Recently I had a conversation with my 10-year-old son. He had asked me why my voice sometimes sounds different when I am in the company of my black friends than it does when I am on the phone talking with, say, his white camp counselor. I told him: “Because black folks have language that feels good among us, and language that is necessary for certain other folks to hear -- language we use when we are on our cultural best behavior that sounds more formed, facilitated, intentional.” My brown boy responded, not half a second between the end of my sentence and the beginning of his, clear and unhesitant: “I know.”
It was the kind of exchange that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in his book “Between the World and Me” as “the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black … the personal language of my people.”
Written as a letter to Coates’ 15-year-old son, Samori, “Between the World and Me” features only one blurb -- because when the blurb is from Toni Morrison all you need is one blurb -- broken into two parts. On the front cover: “This is required reading.” On the back flap: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” It goes on to say that the book’s “examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory.”
Although I agree that “Between the World and Me” is required reading, I think it’s not so much for its profundity or revelation but, rather, because of its offering as affirmation. For someone who proudly calls himself an atheist, Coates gives us a whole lot of “Can I get an amen?” in this slim and essential volume of familial joy and rigorous struggle.
Coates, a national correspondent for the Atlantic perhaps best known for his award-winning 2014 cover story “The Case for Reparations,” has become the most sought-after public intellectual on the issue of race in America, with good reason. “Between the World and Me,” rushed to print (its original publication date was set for September) in the wake of the Charleston massacre, the multiple fatal shootings of black men by police in just the last year and the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement, is at once a magnification and a distillation of our existence as black people in a country we were not meant to survive. It is a straight tribute to our strength, endurance and grace. This comes through most eloquently when he writes about “the Mecca” of Howard University, where he found a spectrum of black people “who knew the length of the road because they had traveled it too”; developed his love for Malcolm, black art and music; and welcomed the “brawl of ancestors” he found in the archives at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, where his father had once worked.
Then there is the way he describes our relationship as parents to the lives we bring into this world: “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.” The latter is, of course, reminiscent of Morrison’s novel “Beloved,” a story built on the premise that a mother would rather kill her children, and does, than have them live as slaves.
As to the James Baldwin baton-passing -- I have always found it unsettling when younger generations of artists and writers and intellectuals, particularly those of us who are black and for whom the burden of potential greatness is already heavy and fraught, are compared to the anointed ones who achieved and succeeded before us, as if our value is contingent only upon how much we remind this country of another one of the “firsts” or the exceptional black people who more likely than not suffered daily angst and trauma, and ended up dead because of either or both.
But if we are making comparisons between Coates and other literary brethren, I see more of John Edgar Wideman in this text than Baldwin -- particularly Wideman’s “Brothers and Keepers.” In that memoir, Wideman struggles with an inchoate choler to reconcile the divergent paths of him as an accomplished author and his younger brother, Robby, sentenced to life in prison for murder. Wideman and Coates both write with a careful, plain and naked love of people and family, a meticulous sanity of words and a deep, abiding loyalty to each man’s own emotion.
Like “Brothers and Keepers,” “Between the World and Me” is the story of two black men bound together by blood – in this case, Coates and his son. Which, on its own, is fine. What is less fine is the near-complete absence of black women throughout the book, which has been addressed by a handful of reviews, notably those from the Guardian’s Syreeta McFadden and BuzzFeed’s Shani O. Hilton, the latter of whom astutely points out that “the black male experience is still used as a stand in for the black experience.”
While it is clear that Coates has focused on the black male, he has also written a book that speaks resolutely and vividly to all of black America: “We have made something down here. We have taken the one-drop rules of Dreamer and flipped them,” he writes. The “Dreamer” or the “Dreamers” Coates refers to throughout the book are, of course, the founders and beneficiaries of all that is and all who are great and white and moneyed in America. “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”
And as a people, we are anchored by black women. The last section of “Between the World and Me” is largely dedicated to Dr. Mable Jones, the 70-year-old mother of Prince Jones, the unarmed Howard University student and friend of Coates who was followed from Maryland through Washington, D.C., and into Virginia, where he was fatally shot by a Prince George County undercover police officer in 2000. At her home outside of Philadelphia, Jones speaks to Coates about her murdered son “like an American, with the same expectations of fairness, even fairness belated and begrudged, that she took into medical school … like a black woman, with all the pain that undercuts those exact feelings.” She is not hopeful about the future -- “We don’t understand that we are embracing our deaths” -- but Coates allows her to center his crowning message to Samori.
“Our bodies are too precious,” he writes. “And you are here now, and you must live -- and there is too much out there to live for, not just in someone else’s country, but in your own home.”
It is a message I have told and will continue to tell my own son many times over, for as long as he is here.
Between the World and Me
Spiegel & Grau: 152 pp., $24
Carroll is the author of five books, including “Saving the Race: Conversations on Du Bois From a Collective Memoir of Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Ebony, Good, the Daily Beast, Jezebel and the Guardian, where she is a regular opinion writer.
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