“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage” says 40 year-old journalist at the Atlantic, to his teenager son. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor. Enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. “It must be rape so regular as to be industrial.”
Between the World and Me is an open letter, addressed to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ son, Samori. It is a powerful and emotional journey that starts with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man by a white Ferguson police officer. Learning that Brown’s killers would go free, Samori went to his room and cried. Ta-Nehisi did not try to comfort him, he told him what his parents tried to teach him when he was growing up in a West Baltimore neighbourhood dominated by violence and drugs: that this “is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
He tried to tell Samori how one should live within a black body, with in a country lost in the Dream, where the Dream is associated with the “other world” of suburbia, where people who think they are white live in “perfect houses with nice lawns. …. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.”
Coates recalls Prince Jones‘ death, a friend of his when his was a student at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., at the hands of an undercover police officer. He recalls the fear, the rage he felt, “the old gravity of West Baltimore, that condemned [him] to the schools, the streets, the void.” It was this gravity and awareness that left him cold and unmoved, when in Prince’s funeral the people asked for forgiveness for the officer. Forgiveness is irrelevant, Prince “was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.
This premise, that the blacks in America are living in permanent fear, is the underlying idea of Coates’s story. It is a “bodily fear that lies at the heart of the daily lived experience of racism, and the mind-trick” people play by saying that the racism isn’t real.” (1) There are two great divisions in America, he says, and they are not the rich and poor, but white and blacks. And the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.
A blurb from Toni Morrison declares the book, “required reading” and Coates, the heir to James Baldwin. Following James Baldwin’s steps, Coates also went to Paris. Like Baldwin, he does not see Paris as an escape, as one cannot escape from what the “whole society has decided to make you, a nothing”.
With extraordinary, beautiful prose, Coates exposes America’s racial dilemma. He shows us just how much the country’s racist past is still very much alive today, and how much it affects the way the black Americans think about themselves and their lives. That does not mean that one must see them as permanent victims. As James Baldwin said in an interview in the Paris Review “…it seemed to me that if I took the role of a victim then I was simply reassuring the defenders of the status quo; as long as I was a victim they could pity me and add a few more pennies to my home-relief check….”
Ta-Nehisi Coates warns his son that he has “been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life.” But he wishes for him to feel no need to constrict himself to make other people comfortable. He would have him to be a conscious citizen in this terrible and beautiful world”.