Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta Nehisi Coates

“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.

Father and Son
Father and Son

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.


justice 4 trayvon

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.


The Power of Purpose by Les Brown

We must look for ways to be an active force in our own lives. We must take charge of our own destinies, design a life of substance and truly begin to live our dreams.”
Some people can come to a crossroads in their life, and not which direction to travel. They could be feeling as though they have lost their sense of purpose or are not sure where to go in their life. At a time when you are facing these feelings, this book can help you by giving you the insight you need to work through the situation.
I deeply believe that all of us have what it takes to make it in today’s competitive and changing world. Someone once told me that the key to ultimate achievement has very little to do with your education or skill level but to find and pursue the kind of work you are meant to do – your “purpose.” No one said choosing your life’s purpose would be easy. There are so many opportunities, it’s a wonder anyone finds their true calling. While it may be difficult, understanding your life’s real purpose will give you the power to have anything you want – anything at all. Once you figure out exactly what that is, getting there will be that much easier. So ask yourself: “What do I really want out of my life?”

Les Brown’s exceptional, The Power of Purpose, will not only help you answer that question, it will also lead you step-by-step toward making each and every one of your dreams come true. Many of the world’s greatest leaders were called failures, until they discovered their life purpose. When you choose an occupation that is truly compatible with your preferences, abilities, and unique personality, you will at last begin to understand the meaning of true happiness and personal success.

Les Brown can assist you, no matter how you are feeling, with this book, The Power of Purpose. It provides you with a great insight on your skills and talents. It can also help you to learn what your purpose in this world is. You can learn from The Power of Purpose the reason you are here, and what you should be doing with yourself. When you can break into your personal purpose, you will have a better sense or who you are and where you are going.

The Power of Purpose was written by Les Brown to teach others how to make their purpose a reality. You will learn a great deal by reading this book, such as how to find the right career for you. You will also learn how to alter your life so that you are living your purpose, and how to get on the path to happiness.


A Raisin In The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

What happens to a dream deferred? 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 Or does it explode

Langston Hughes





By Nyambura Mutanyi 



These lines from Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Deferred” lend this book its title and lay the groundwork of a play that, 57 years after Hansberry had it published, still echoes true in a world that is different from the one in which she wrote it.

The play opens at the residence of the Youngers; a Black family that lives in the South side of Chicago and awaits a cheque with anticipation that would be palpable on stage. Their breadwinner having passed away, this cheque is the next step in life for a family that escaped the South; his life insurance cheque. For Mama, it is a mean replacement for the man she lived with for many years while for each of the other adults in the family, this cheque presents a chance for them to fulfil their dreams. The Youngers live in a small apartment in conditions that are appalling and it’s no wonder that they all seem to have invested so much of themselves in a piece of paper. The cheque comes to represent, on some level, the older Mr Younger embodied. A sort of sacrament for the fulfilment of his family.

Money is definitely a significant issue in this play. Making it, spending it, squandering it, anticipating it. In a time when the global economy is a shambles, it’s certainly relevant. The Youngers’ talk of money would be vulgar in the eyes of the elite but it will be very familiar to those people who sense that their life has transformed into a struggle to survive, let alone progress. The promise of money that lingers in this play is particularly poignant as it progresses. At once a tool for hope and despair, Hansberry managed to paint a picture that encapsulates all the various ways in which it comes to represent so many different things to each of the members of the household.

Race and money merge to present us with a picture of what it means to strive and what breaking away does to those who manage to escape from poverty. The ‘uppity’ black man is encapsulated by George, a young man who views all things Black with disdain. He is the true embodiment of the feeling of the oppressed that might is right. Hansberry juxtaposed him beautifully against the lone African character in the play. Eager to lead his country to freedom, the hope he has contrasts sharply with the hopelessness felt by Walter, the younger Mr Younger. The Black experience is not a linear experience. In one house-for that is the only place in which this play occurs-all the various permutations of what exactly it means to be Black are queried and spoken of in the language of the man on the street and that of those we have grown to know as the Black Panthers.

Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry

From an African perspective, it is particularly shuddering how much Hansberry saw into the future. As Asagai, the lone African character, speaks to the Americans you can hear his lofty positions. His country may be part of the Empire but he has pride. In a searing monologue, he looks into the future and foresees the fate of Lumumba and the tragedies that were visited upon the people on the continent in the wake of independence. This issue puts hope in perspective; should it be unfettered or would limiting it be a denial of the very freedom of the people?

The women in this play present a microcosm of society. Women are treated as second class citizens in society and sustain this in their own lives. Hansberry shows that it might be true that women are their own enemies but this play also shows the sisterhood of women in a very beautiful way. Banding together to develop themselves and their own, they do it in a way that is uniquely female. Ruth Younger’s predicaments distill those of so many women and the solutions that are developed in the time of the play are a model of female strength rarely seen on stage. This doesn’t mean that men are relegated to the back burner. Rather, they are shown in all their complexity with the strength and influence of women a significant theme.


Hansberry wrote a play that celebrated feminism before it had a name. There is a direct line that links the thoughts of the three women in the Younger household. Women who are vastly different-one Southern, one a domestic worker, another young and educated-show the true nature of feminism. Set in a country that went on to treat the feminist ideal as a White ideal, it is a reminder to the world that the development of self and the liberation of the mind and body are human and to limit the experiences of any one gender is to subtract from humanity.

Set in a changing world, this play retains its freshness for that very reason. Even as things change, they truly remain the same. Ambition and aspiration are common denominators of the human experience. Written when Ghana was the only independent ex-colony in Africa, its telling of the desire for freedom rings true today in the wake of the Arab Spring and with the recent coups in some parts of Africa.

So many things about this play reverberate in a world vastly different from that in which Hansberry lived and died. Women, Black people and the residents of the African continent have made significant gains but so much is yet to be done and achieved. The soaring end of this play is hope as we have not been taught to expect. Not ‘happily ever after’ but living to die another day. At times heart-rending and entertaining, this is a classic play.


Our deepest gratitude to Nyambura Mutanyi for allowing us to repost this article. You can find further posts from her work here at


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (HeLa Cells)

From the very start there was something eerie about the cancer cells on Henrietta Lacks’s cervix. Even before killing Lacks in 1951, they took on a life of their own. Removed during a biopsy and cultured without her permission, the HeLa cells (named from the first two letters of her first and last names) reproduced exuberantly in a lab at Johns Hopkins — the first human cells ever to do so. HeLa became an instant biological superstar, traveling to research labs all over the world. Meanwhile Lacks, a vibrant 31-year-old African-American who had once been a tobacco farmer, tended her five children and endured scarring radiation treatments in the hospital’s “colored” quarter.


After Henrietta Lacks’s death, HeLa went viral, so to speak, becoming the godmother of virology and then biotech, benefiting practically anyone of us who ever taken a pill stronger than aspirin. Scientists have grown some 50 million metric tons of her cells, and you can get some for yourself simply by calling an 800 number. HeLa has helped build thousands of careers, not to mention more than 60,000 scientific studies, with nearly 10 more being published every day, revealing the secrets of everything from aging and cancer to mosquito mating and the cellular effects of working in sewers.



HeLa is so outrageously robust that if one cell lands in a petri dish, it proceeds to take over. And so, like any good celebrity, HeLa had a scandal: In 1966 it became clear that HeLa had contaminated hundreds of cell lines, destroying research as far away as Russia. By 1973, when Lacks’s children were shocked to learn that their mother’s cells were still alive, HeLa had already been to outer space.

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks

During the eight months that Lacks herself was dying of cancer, the HeLa cells so thoroughly eclipsed her that a lab assistant at her autopsy glanced at her painted red toes and thought: “Oh jeez, she’s a real person. . . . I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”


In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot introduces us to the “real live woman,” the children who survived her, and the interplay of race, poverty, science and one of the most important medical discoveries of the last 100 years. Skloot narrates the science lucidly, tracks the racial politics of medicine thoughtfully and tells the Lacks family’s often painful history with grace. She also confronts the spookiness of the cells themselves, intrepidly crossing into the spiritual plane on which the family has come to understand their mother’s continued presence in the world. Science writing is often just about “the facts.” ­Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.

