best — it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of the theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, here in this world.
At a time when the Dream is seeming out of reach to more and more Americans, of all races, the experiences Coates describes must be confronted in all their complexity and tragic power. The pain of black parents and back families feeling their children are unnecessarily and unjustly at risk must be heard loudly and clearly. It must never be pushed aside because some think it inconvenient. Until we address it, we can never say we are making real social progress.
Coates’ book makes sure we will never forget that perspective. For that we should all be extremely grateful.
I WANT TO END with something that took place in one of my classes at Fordham during the fall of 2014. We had just heard the news that the grand jury in Ferguson had declined to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, and the class wanted to talk about it. One of my students, a beautiful, brilliant white student from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, who taught hip hop dance in local schools, raised her hand. I called on her, and this is what she said: “When I heard what the grand jury decided, I couldn’t sleep, so I called my black friend. I told her, “I am so angry about the verdict, I can’t sleep.” She interrupted me and said, “ You have the luxury of being angry. You’re white. We are terrified.”
People in the class started crying. They got it.
Ti-Nahisi Coates’ book has that same power. It should make us cry, and want to do something about the policies that make black parents, and black families feel so very vulnerable, so very alone.
Mark Naison is a professor of history at Fordham University, and author of books on urban history, black history, and the history of sports, and a 2002 memoir, White Boy. He is a co-founder of the Badass Teachers Association, a group dedicated to fighting the Common Core Curriculum and corporate influences on American education.