When a patron saint of American literature like Toni Morrison calls a book “required reading,” you pick up a copy with one hand and a pen with the other, and you brace yourself, knowing what follows is not going to be easy. If you do follow her advice, though, and start working through Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new memoir, Between The World And Me, you will not regret it.
The book is framed as a letter by Coates, one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, to his son, Samori, and it reads like a Commencement Address, the kind of fiery speech every college student needs to hear yet so rarely does. As Samori graduates from childish innocence about the world to a more sophisticated understanding of its complexities, Coates guides him by laying out, with unsparing honesty, the paradox of American life. We pretend, as a nation, that the American dream is accessible to all, that 300 million citizens are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, yet American prosperity is built on the broken bodies of people who were kidnapped from their homes, brought across an ocean in shackles, and enslaved.
Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.
To make matters worse, instead of spending the 20th century trying to come to terms with that crime and make amends, white America dedicated itself to finding inventive new ways to subjugate its black population, to keep it in ghettos and feed it a toxic diet of hopelessness and guns.
“You are the bearer of a body more fragile,” Coates tells Samori. And: “The police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.” This has been made heartbreakingly clear over and over again since Trayvon Martin was gunned down and denied justice in 2012, as so many other men and women, boys and girls—including 12-year-olds playing with toys in Cleveland—have also been snuffed out. Too many seem to see black and brown bodies as threatening, dangerous, to be subdued.
Coates points out that most of white America is not overtly racist anymore. Especially now that the Confederate flags are coming down from state flagpoles, polite society approaches racism in much the same way that, a decade or two ago, it treated homosexuality: Even if we don’t approve, we don’t mind so much what you do in the privacy of your own bedroom; just don’t flaunt it, okay?
It is no longer acceptable for mainstream white America to act on its phobias. Instead, it outsources its most fearful and violent expressions of bias to those in uniform. So it’s not of everyday people that Coates is most afraid; it is of the very folks who are paid with his own tax dollars to serve and protect him. As much as he wants his bright, engaging son to remain open-hearted and open-minded, he fears Samori might someday die violently for a small mistake (“our errors always cost us more”), or in fact for no mistake at all (“one racist act. That’s all it takes”).
It was, along those lines, one racist act that abruptly ended the life of Coates’s college friend, a successful, optimistic, religious Christian man named Prince Jones. Jones was executed by a cop in Maryland in a case of mistaken identity. In one of the most moving sections of the book, Coates sits down with Dr. Mabel Jones, Prince’s mother, who gave her son every protection she could, from the blessing of an upper-middle-class upbringing and a top-notch education to skiing lessons and the right clothes. She taught him that he had value. But she had no jurisdiction over the authorities.
Coates wants to prevent his son from meeting a similarly tragic, senseless end, and at the same time knows he cannot. His powerlessness makes him furious; still, no matter how angry he becomes, he remains a poet-philosopher who will leave you spellbound with a phrase like “the god of history is an atheist.” Morrison is, of course, correct that the fierceness of Coates’s talent cannot be ignored. No matter how bitter they may taste, his sentences emit a low, lovely glow.
Parts of this book are grim, because history is grim and the fact that we’ve come so far as a society and yet not nearly far enough is grimmer still. Parts can be hard to take, because we want life to be fair and the American dream to be more than a delusion. Coates is not interested in giving us a bedtime story, however. He is imparting a crucial, eye-opening, and perhaps somehow life-preserving message to the person about whom he cares the most.
“You are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life,” he tells Samori. “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”