Henrietta Lacks with her husband David
Henrietta Lacks with her husband David


Skloot traces the family’s emotional ordeal, the changing ethics and law around tissue collections, and the inadvertently careless journalists and researchers who violated the family’s privacy by publishing everything from Henrietta’s medical records to the family’s genetic information. She tacks between the perspective of the scientists and the family evenly and fairly, arriving at a paradox described by Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. “Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! . . . But I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.”


Deborah, a generous spirit, becomes the book’s driving force, as Skloot joins her in her “lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.” To find the mother she never got to know, she read hundreds of articles about HeLa research, which led her to believe that her mother was “eternally suffering” from all the experiments performed on her cells. In unsentimental prose, Skloot describes traveling with her to Clover, Va., where Henrietta grew up in her grandfather’s cabin, former slave quarters in a town where the black Lackses and the white Lackses don’t mix. Suffering from hives and extreme anxiety, Deborah seeks out a relative who channels the voice of God. He tells Deborah to let ­Skloot carry the “burden” of the cells from now on, explaining that the cells have become heavenly bodies, immortal angels.


But “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is much more than a portrait of the Lacks family. It is also a critique of science that insists on ignoring the messy human provenance of its materials. “Scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they come from,” a researcher named Robert Stevenson tells Skloot in one of the many ethical discussions seeded throughout the book.

Deborah Lacks and Rebecca Skloot
Deborah Lacks and Rebecca Skloot

The ethical issues implicated in the HeLa story are many and tangled. Since 1951, science has progressed much faster than our ability to figure out what is right and wrong about tissue culture. In the 1980s a doctor who had removed the cancer-ridden spleen of a man named John Moore patented some of the cells to create a cell line then valued at more than $3 billion, without Moore’s knowledge. Moore sued, and on appeal the court ruled that patients had the right to control their tissues, but soon that was struck down by the California Supreme Court, which said that tissue removed from the body had been abandoned as medical waste. The cell line created by the doctor had been “transformed” via his “inventive effort,” and to say otherwise would “destroy the economic incentive to conduct important medical research.” The court said that doctors should disclose their financial interests and called on legislators to increase patient protections and regulation, but this has hardly hindered the growth of the field. In 1999 the RAND Corporation estimated that American labs alone held more than 307 million tissue samples from some 178 million people. Not only is the question of payment for profitable tissues unresolved, Skloot notes, but it’s still not necessary to obtain consent to store cells and tissue taken in diagnostic procedures and then use the samples for research.


In the most touching scene in this book occurred when the Lackses followed Skloot into the world of science, just as she had followed them into the world of faith. In 2001, an Austrian researcher at Johns Hopkins named Christoph Lengauer invited the family to his lab. When Deborah and her brother visited, he led them to the basement, where they “saw” their mother for the first time, warming frozen test tubes of HeLa in their hands and watching as a cell divided into two under a microscope while Lengauer explained his work. Deborah pressed a cold vial to her lips. “You’re famous,” she whispered. “Just nobody knows it.”


The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michelle Alexander (TomDispatch)

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race”. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalised, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colourblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

  • There are more African American adults under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the civil war began.
  • As of 2004, more African American men were disfranchised (due to felon disfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the 15th amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
  • A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
  • If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labelled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste – not class, caste – permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

There is, of course, a colourblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades – they are currently at historical lows – but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the “war on drugs” and the “get tough movement”. Drug offences alone accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, between 1985 to 2000, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.

The drug war has been brutal, but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of colour, even though studies consistently show that people of all colours use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youths are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youths. They also have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, African Americans comprise 80-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of colour and not middle-class suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.

Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working-class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing and affirmative action.

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicising inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.

The plan worked like a charm. For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news. Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes – sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries.

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words: “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The facts bear him out. Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offence) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labelled a felon.

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found? The answer is yes … in made-for-TV movies. In real life, the answer is no.

Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses. What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests. To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: with black people rounded up en masse for relatively minor, nonviolent drug offences. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s – the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war – nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city.

