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How to Live Within a Black Body

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” is a letter to his son, and a lesson for us all

Matt Rourke/AP

If you were to map the black bodies destroyed by American police this year, you would have what looks like the shadow of a cancer creeping steadily across the lower 48; the names would bloom across the states in the way that a malignant lung tumor might, from as common and as lethal a cause. In his latest book, Between the World and Me, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates interrogates the effects of a life lived under the gun, aware of the ever-present violence that is systematically and relentlessly perpetrated against black people in America.

Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, and his body of work concerns, in general, confronting that violence on its structural terms: racism’s history, the institutions that allow it to persist, and its economic and social consequences. Between the World and Me is something of a departure, as the book is unabashedly personal and concerns the pain that comes in violence’s aftermath. The book is a biographical letter to Coates’s son, Samori. Part memoir, part diary, and wholly necessary, it is precisely the document this country needs right now.

Yet Coates isn’t writing to you, or to me, or for either of us. Between the World and Me1 is a father’s advice to his only child after four decades of living as a black man in America. Its creation was an intimate act, and Coates’s decision to publish the book—as America begins to confront the mundane brutality the country visits on 13.6 percent of her citizenry—reads as a necessarily urgent response to the social climate in the U.S. 

In Between the World and Me, Coates is characteristically sharp, but letter-writing has freed him to flense his subject: How to be a black man in America while bathed in the corrosive acid of the country’s prevailing belief in the supremacy of whiteness. “It must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials,” he writes, “but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” Coates’s knives are deadly, and they strip away the fat from truths passingly familiar to many but lived by only a few. It is an indictment.

In black families in America, our peculiar history is shared as oral tradition, abstracted into a set of inviolable rules. This is the talk that all black children are given, Coates writes: “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ And these words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket.” But not one of us understands what the rules mean, and how little they really protect us, until it becomes horribly, viscerally clear: until a suburban pool party turns into a beating; until a child carrying skittles and iced tea is extrajudicially executed by a rage-filled vigilante; until a man is choked to death on a hot sidewalk for selling cigarettes. And on, and on.

The dark heart of Between the World and Me is the murder of Prince Jones, a man who attended Howard University with Coates, by the police. Jones was followed from Maryland to Virginia by an undercover cop (“a known liar,” as Coates describes him) dressed as a drug dealer who suspected Jones was himself a drug dealer. Jones was unceremoniously killed, allegedly for trying to run over the policeman. The only witness to the crime was the officer himself; he was acquitted and returned to duty shortly thereafter. The loss made Coates’s blood run cold. “The truth is that police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.” And later, at Jones’s funeral, he found no room to absolve. “For the crime of destroying the body of Prince Jones, I did not believe in forgiveness. When the assembled mourners bowed their heads in prayer, I was divided from them because I believed that the void would not answer back.” 

This last part, Coates’s atheism, is necessary to understand his fixation on the holiness of the black body. The body is a sacred object and a site of devotion because, he believes, the here and now is all there is, and because those bodies have been historically devalued. The black body was currency in the antebellum South, and it is currency today; Coates concludes—not wrongly—that black lives are excluded from the calculation of acceptable risk. We dispose of them easily. Though his son will have a much more privileged childhood than Coates himself, the integrity of Samori’s body is in as much danger.  

America’s rules haven’t changed since Coates was a child in the crack-addled Baltimore of the ’80s. There, he learned how the foundations of this country—that all men are created equal, that we hold these truths to be self-evident—exclude him and those who look like him from its dreams, from its promises. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. … The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear,” Coates writes. “But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker.” It’s a casually delivered insight. But the truth of the statement lingers: This is how the American system begins to fail black people. It ends in death. And when we die, there’s nothing left of us but a lesson to the next generation—a lesson that, before the widespread adoption of social media, rarely took place on a large stage. Black death is still banal, but now the wounds we leave behind are viral. 

