“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”
Since 1976, when the US government officially recognised Black History Month, February has been a time – especially in state schools – to celebrate the emancipatory struggles of runaway slaves, ground-breaking medics and lawyers, and poets and “freedom riders”. For the young Ta-Nehisi Coates, growing up in Baltimore, it was also a time of bewilderment and shame. Watching newsreel footage of the civil rights movement, he got the impression that “the black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life – love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehouses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into their streets”.
It is comprehensible, then, that there has been a lot of fanfare for Between the World and Me. It appears at a moment when, thanks to mobile phones and social media, the distressing spectacle of black Americans – many of them young and unarmed – being strangled, clubbed or shot by police officers has created a cacophony calling for change. Black Twitter, Black Lives Matter, hashtag activism: it is a marvellous noise, an Occupy-style swarm energy that, for veterans of an older media imperium, can appear muddling.
The letter begins with the author’s childhood in Baltimore at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic, in streets that “transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beat down, a shooting, or a pregnancy.” Everyone is afraid all the time. His father must reach for his belt to preserve his son from worse. Children risk assault on the way to school and study fearfully, knowing prison awaits if they do not pass exams. Even the young men with guns concealed in their ski jackets, who terrorise everyone else, are themselves afraid.
Black Americans were enslaved longer than they have been free, and as a result the deaths of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin are “merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings and humiliations”. Later he argues: “The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”
These are all forceful claims – ones made with a characteristic pivoting towards the (male) black body and the frequent use of words such as “plunder” or “shackle”. They are accompanied by vivid recollections of growing up in gang-ridden West Baltimore where the local lads’ uproarious nihilism is ascribed to the knowledge that “we could not get out” and that “the ground we walked was tripwired”
Coates is at his dreamiest when evoking his time at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, DC, that he calls “the Mecca”. Cosmopolitan, teeming with “Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses”, it’s a place of self-discovery and self-invention, “a machine crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples”. It is here that he immerses himself in black literature and history, meets his future wife and befriends a middle-class student called Prince Jones who is later unlawfully killed by an undercover police officer.
In part, the book is an ode to writing itself. Coates includes excerpts from Baldwin, Richard Wright and Sonia Sanchez as well as Nas and Ice Cube. He describes “the art of journalism” as “a powerful technology for seekers”. And he remembers his time at Howard as being one where he learned the power of poetry as much as of slogans, and that “The Dream thrives on generalisation, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers.”
The Dream is something Coates often invokes and damns as psychically disfiguring. The Dream, he explains, is “perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways … treehouses and the cub scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” It’s hardly news that there are many tens of millions of Americans – of all colours – who have rarely had a whiff of this aroma. As such, the passage merely highlights the inaudibility of class in this book.
When talking about race, he says, it is all too often turned into a sociological phenomenon, rather than a physical reality that affects individuals, allaying shame and tempering our response: “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.” This is imagery that cannot be ignored, that brings that very viscerality to us without compromise, without relief.
And what hope of breaking this cycle of oppression? For Baldwin, it was to be found in a need, at the time of the civil-rights movement, to move beyond the notion of “the Negro Problem” that handicapped both black and white. For Coates, this is both history and present, for no such reconciliation has come to pass. Rather than seek any grand solution himself, he admonishes his son – and his readers – to wake to the status quo, to consider it for ourselves – and to take what action we see fit.