The long struggle, the weight of Many Thousands Gone, a deeply felt link to one’s people, – all of this Coates wants, urgently wants to instill through an extended letter to his impressionable young son in his latest book ‘Between The World And Me.’ Coates’s son Samori began crying one night when it was announced on TV that the killer of Michael Brown in Ferguson would not face charges. Coates had no answers or proper consolation. This book followed.
“How do I live free in this black body?,” is Coates’s entry point for exploration of his upbringing and formative intellectual years, through college and into post-graduate life, as told to his son. Coates grew up hard in Baltimore, constantly reminded of the fragility of his body, seeing in one preadolescent boy, “in his small eyes…a surging rage that could, in an instant, erase my body. That was 1986.”
Writes Coates: “To be black in Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.”
Fear overshadowed and united Coates’s family and caused a desperate and fierce sense of love conveyed to him by his elders. “My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us.”
One recalls James Baldwin’s short story, ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ which describes a 1950s Harlem projects living room: “The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about…The child knows they won’t talk anymore because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.”
As a child Coates saw dispatches on TV from this “other world apart,” of White homes, and easygoing friends. As a young parent he brought his son to a suburb of New York and saw a spoiled white child riding his tricycle, taking up the sidewalk as his mother stood by in yoga pants and stroller, and he realized that this child had been taught that the world belonged to him, while he had taught his child fear.
The opening passages which describe Baltimore are sharp, and one wishes for more explanation, for more of Coates’s brilliant social and historical illumination in addition to his description. Gangs proved the inviolability of their bodies through the ability to crack ribs, arms and legs. Schools as education rendered as route discipline, concerned not with curiosity but with compliance.
“The fearless boys and girls who would knuckle up, call on cousins and crews, and, if it came to it, pull guns seemed to have mastered the streets. But their knowledge peaked at seventeen, when they ventured out of their parents’ homes and discovered that America had guns and cousins, too. I same their futures in the tired faces of mothers dragging themselves onto the 28 bus, swatting and cursing at three-year-olds; I saw their futures in the men out on the corner yelling obscenely at some young girl because she would not smile. Some of them stood outside liquor stores waiting on a few dollars for a bottle. We would hand them a twenty and tell them to keep the change. They would dash inside and return with Red Bull, Mad Dog, or Cisco. Then we would walk to the house of someone whose mother worked nights, play ‘Fuck The Police,’ and drink to our youth. We could not get out.”
Coates rejected religion early on, and he was put off by the way school presented the Civil Rights Movement, which he was shown as “a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera.” Coates eschews the American narrative of progress, which President Obama often extolls, where each generation moves closer to justice through universal enlightenment. Instead, Coates sees the moves toward justice as hard fought radical breaks with the American ideal, not a realization of it. Blaming the oppressed, “a great number of educators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intentions’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”
The middle section of the book is an homage to “The Mecca,” that is, Howard University, the historically black college in Washington D.C., and Coates pays tribute to the school, its people and his formation of a political consciousness and meditations on race:
‘“White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons. There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all history. But some of these same straight-haired people with blue eyes have been ‘black,’ and this points to the great difference between their world and ours. We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible. They are the ones who came up with the one-drop rule that separated ‘white’ from ‘black,’ even if it meant that their own blue-eyed sons would live under the lash. The result is a people, black people, who embody all physical varieties and whose life stories mirror their physical range. Through The Mecca I saw that we were, in our own segregated body politic, cosmopolitans. The black diaspora was not just our own world but, in so many ways, the Western world itself.”
To novelist Saul Bellow’s quip “who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?,” Coates, through his reading, found a reply from Robert Wiley, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” wrote Wiley. “Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”
The reader feels a sense of desperation or longing in Coates’s voice. Perhaps he realizes that his son is going to have to experience all of these things, this intellectual realization and coming to consciousness, for himself, yet he wants to try and instill it in his son anyway, ahead of time. He wants to give his son Samori a small manifesto to remember where he came from, that he belongs to a people “born out of mass rape.” Coates humanizes this abstraction in one of his most poignant passages:
“I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. ‘Slavery’ is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world – which is really the only world she can ever know – ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. 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.”
The rest of the book revolves loosely around a formative event: the murder by the Prince George’s County Police in Maryland of the promising young black scholar, Prince Carmen Jones, of Howard University. This marred Coates and solidified his views. “My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.”
In this book there is no policy solution, no prescription and no answers, as comes out so clearly in Coates’s essays and articles. He is trying to provide these lessons to his relatively privileged son while simultaneously protecting him from it, and one senses that anxiety and tension. He is ashamed for teaching Samori caution instead of ownership, as with that young boy on the tricycle, but he wants him to understand why he chose this path. To Samori this slim, 150-page book must weigh about a ton. For the reader, one may read this book and feel depressed, or one may feel angry, and anger can be a good start.