There are many voices, genuine and bogus, that speak for African-Americans both to the black community and the white world. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 39-year-old national correspondent for The Atlantic, is now anointed as the preeminent literary spokesman on matters of race and culture in American media. Whether one likes it or not, Mr. Coates holds great influence in certain quarters for his body of work. His new offering, Between the World and Me is a national bestseller, helped, no doubt, by Coates’ being selected this year as one of the 24 “genius” recipients by the John David and Catherine T. Foundation.
Upon learning that he was picked for the prestigious award, Coates was stunned, responding, “When I first got the call from the MacArthur Foundation I was ecstatic.You know, if anybody even reads what I’m doing, that’s a great day.”
He received a prize of $625,000 over five years to further pursue his writing career.
With the success of his artful 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, Coates has collected several awards, including the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations.” The MacArthur officials spotlighted his writing as “a journalist interpreting complex and challenging issues around race and racism through the lens of personal experience and nuanced historical analysis.”
What sets Coates’ work apart? What has made his last book a runaway bestseller? Why has the white literary world honored this black writer who has earned his keep by spitting in the face of those putting him on a pedestal?
Much has been made of the genesis of Between the World and Me, beginning with Coates’ great admiration of James Baldwin’s 1963 classic work, The Fire Next Time. If you remember, the Bard of Harlem started that literary landfall with his informative “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” It was a powerful summing-up of black youth and their place in Jim Crow America. Baldwin’s words carried hope and optimism amid the racial strife of the 1960’s. He warned of revolutionary courage in the midst of dangerous, legalized apartheid and stressed to his 15-year-old nephew that he make wise choices to avoid a tragic future.
In Between the World, Coates paints a bleak, grim tomorrow for his son, Samori, in the supposed post-racial America. The writer wanted to revisit Baldwin’s themes in modern terms and yet give it a scholarly tone, teamed with a gangsta sensibility. He didn’t copy Baldwin’s work, which some critics compared to the redemptive sermons of the all-knowing pastor. Coates veers from the tried and true, giving his theories the swagger of DMX, the political savvy of Nas, and the rebellious verve of a Public Enemy.
His work is loaded with the presence of the firebrand Malcolm X, the man beloved by his father, Paul Coates, a former Black Panther and publisher of Black Classic Press, a company devoted to out-of-print black books. Coates absorbed Malcolm X’s teachings at an early age, and it shows in every chapter, as he informs his son that he must tread lightly in this nation that doesn’t treat black lives respectfully.
A civil war is occurring in many black communities. These are times of blood, sacrifice, and conflict in these forgotten neighborhoods. Coates, who was raised in West Baltimore, knows this fact, and he’s afraid of the violence on the streets of the Hood. He’s also afraid of the police and what he sees as their bloodlust for young black men.
Still, he’s a survivor. Throughout Between the World and Me, there’s that chilling sense of fear, the dread that someone, either white or black could take the life of his son or himself or someone close to him. As long as the guns are coming into Northern and Midwestern cities through the Dixie pipeline, every day is a crap shoot, and Coates painfully knows this.
For one who doesn’t trust American-style education, Coates totally enjoyed his academic time at Howard University, which he entered at age 17. Soon, overwhelmed by studies and school, he dropped out of “Mecca,” his pet name for his beloved Howard, and fashioned a writing career, working for the Washington City Paper. Later, he wrote for such publications as The Village Voice and others, got involved in a romance, and fathered a child.
Fatherhood changed him. It made him realize he had a new responsibility and obligation in life. With the birth of his son, his fear of a violent death as a powerless black man consumed him. He wisely knew that many black lives have an expiration date, especially in besieged neighborhoods. He asks: how can you be free living in a black body when many young black men and women have a target on their backs. In his book, he expresses the fear and concern that every black parent feels whenever his child leaves the home.
“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession,” he writes, apologizing to the son that he cannot protect. “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. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.”
Realizing how quickly a black life can end, Coates knows first-hand when a boy once pulled a gun on him but had second thoughts and didn’t shoot. He concludes that black lives do not matter, especially in the prime of youth. Also, he acknowledges being young and black can lead to errors, errors that can cost one’s life.
As Coates, the father, writes, “But you are human, and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell. You will drink too much. You will hang out with people you shouldn’t. Not all of us can be Jackie Robinson—not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson.”
Many black and white critics have singled out that Coates believes that democracy in America is a myth, a false dream. “Democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies – torture, theft, enslavement – are specimens of sin so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune.
For him, the social and cultural difference of whites and blacks trying to co-exist in America is as bad as it was under the tyranny of Jim Crow. Since there is a constant dark cloud of despair and violence hanging over his people, the rules of this democracy don’t apply to blacks.
“Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets. But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day.”
Unlike the golden dream of freedom espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, Coates doesn’t believe in one person transforming the system or any moral correction of institutions that only want to save itself at all cost. According to Coates, America is a scam. “Historians conjured the Dream,” he states. “Hollywood fortified the Dream. Dreamers are the ones who continue to believe the lie at black people’s expense.”
Equality or total assimilation will never happen, Coates adds. “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own.”
A critic of President Obama’s sentimental, post-racial America, Coates insists there is nothing evil in “the destroyers, who are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.” He further defines “the visceral experience of racism,” which destroys everything it touches, including young black bodies. The murder rate of black youth killing black youth astounds him.
Unlike most prominent black scribes, Coates doesn’t believe in God or Christianity. He has taken a lot of heat for that. There are no righteous Mahalia Jackson or T. D. Jakes moments in this book. All of that uplift and bright spark of hope are absent within these pages. “There’s a kind of optimism especially within Christianity about the world – about whose side God is on. Well, I didn’t have any of that in my background. I had physicality and chaos,” the writer told a New York Magazine reporter last July.
What I admire most about this work of Coates is his gonzo blend of history, poetry, romance, quotes, and traditional scorn through his journey of the bleak Baltimore streets, the Howard University academic magic, the teaching moments at the Civil War battlefields, the gritty, the South Side of Chicago, the abrupt brush with racism when he takes his son to the movies in Manhattan, and the transformative time in France.
Any reader will get a lump in his throat when he reads about the tragic death of Prince Jones, a college friend of Coates, by an undercover cop from the Prince George’s County Police Department. This event enrages Coates, who sees the black officer’s shooting go unpunished. He lists a partial tally of the victims including Michael Brown, Travon Martin, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice.
“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that he’s doing is good or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”
Despite the doom and gloom of many of his themes, Coates still suggests his son to press forward with his life. “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…But don’t struggle for the Dreamers.”
Coates doesn’t have all of the answers in this slim, controversial book but he makes us ponder deeply on the convoluted questions of race and culture. He also benefits greatly from his surly, articulate turns of phrase.
I don’t agree with those who say he should shut up. I don’t agree with those who say he’s airing dirty laundry. I agree with any writer who can get himself heard in this storm of media static. Ride this gravy train as far as you can, Mr. Coates. Boldly have your say and speak some basic truths to those who need enlightenment.
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