Between the World and Me is a letter, but it is a twinned chronicle: It is the story of how Coates woke up to America, and it is also the story of passing his hard-won consciousness, as another student of history, down to his legacy, his only child. The book is primarily concerned with what Coates terms “The Dream.” “The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake,” Coates writes. “And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” If you’re not white, if you’re not male, if you’re not relatively wealthy, Coates’s words resonate deeply, immediately. Black Americans—and other disadvantaged groups—were never intended to be a part of the Dream, and you need only to look at history to understand how fully they’ve been excluded. “You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold,” Coates writes to his son. Further along in the text, Coates mentions that African Americans have been free for less time than they were enslaved. He enjoins his son to never forget this, to always remember that there is no arc to the universe, much less a moral one. “[Y]our future peers and colleagues … might try to convince you that everything I know, all the things I’m sharing with you here, are an illusion, or a fact of a distant past that need not be discussed.” 

But history is never very far from us. Dylann Storm Roof’s execution of nine black men and women in a historically black Charleston church is only the latest manifestation of the hatred that runs deep throughout our past; he was himself a student of history, and transmuted what he found there into a bloodspattered church nave. Days after the massacre, I read Roof’s manifesto. What struck me immediately was his tone, how miserably sad he was. It was only later, rereading the thing in a fit of masochism, that I saw words I’d skimmed before. “Black people are racially aware almost from birth, but White people on average dont think about race in their daily lives,” Roof wrote. “And this is our problem. We need to and have to.” He’s right. This is precisely our problem. White people don’t think enough about their race. Or, perhaps even more precisely, white people don’t think about how race affects every other American race but their own: This, more than anything, is the basis of the unconscious racism that destroys black bodies.

Coates achieves a kind of specificity in addressing that problem by speaking directly to the black experience in America. The question of audience has always been an issue for black artists: How can you, authoring your work out of the negro experience and tradition in America, possibly expect to say something universally meaningful about humanity? A painful example of this instinct to corral black artists into lesser, segregated regions can be found in The Paris Review’s eighth “Art of Fiction” interview with Ralph Ellison from 1955:


But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?


All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel—and isn’t that what we’re all clamoring for these days?—is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.

The interviewer presses, “But still, how is the Negro writer, in terms of what is expected of him by critics and readers, going to escape his particular need for social protest and reach the ‘universal’ you speak of?” Ellison goes on to say that many white people question the humanity of black people, and deflects the question. “For us, the question should be, what are the specific forms of that humanity, and what in our background is worth preserving or abandoning,” he says. In the course of denying his need to prove himself to his interviewers, Ellison does it all the same by invoking the history of black people in America. It’s a short jump from questioning a marginalized group’s artistic identity to questioning their humanity—art is created out of one’s specific circumstances to access a universal feeling.

In December 1962, James Baldwin published a letter in The Progressive magazine to his nephew and namesake, about the history of the United States and a black person’s place within it. Between the World and Me is a remarkably similar document, save for the conclusion it reaches less than 15 pages in when Coates describes his son’s reaction to the news that the killers of Michael Brown would go free: Where Baldwin hopes, Coates is realistically pessimistic. 

The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none, you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: 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. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.

The struggle, in other words, is all there is. And it is a constant thing. Between the World and Me is the story of Coates’s personal journey: his pursuit of the truth of the history of black America, and his faith that there is worth in the struggle. There are harrowing memories—when a white woman pushes his child, when he visits Prince Jones’s mother and speaks to her about her dead son—but it is not a memoir. It is something else entirely, a novel amalgamation of memory, lived experience, and a set of realistic expectations he wants to transmit to his child. It is a book that forces you to wonder how far we’ve really come as a society, and how much further we have left to go.

By writing for Samori, Coates addresses the problem that black artists before Ellison and after him have faced when they write from the specificity of their lived experience: He turns the individual into the general. Black life in America isn’t monolithic; there are so many shades of us, and exponentially more experiences. Between the World and Me is only the story of a single, quiet life. It never asks whether black lives matter, because that is a foregone conclusion. Its power is in the details, in the way it grants its reader the power to see black Americans as fully realized, as fully human. And in this, Coates finds his way into the universal. 

  1. The name comes from the title of a Richard Wright poem that vividly recalls the execution of a black man.