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time – a new Jim Crow system. Millions of people of colour are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers – not to mention president of the United States – causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. Nearly a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage as in 1968. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in developing countries. And that’s with affirmative action.

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colourblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure – the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.

The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

“Herein lie buried many things which, if read with patience, may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the 20th century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line”.


This prophecy may have seemed far-fetched when first published in 1903, but it was to prove more and more compelling as the century advanced. Its author was WEB du Bois, the greatest of the early civil-rights leaders, a figure of towering significance in American politics and letters, whose life and work are – alas – little known on this side of the Atlantic. Remembered for his single-minded commitment to racial justice and his capacity to shape black consciousness, Du Bois used language and ideas to hammer out a strategy for political equality and to sound the depths of the black experience in the aftermath of slavery. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois set out to paint a vivid portrait of black people in the decades after emancipation in 1862 – how they lived and who they really were: and thus to enlighten white America – still profoundly attached to the myths of black inferiority – as to the true meaning of being black in post-civil war America.

The book was, as Du Bois’s biographer David Levering Lewis describes it, “like a firework going off in a cemetery… sound and light, enlivening the inert and despairing. It was an electrifying manifesto, mobilising people for bitter, prolonged struggle to win a place in history.” It combined life portraits of characteristic individuals, based on Du Bois’s travels in the south, with descriptions of the social and economic conditions of the rural poor, a deeply historical understanding of American race relations, and reflections on leadership and the role of education.

It also included fiction, poetry and musical scores. His chapter, “The Sorrow Songs”, expands on the significance of the bars of music from famous Negro spirituals which, alongside verses of English poetry – the two representing the Negro’s divided inheritance – are threaded through as epigraphs to each chapter. Despite his own agnosticism, the vernacular “sorrow songs” became the privileged vehicle for expressing “the deep religious feeling of the real Negro heart” – the soul of black experience. The biblical echoes and cadences of the black church in the book’s language made it for later generations, as critic Arnold Rampersad has said, itself “a kind of sacred book”.

William Edward Burghardt du Bois (he insisted on the pronunciation “Du Boyce”) was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, a small, Republican New England town set among the rivers and hills of south-west Massachusetts. He was a mulatto, of Huguenot Calvinist and Bantu African slave descent. His father, Alfred, disappeared early, and Willie was brought up by his mother, Mary Silvina, and her family, the Burghardts, free blacks who prospered in small farming, and had lived in Great Barrington since the 17th century. Precociously clever as a boy, and moving easily in Great Barrington’s inter-racial society, Du Bois was nevertheless the only black child in his class; an episode when a white girl refused to accept his visiting card made him aware that he was “different from the others”. Later, he expanded this sense of isolation into a fully-fledged philosophy.

He went to Fisk University in Nashville, his first experience of the black south, and taught for two summers in rural Tennessee, where he “touched the very shadow of slavery”. “Hence forward,” he said, “I was a Negro.”

He came to understand how emancipated slaves who, as Levering Lewis observes, had come “singing, praying and aspiring out of slavery”, had so swiftly fallen into poverty, degradation and indifference as a result of their marginalisation. Du Bois aimed to show instead the spiritual depth and complexity of life behind “the veil”. This was one of two metaphors he coined to characterise the black experience; the other was the concept of “double consciousness”.

The veil has biblical associations; double consciousness, philosophical ones. Du Bois argued that racism and the practices of segregation excluded blacks from mainstream American life – “shut them out of their world by a vast veil”. Exiled within, a stranger in his own home, always looking at himself through the eyes of another race, being both African and American, the Negro was destined to have a double self, a divided soul, the bearer of a “double consciousness… One ever feels his two-ness… two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body.”

Du Bois offered no resolution, accepting that blacks were destined to live permanently with this tension. Paradoxically, he also believed that the veil offered the Negro a profound insight into his divided nation. As in Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave, the slave, confronting “the mortal terror of his sovereign master”, was driven by this struggle-to-the-death to a higher consciousness of freedom than that of white Americans.

