The Black Body in America: Reflections on “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Since I drive around for work all day, I occasionally find myself somewhere around the city with an awkward amount of time to pass before my next appointment. I often spend this by finding the nearest park or coffee shop to take a quick walk or have half a cup of coffee. Recently, I was downtown with under an hour to spend and decided to stop in the library. Shamefully, I haven’t been to the library in years. Mostly due to a bad habit of buying more books than I can read, I have never been without a book ready at hand to pick up whenever I need something new. Libraries are so much more than just a place to read books for free, though. When I walked into the atrium, there was a temporary art collection on display. Children’s story time was going on among brightly colored cushions. People were doing research on the computers and in the reference section, using the available editing software, or working with the drop-in tutoring that is offered for adults. I even discovered that my library lends out “book club bags” with multiple copies of the same book and a few optional materials for discussion. The last time I went to a library was three and a half years ago to get help writing a resume when moving back to the city from a tiny town up north. However, one of my best friends is a library clerk and, for a while now, I felt that in order to be able to face her guilt-free I needed to patronize my library again.

Inside, I walked around the shelves, feeling a little rush of happiness every time I saw a familiar title that I loved: Paladin of Souls, Middlesex, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice, they were all there, but I often fall into the trap of spending time thinking about books wistfully at the expense of actually reading them. I decided to pick up a non-fiction book. I pulled up a LitHub article of “Best Works of Nonfiction of the Decade,” rapidly picked a book from the list, looked up the dewy decimal number in the library catalogue, found it on the shelf, and went to check it out. This is when I had the embarrassing experience of being told my library card had been expired for many years and I still had fines from 2012.

“I’m curious,” I said, “what were the fines for?”

Lolita and The Diary of Anaïs Nin,” said the young man behind the counter.

I never did read that diary, but I remember the beautiful language of Lolita and how it took a very long time for me to finish reading because it made me so sad I had to repeatedly put it down for a pause. They waived the fines, updated my card, and I walked out of the library with a copy of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (I was happy to find that the book was very short – hopefully I would not end up with more late fees.)

I had heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates before, but knew very little about him. Between the World and Me is Coates’s letter to his son about growing up black in America and what that meant for him when navigating family, self-image, education, romance, and – underlying everything – the safety of his physical self at home, on the streets, and in the wider community. We are all permitted to read this, but in writing a letter to his son, Coates is dealing with the perennial issue of parenthood – how do I make sure my kid grows up okay? How can I teach them to stay safe? To respect themselves and others? Which of my values do I try to instill in them? There is an awareness that it is impossible for our children to learn the same lessons in the same ways that we did. Some of the lessons we learned were hard and we want them to be better than that, but how do they learn these important lessons without going through the same trials? Eventually, they will grow to have different views and values, but we hope that they still understand some of the things that are so deeply important to us.

As he tracks his personal growth through childhood, college, early adulthood, and parenthood, the language of his story is poetic. It is this poetic voice that lays Coates’s world open for his son and the rest of us reading to understand his life on a more fundamental level than facts and figures could ever convey. “Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts,” Coates says, and he displays this to great effect throughout the book. He is precise, yet emotive and this is what makes Between the World and Me a brilliant read as well as an important one.

Coates’s parents and grandparents went through the same issues of parenthood when he was young, as we can see when he talks about his family members’ experiences and the lessons they passed on to him. They all tried, in the best way they could, to teach him what they thought was important. Sometimes this was through writing essays when he got in trouble in school. Sometimes it was through physical punishment. This was a reality for Coates because many parents knew “either I can beat him, or the police.” The knowledge that he could lose his body – to a scared man with a gun, or to incarceration, or to drugs, or to the police – was present even from a young age and there were many men who were absent from his life for these reasons. As Coates shares his experience of growing up in Baltimore, I get the impression that he is almost saying: look, you will never have the same childhood I had, just as I never will have the childhood my parents had, but I need you to know where you come from, where I come from, and what that means for where we are going.

Coates moves on from his childhood in Baltimore to his college years at Howard University, which he calls “the Mecca.” It was the place where he continued to change and refine his own perception of blackness in relation to history and to the wide range of experiences of his classmates that varied from his own. No person in his life, however, is untouched by the violence that America extends to people who are black. His son watched the police officers who killed Eric Garner go uncharged and that should be enough to understand the terror that America places on people of color. But Eric Garner’s case is not the only one. The numbers, the statistics of black men killed by police should be enough. But they are not only statistics seen on television – they are real people whose parents took them to the pool, paid for their school, went on vacations with them, cooked meals for them, and bought them clothes. They are people who had children who loved them and those children will now grow up with less because they are gone.

Coates tells of how after he had left school he hears of the death of a friend. Prince Jones was followed by an undercover police officer far out of his jurisdiction, tracked until he had nearly reached his fiancé’s home, and then shot and killed, under the pretense that they were tracking a drug dealer – one who did not even meet Prince Jones’s description. He tells of the sadness, the anger that he feels, and Prince Jones’s friends feel, and his mother feels. You start to understand that violence against black men has not left any person untouched in Coates’s life, or in the life of anyone he knows, or anyone those people know, and so on. You become horribly aware: there is no way to protect anyone I love; it could happen to anyone, no matter how much I try to do “the right thing.” The next Prince Jones could be me, or my son, or any other black man in America. You feel the hopelessness of a parent who is completely unable to stop the world from hurting their child.

“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable,” Coates says to his son. I read it with the bitter awareness that, to a person of color, there is also the knowledge that other people’s discomfort can mean your death. “It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.” It is a truth we must all learn, but one that is so much more urgent for Coates and his son in a real, physical way.

Through reading Coates’s work, I was permitted to see a portion of what being black meant to him and what it means to be black in America. It is something that I can never truly understand, just as we can never really understand what our grandparents were like as children. It is deeply important, though, to grasp some corner of that realization that there are entire cultures living in America with experiences and values different from our own. Only by starting to fill in the patchwork can we gain some measure of the truth. And only then can we start to change.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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