Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015), 152pp.
Toni Morrison has called Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book "required reading." That's usually just a dust-jacket blurb by the marketing department, but this time it might be true. In her review for the New York Times, Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) says she read the book twice. The book has been nominated for a 2015 National Book Award in non-fiction, and just two months after its release in July of 2015, Coates (b.1975) won a MacArthur "Genius Grant."
Coates' book is a 152-page letter to his 15-year-old son Samori that's rooted in a harsh critique of race history in America, both past and present. "How do I live free in this black body?" he asks, given that progress in America remains predicated upon systemic violence against blacks? Race isn't a biological or ethnic category for Coates, it's a carefully crafted social construction built from the likes of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, red lining, and numerous federal policies.
The violence is exacerbated by the American myths of exceptionalism and innocence. There's also the power of a comforting national narrative that Coates calls The Dream, which is, in fact, our collective delusion. There's nothing broken or aberrant here, nor should we be surprised, for the system is working just like the Dreamers have planned.
Coates recalls his experiences of growing up in West Baltimore. His adolescent years on the streets and in the schools and black churches felt like a parallel universe, a "cosmic injustice," compared to the lives of the Dreamers. New experiences at Howard University (his personal "Mecca") expanded his horizons, as did moving to New York City and trips to Paris. But the rage returned when a black classmate was murdered by a black policeman.
There's no consolation here. Coates doesn't tell his son that things will get better. There's little encouragement to be had from genuine progress, like electing a black president twice (cf. Eugene Robinson, Disintegration). He feels trapped in his own carefully constructed and alternative "weaponized history," and "tied to old ways." It's naive to hope the Dreamers will change. He has no religious faith or political hope that justice will be served. He's full of fears, and even a sense of powerlessness: "We cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own... There is no velocity of escape." He offers no answers, just many complicated questions.
This feels like an implacable destiny and a recipe for defeatism. At best, Coates counters The Dream with "The Struggle." The object and goal of the Struggle will likely "escape our grasp," but there is wisdom to be found at the bottom of the well. The Struggle has meaning in and of itself; it "assures you an honorable and sane life." The Struggle, Coates tells Samori, "is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of this world under your control."