Du Bois went on to Harvard, the summit of his educational ambitions (he said he was “at – but not of – Harvard”), where he fell under the influence of teachers such as Josiah Royce, William James and George Santayana. After graduation, he became the first African-American to study in Berlin. There, this prickly, somewhat arrogant young man was liberated. He found the relative lack of racism in Europe remarkable. He mimicked the German student style, grew a Kaiser-like moustache and adopted Bismark as a hero. He discovered classical music and opera, especially Wagner.

Lohengrin plays an important part in the fictional “Of The Coming of John” chapter, where John, a southern black man returning from a northern education, murders his white “double” (the other John) for taking liberties with a black woman, and faces lynching by his townsfolk. Du Bois read German literature and philosophy – Goethe, Heine, Schiller, above all Hegel. The imprint of Hegel’s view of the progress of the World Spirit as a series of stages marked by successive conceptions of freedom, remained with him throughout his life, as sociologist Paul Gilroy has suggested. More significantly, he made contact with the powerful tradition of the German social sciences – Alfred Wagner, Schmoller, Max Weber – and became fired with the desire to turn these critical tools on the racial situation in the US.


He returned to Harvard to complete his PhD – another African-American first – before launching his unprecedented programme of sociological research. His work on the conditions of life among Negro communities in Philadelphia and around Atlanta provided the foundations of several chapters in The Souls of Black Folk as well as underpinning the avalanche of political journalism, novels and other writings he launched on the world.

Passionate about the power of ideas, Du Bois was also a determined political activist. He wrote, lectured and travelled everywhere. In 1905 he launched the Niagara Movement, the first black-led organisation committed to civil and political rights, and subsequently co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the most powerful integrated civil-rights organisation until the upheavals of the 1960s. He began to edit its enormously influential campaigning journal, The Crisis, writing polemical editorials that addressed every conceivable topic of interest to black Americans.


By the 1890s the abolitionist dream had faded, and Black Reconstruction, designed to build emancipated slaves into the political system, had been defeated. The old southern white oligarchy and the “new rich”, in collusion with northern industrialists, who wanted to invest in a south with a plentiful supply of cheap black labour, began to roll back the tide. Ex-slaves, without incomes or capital, were driven off the land into the indebtedness and poverty of share-cropping. Following the Plessy v Ferguson decision, in which the Supreme Court upheld Homer Plessy’s conviction in Louisiana for travelling in a whites-only train carriage, “Jim Crow” legislation spread through the south, segregating public facilities. White supremacist ideas began to circulate again. Then the lynchings began…

The Souls of Black Folk was Du Bois’s attempt to stem this reversal. It was distinctive for its unswerving commitment to the black ballot and the liberal education that had helped Du Bois to expand his own mind. This brought him into collision which the most powerful black leader of the time, Booker T Washington – known for his manipulative cunning as “the wizard” – with his influential base at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and his supporters among the northern philanthropists. In his autobiography Up From Slavery (1901) and elsewhere, Washington advocated an accommodation with the south- the famous “Atlanta com-promise” – based on trading the black right to vote against better economic opportunities, and advocating a narrow, vocational training for blacks, designed to equip them to be industrial workers.

This quarrel split the black movement down the middle, and was compounded by Du Bois’s ideas on leadership. In Souls, Du Bois criticised Washington’s charismatic style and educational programme, and called for a “saving elite”, or “talented tenth” of educated African-Americans to give direction to the civil-rights struggle, offering “leadership by exceptional men” (though it should be pointed out that Du Bois was passionately pro-feminist and forged political as well as emotional relationships with many women activists).

Was Du Bois’s “talented tenth” idea, as Washington and others charged, elitist? Du Bois had spent long periods in, and learned much from the south: his experiences there had transformed his political outlook. However, he was formed, intellectually, among northerners. His peers and political associates were largely drawn from the talented sons and daughters of urban, middle-class, northern black professionals, with privileged backgrounds and university educations. Washington claimed to speak on behalf of the downtrodden, poor southern blacks who lacked such prospects. For Du Bois, this was no reason for denying them their political and educational rights.

