Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is part memoir and part testimonial, but it is also a Black father’s textual and public initiation of his Black son into the edgy paradox that is Black manhood in the U.S. Coates opens his letter with an anecdote about an interview he conducts from “a remote studio in the far west of Manhattan” with a Washington DC based TV host on the significance of “losing” his body. The writer confesses he is saddened by the question because not only does it highlight the physical and metaphorical distance separating the television host and himself, according to Coates the question conjures images of the American God, democracy, Abraham Lincoln’s speech in Gettysburg, and the proverbial “people.” But, Coates is particularly saddened because he is aware of a disturbing ideal in the American context whereby “race” is “implicitly” accepted by Americans, “but to which they make no conscious claim.” He is also aware that the essence of racism is “the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them.”
In this equation, the body, the object of vilification and eventual destruction, takes on a significance in this edict to Samori, his son, and other Black boys coming of age in what the writer describes as the ‘galaxy’—which at times still seems beholden to an era where to “humiliate, reduce, and destroy” Black bodies was enforced with impunity.
In fact, the body is significant for Coates not solely as an extension of the individual self, but because it is the representation of its place [or race] in the hierarchy that is an offshoot of racism. The body is significant because Coates knows that if Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride and countless others were not in the bodies in which they were in, when fate arbitrarily ended their lives in the manner in which it did, they would still be in possession of their bodies.
Fortunately for Samori, his father was raised by parents, who like most parents of their hue, raised him with an awareness of the significance of his body in a way that enabled him to confront the starkness of his place in the “galaxy”; yet unlike other Black folks, who had retreated “into the church and its mysteries,” resigned to the monstrosity that history had begotten them, Coates recounts how his “parents rejected all dogmas,” noting that in his household, “we spurned the holidays marketed by the people who wanted to be white. We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God. And so I had no sense that any just God was on my side.”
Immersed in this world of Black bodies, Coates’s extended family emerge as an armor against a “galaxy” that in ways was constituted and enriched by the debasement of the body, which he inhabits. In this regard, the writer pays homage to his Philadelphia based grandmother, who emerges as perhaps his most impactful teacher; the one who would punish him to write, and who impressed in him the need “to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself.” And this self, as Coates demonstrates, transcends that body, and the distortions, which accompany its harmonious being in a world that wants to objectify and destroy it.
Still meditating on the significance of the body, Coates summons the memory of fellow Howard University peer and one time love-interest rival, Prince Carmen Jones, a “scion of a striving class” gunned down in Virginia by a Black police officer working for a majority Black police department in majority Black run Prince George County, Maryland.
Coates recalls attending the Jones’ memorial service, sitting amongst other mourners in Howard’s Rankin Chapel during the funeral service, and reflecting on how he was “raised conscious, in rejection of a Christian God.” He notes that he “could see no higher purpose in Prince’s death,” ruminating in that moment that “our bodies are ourselves.” He concludes “my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”
The significance of the body, the Black body, is splayed across this personal public correspondence in a assortment of hues. There are the Black bodies, with their coterie of accents, animating the writer’s Howard University Mecca; there are Black bodies dancing in Washington DC’s U Street; there are the young Black bodies of the writer’s West Baltimore youth; there are the bodies of the women the writer has loved. And of course the bodies of boys and girls with absentee fathers, and resilient mothers; the bodies of those conditioned by fear.
It is this fear that compels the writer to conclude that, “The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.”
Between the World and Me is an engaging read that unfolds with honesty and tenderness. While it might be tempting to situate Coates among scribes of a bygone era like when reading Coates’s incisive interrogation of the significance of the Black body in the American garden, this book-length letter is best read within the context of the visible and invisible forces that forged Coates into the son he was, the father and husband he is, and the writer he has become. It should be read for what it is, as opposed to what it could or should be.
In her blurb for the book, Toni Morrison not only anoints Coates as James Baldwin’s intellectual heir, but also notes that the work’s “examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory.” Meanwhile Cornel West, in a Facebook post that garnered as much attention as Coates’s work countered, stating that in “our age of superficial spectacle, even the great Morrison is seduced by the linguistic glitz and political silences of Coates as we all hunger for the literary genius and political engagement of Baldwin.” West goes on to argue that Baldwin’s “painful self-examination led to collective action and a focus on social movements.” West is right that Baldwin’s work was braided to the struggles of his era, but is wrong when he suggest that Coates is cowardly for not engaging in certain causes in the manner in which West thinks he should. In fact, writing about race has never been a cowardly act; it was not in Baldwin’s era, and neither is it now.
Another early critic of “Between the World and Me” is Shani O. Hilton who lamented that the “inclusion of black women in this work doesn’t seem to have progressed much further than Baldwin’s time,” an era, which according to her “the two requirements of being a “race man” are 1) being black, and 2) being male.” She then surmises that that the “book being rushed to print is surely due, at least in part, to the very specific moment we’re in where America is being forced to confront the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police.” While there is some validity in Hilton’s reading, it is a tad bit unfair to expect Coates to write from a perspective that is not his and can never be his.
Coates is a man of his time. This letter reflects that reality and is, perhaps nothing more than a singular meditation on Blackness from a particular perspective molded by a singular experience in the unfolding epic that is U.S history. He could not have written this letter to Samori if he were born in Harlem in 1924. It would not be the same voice and tone; it would not have the same pace and passion. This letter will not unfold in this manner had the writer not grown up in West Baltimore, imbibed street code, bopped to hip-hop, found his Mecca, dropped out of Howard University, and attempt to transcend the barriers separating the world from his body. Perhaps his son, Samori might not even have been named after upper West African anti-colonial leader Samori Toure had Coates tried to be anything other than who he is—a Black man in the most powerful nation on the planet presided over by another Black man.
This work speaks to a generation of Black men, including this Cameroon born writer, who see in it a testimonial to experiences we encounter in our daily lives. This work speaks to our fears and apprehension towards law and order. It speaks of our suspicion of master narratives that negate our very humanity. For a segment of Black men of this generation, this work is braided in our reality—a reminder of our responsibility to the past of our forbearers as we pave the way for our sons and daughters.