Between the World and Ta-Nehisi Coates

Altair Brandon-Salmon on an autobiographical look at American racism

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Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses his autobiographical rumination on race relations in America, Between the World and Me (2015), to his son, Samori. This is how he sums up his advice: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” It’s Coates conviction that America, founded on the backs of slaves, has been irrevocably tainted by its original sin; institutionally, culturally, all-pervasively racist.

Coates has become the most influential African American writer of his generation, his series of long articles for The Atlantic becoming required reading, from the angry, incisive ‘The Case for Reparations’ (2014) to the moving, ‘My President was Black’ (2016). He is a journalist unafraid to embed his personal experiences into highly detailed reportage. Between the World and Me, his second book, comes after his 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle, and won the 2015 National Book Award. Despite such worldly success, Coates’ pessimism runs deep, unconvinced racism will ever be ‘solved’ in the US.

He writes powerfully that “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” Yet this nakedness, its fear and vulnerability, are constants, can never be left behind by Coates or by his son. America is an environment where new
methods of oppression are invented at every stage, from the lash of the slave-owner to the police officer’s bullet in the back. The book is a confession to his son, that he is incapable of protecting him, that he can never be truly safe.

Coates’ great rhetorical devices is to term white America ‘the Dreamers’, perpetuating the American Dream, an intrinsically racist construct used to disguise African Americans oppression, blaming their lack of achievement as a lack of effort.This alienation Coates feels from white America leads to most provocative passage in the book. Witnessing the events of 9/11 unfold from his apartment building in Brooklyn, he says, “my heart was cold. I had disasters all my own… I would never consider any American citizen pure.” Coates, despite his atheism, has an almost catholic belief in the original sin of slavery transmitting down through the generations, affecting all. Written before the election of Donald Trump, Coates clearly has no time for the myths of Obama’s post-racial America.

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The book however, is not without its faults. The description of the murder of a friend, Prince Jones, is seen as a watershed in Coates’ consciousness; yet his account of the policeman murdering Jones never fully explains the officer being black as well. Perhaps more troublingly, Coates, despite writing extensively on the black body, rarely moves beyond his own masculine viewpoint to consider the double binds of racism and misogyny black women have been subjected to. Nor does Coates give more than a cursory acknowledgement of the racism inflicted upon Hispanic or Asian Americans. In his defence though, Coates makes no claim that his slim volume is an all-encompassing record of US race relations—it is his experiences he writes about, not others. Astute and sharp tongued, it is a major work by an important writer which, even when you disagree with his points, is always engrossing.