Certainly, Washington’s “industrial training” was not designed to produce committed political leadership. Besides, where was the leadership of the immediate post-slavery decades likely to come from other than the ranks of the educated, politically conscious, free black professionals of the north? This elitist/populist tension recurred in the later split between Du Bois’s integrationist perspective and the Afro-centric approach of Marcus Garvey, whom Du Bois strongly opposed. It surfaced again during the “Harlem renaissance”, Du Bois, in this instance, finding the leaders of the “arts and letters movement” too removed from the concerns of ordinary black folk. In different versions, it continues to haunt African-American politics today, for example in the suspicion shown by black community activists towards mainstream politicians.

In fact, though Du Bois was constantly locked in argument of this kind about the future direction of the struggle, his outlook was constantly expanding. He spent more time in Europe, began to learn more about the plight of colonial peoples of African descent, and met the leaders of the anti-imperialist struggles of the day. He helped organised several Pan-African congresses, including the famous fifth held just after the end of the second world war in Manchester, and attended by Amy Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah. This growing Pan-Africanism helped him to place the race issue in a wider, trans-Atlantic context.

In the later part of his life, as the situation for African-Americans worsened during the depression years, Du Bois became increasingly pessimistic about the chances of equality, and disillusioned with the land of his birth. His racial thinking shifted emphasis, from the integration of a new group into an old nation, to the creation of a new, black nation. He mistrusted the motives behind the American Communist party’s growing involvement in race issues during the 1930s, arguing that the racial division between white and black workers made America an “exception” to Marx’s class-struggle theory.

However, as his disillusionment grew, he showed increasing communist leanings. After his 1947 appeal to the UN on behalf of the black struggle was supported by the Soviet Union and opposed by the US, he gravitated towards the far left, defending the Rosenbergs and eulogising Stalin. He joined the Peace Information Centre, defined by the US government as an “agent of foreign interests”, was refused a passport and, when finally allowed abroad in the late 1950s, met Khrushchev, Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai before attending independence celebrations in Ghana and Nigeria. He had supported Martin Luther King in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955-6, but had become deeply alienated from America, partly as a result of continuing passport problems, and in 1961 he accepted Nkrumah’s invitation and went into self-imposed exile in Ghana, becoming a Ghanaian citizen in 1963.

On August 27, aged 95, on the eve of the great civil rights march on Washington, he died and was given a state funeral in Accra. His place in history was publicly acknowledged from the Washington march platform by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP – “at the dawn of the 20th century, his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause”.

Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim

“Always remember whether you be sucker or hustler in the world out there, you’ve got that vital edge if you can iron- clad your feelings. I picture the human mind as a movie screen. If you’re a dopey sucker, you’ll just sit and watch all kinds of mindwrecking, damn fool movies on that screen.

After all, we are the absolute bosses of that whole theatre and show in our minds. We even write the script. So always write positive, dynamic scripts and show only the best movies for you on that screen whether you are pimp or priest.”

Iceberg Slim, or Robert Beck as he would become, was born Robert Lee Maupin, in Chicago on 4 August 1918. Much of his childhood was spent in Milwaukee’s poor North Side and the industrial town of Rockford, Illinois – consistently ranked as one of America’s most blighted cities – before he returned to Chicago as a teenager. His father left, and his mother supported the family by working as a domestic and running a beauty shop. He later – somewhat uncharitably – credited her with having prepared him for the pimp lifestyle by pampering him during his childhood. As a teenager in the mid 30s, Robert briefly attended the Tuskegee Institute, at the same time as Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, though the two moved in different circles, each oblivious to the presence of the other.

In his book Pimp: The Story of My Life, Iceberg Slim recounts his personal autobiography as an intellectually-gifted teenager growing up in the world before desegregation. Through various events in his life, he ultimately becomes a pimp in between jail stints.

As soon as Slim is born, he has problems. As an infant, his father becomes enraged and slams his body against a wall, walking out on the family. From then on, his mother tries to raise him on her own, but since there is only one parent and she is responsible for supporting them both, Slim is often left alone as a child. He is left alone with a babysitter named Maude who sexually abuses him when he is only 3 years old.

