Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015
Summary: Coates extended letter to his son following the Michael Brown verdict on the struggle for the dignity of his people against the violence to their bodies by those who “believe they are White” and part of a pursuit of a Dream built “on looting and violence.”
Th-Nehisi Coates fashioned this work as an extended letter to his son, Samori (whose name means “struggle”) following the decision that there would be no indictment against the policeman involved in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Samori, on hearing the news, simply responded “I’ve got to go” as he went to his room and wept.
This letter is Coates attempt to articulate what it means to believe in the beauty and dignity of one’s people in a world where the black body is often the object of violence. He describes growing up on the West side of Baltimore with a severe father who often beat him, declaring that it would either be him or the police, where Black children had to be “twice as good.” He describes the sobering moment when another boy pulls a gun on him, and his realization that violence to the body could snuff out a life and nullify all his effort in a moment. He recounts his engagements with “those who believe they are white,” whose pursuit of an American dream, has come at the cost of “looting and violence” against the black body.
He shifts the scene to Howard University, a Black Mecca where every form of what it meant to be a beautiful and great people was celebrated, often in a walk across the Yard, the green space on campus. He recounts his intellectual life in the Moorland Library, his loves, and the girl he lost to Prince Jones. He falls in loves again with the woman who gave him his son.
After leaving Howard, and having his own encounter with the fearsome Prince George police, he learns that the beautiful young man he knew as Prince Jones was followed by these same police in plain clothes across the D.C. area, and killed when supposedly he had tried to run them down.
He struggles as a young writer and father in New York, when a white woman pushes his young son aside to get on a subway. He stands up to her, and describes his subsequent conflicted feelings as he realizes how much he has risked his son’s safety while standing up for his son’s dignity. There are other moments in Chicago, covering the humiliation of an eviction in North Lawndale.
Coates recounts a respite during a trip to Paris, where for a brief moment he experiences what it is like to live without fear for violence against his body. And then he narrates his encounter with Dr. Mable Jones, the mother of Prince. She rose from being the child of sharecroppers to being chief of radiology in a Philadelphia hospital. She bought cars for her children including the Jeep in which Prince was killed. The conversation reflects both her Christian faith and deep grief that all for which she worked could be lost in a moment to law enforcement officials who would not be held to account.
Coates, who has rejected any religion, is provoked to wonder:
“…I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life.”
In his concluding words to his son, however, he does not have much hope to offer the son who he obviously loves deeply, but only the struggle expressed in his name:
“And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of the Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”
I found myself reacting in a number of ways to this work. One was to just sit and absorb it and try to imagine a life lived every day with the awareness both of the preciousness of one’s body, and that it could be snuffed out in an instant by powerful others. I had to sit with the incredible pressure of constantly thinking I had to be twice as good because of the color of my skin. I had to sit and think what it must be like to want a different life for one’s children, and yet recognize that one’s own struggle, and peril, will be theirs as well.
The closest it seems that Coates gets to the transcendent is his descriptions of The Mecca of Howard, and his time in France. But I wondered what it must be like to glimpse goodness, truth, and beauty only to find it submerged in the ever-looming danger of structures that oppress, and powers that may kill, and a life of struggle against them.
Coates helps me to see how evil is the social construction we call “race.” He does this by speaking of people who believe they are white, who paint themselves white. One of the most sobering realizations that comes through is that this social construction not only is deadly for those labeled “black,” but also that the construction is deadly for “whites” as well. A former pastor once made the comment that “the American dream is killing us.” Racism is a burden for those who call themselves white. It drives us into suburbs, an automobile and energy dependent culture, the costs of maintaining a system of mass incarceration and much more.
I find myself thinking about the almost wistful longing Coates has for the faith that shaped Dr. Mable Jones life, and yet the sadness that such a faith could not protect her son. Coates challenges me that my work is not to persuade him of the Christian vision so much as to confront and repent from an American Dream that necessitates the struggle that he and his son alike face, and that is indeed our deathbed. It is time for such dreams to die, and for those who embrace the faith of Dr. Jones to lean into the call to the peaceable kingdom and beloved community. I think Coates is right that it is we “Dreamers” who need a conversion.