Slim and his mother move to Indianapolis afterwards and a man visiting his relatives, Henry Upshaw, immediately falls in love with Slim’s mother. Henry is the only father figure Iceberg has in his lifetime and is the best person in his life. Henry reciprocates the affection and loves Iceberg and his mother immensely. Slim’s mother, however, falls in love with a scoundrel named Steve. Giving Henry a weak excuse that they will return again soon, Slim’s mother packs up Iceberg and meets up with Steve. Iceberg is destroyed by leaving Henry and cries as hard as he can. He misses Henry for the rest of his life. Henry dies a year after Slim and his mother leave him.

Slim meets a hustler named Party Time. Together, Party Time and Slim work a small-time con with Slim dressing up as a woman and pretending to be a black hooker to entice white men to meet “her” down an alley. They pay Party Time to meet the mysterious hooker, but by the time they walk down the alley, Slim takes off through the alleyways. Eventually, Party Time is busted and goes to jail for a year, though he never reveals Slim’s name to the police.

By this time, Slim is 15 years old and graduates high school with a near-perfect 98.1 grade point average. He is recruited to go to Tuskegee University, but drops out after getting into a scandal with the local college girls. He has a relationship with a girl and asks her to turn a trick for him. They are eventually busted and this setup sends Slim to jail for the first time at age 17. He is released and meets a woman at his mother’s beauty salon named Pepper. Pepper teaches Slim many of his “freaky” sexual tricks he will use on women in future years. Through a con of her own, Pepper sends Slim to jail for the second time.

Slim is released from his second stint in jail just months from his twentieth birthday. He listens and learns from former pimps in jail and wants to start pimping on his own. He scores his first hooker Runt shortly after leaving jail. Runt eventually sends him to another stint in jail through a betrayal of her own.

Slim grows in popularity and has a growing number of hookers working for him over the years. After Runt and Ophelia send Slim to jail, he is reduced to nothing and has to again start from scratch. He tries to regain his glory, but is quickly sent to jail again, shortly after his release, for robbing a drug dealer. He escapes from jail while serving this sentence.

Slim gets busted for being in a hotel room with an unmarried woman in Montana and they discover the escape charge on him. They send him back to prison. There, he finally decides to give up pimping and drugs for good. He studies the law and gets an early release. He hurries back to see Mama who lives only 6 more months before dying.

Pimp, described as an “autobiographical novel”, was published in 1969 by Holloway House. The New York Times decided the subject matter was too rich and refused to print an advert for it, but the book was soon being shelved alongside the works of other black authors of the 60s and 70s, such as Eldridge Cleaver‘s Soul on Ice, Bobby Seale‘s Seize the Time and Malcolm X‘s autobiography. As the more militant black movements established a foothold in African-American communities, Slim met Huey P Newton and other members of the Black Panther party, whom he regarded as kindred spirits. Either through political naivety or hustler’s self-justification, he considered his success as a pimp as having struck a blow against white oppression. The Black Panthers, however, had little regard for him, considering his former profession to be little more than the exploitation of his own people for personal gain.

Yet Slim’s books were successful, and immediately attracted widespread attention among black youth. Even Hollywood got interested: following the success of The Godfather, gangster chic was in vogue. Trick Baby made it on to the screen in 1973, directed by Larry Yust. Universal Pictures snapped up the film rights to Pimp, only for the project to be thought too contentious and put on indefinite hold. For many years rumours have abounded that a film of the book is about to be produced, with the rival Slim-inspired “Ices”, T and Cube, vying for the lead role.

One of Slim’s most endearing features was that he never made any excuses for the life he had led. His writing is characterised by a scrupulous honesty about both the social reality and the hyperreal theatricality of street life – the template for the hip-hoppers and rappers who followed him. Slim admitted that one reason he stopped pimping and became a writer was his fear of being exploited by younger prostitutes. In his works, the hookers are seldom simply victims of the pimps but more often fellow ghetto strugglers with the same grifter sensibility.

The works of Robert Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, have made a powerful impact on our global cultural landscape and should be essential reading. We have to get beyond his life as a pimp, and accept him as one of the most influential writers of our age.

Warning: Contains explicit language