“Your Body Can be Destroyed”: On Ta-Nehisi Coates and Between the World and Me

between the world and me

July 13, 2015: Sandra Bland’s Texas jailers find the 28-year-old woman, who had moved back to the state to start at job at her alma mater, dead in her cell.

June 17, 2015: nine people—Clementa C. Pickney, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, Ethel Lee Lance, Myra Thompson, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders—are murdered by a white supremacist in South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

November 22, 2014: 12-year-old Tamir Rice is shot dead by a Cleveland police officer while playing in a city park.

August 9, 2014: Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson fires 12 bullets at an unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

July 17, 2014: New York City police strangle Eric Garner on a Staten Island street as he pleads “I can’t breathe.”

November 2, 2013: Renisha McBride is shot in the face after she knocks on a front door for help after a car accident.

February 26, 2012: Trayvon Martin is murdered by a neighborhood watch volunteer for being alive while black.

“Your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable,” Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in the book-length letter to his son, the New York Times-bestselling Between the World and Me. “Mostly they will receive pensions.”

Originally slated for an October publication, then a September one, Between the World and Me debuted on July 14—the same day as Harper Lee’s revisionary novel Go Set a Watchman, and second only to Lee’s two books on Amazon’s list of bestsellers—in response to a moment. “We started getting massive requests” for advance copies, Coates’s editor Christopher Jackson told the Wall Street Journal. “We had this book that so many people wanted.”

Despite the recent and overwhelming litany of the dead—the murdered—reported in mainstream media (and more especially on social media) over the past three years, the moment that Jackson described has less to do with the number of black bodies that have been destroyed, but in who sees those bodies and how—or if—their stories are told. After all, before Trayvon there was Prince Jones—a friend of Coates’s from Howard—who was killed by a cop on September 1, 2000 after the cop mistook Jones for a suspect in a gun theft case. (The only similarity in their physical descriptions was that they were both black men.) The cop trailed Jones’s car from Maryland to DC to Virginia. He shot at Jones, still seated inside his Jeep, 16 times. Coates’s friend was hit eight times, five in the back.

“Racism is a visceral experience,” Coates writes. “It dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth, extracts testicles. You must never look away from this.”

Prince Jones is the ghost that haunts Between the World and Me. His life and death is a subject Coates has returned to throughout his writing career: in a blistering examination of Maryland’s notorious and brutal Prince George’s County police force for The Washington Monthly in 2001, on his Atlantic blog twice in 2009, and now in his bestselling book. “Prince Jones was actually killed. You understand what I’m saying?” Coates said in an interview with Gawker. “This book started in 2000 when he was shot down. That has eaten at me for years.”

Jones’s death is proof for Coates that no amount of personal responsibility can save a black body from destruction. “Prince Jones, his mother, his family—they did everything that was asked of them… It didn’t matter.” His attention is structural, historical. Not only is race a system all Americans live in regardless of individual action, it’s also written into the country’s very DNA. Our founding fathers, many of whom owned and treated human beings as property, wrote into the Constitution that one black body is worth three-fifths of a white body, that one black body is only three-fifths human. This is our heritage, and Prince Jones died for it. If you are a black person in America (and that includes Coates and his 15-year-old son), there is no right way of being—there is only being lucky.

Dashboard- and body-cams, shaky videos recorded on phones, live tweets, social media hashtags have begun to pull back the curtain on the violence many black Americans know all-too-intimately. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s rise as a writer and as a bona fide public intellectual coincided with this growing widespread awareness of the violent cost of our country’s racial caste system. His Atlantic blog, which has effectively shut down as he’s taken on larger writing project, began in 2008, and Coates—through aggressive moderation—became the Generalissimo to one of the rarest communities on the internet: a curious, helpful, and friendly comments section, a group of readers that self-identified as “the Horde.” (One especially sharp and prolific member, Yoni Appelbaum, went on to become a senior editor at the Atlantic.) The blog in its heyday was as electric as it was eclectic: policy here, a book club discussion there, a poem, a Rakim verse (“I’m everlasting, I can go on for days and days / With rhyme displays, that engrave deep as X-rays. / I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard / Flip it. Now it’s a daily word”), a dive into Dungeons & Dragons. Coates, in some ways, was an unlikely blogger. He takes his time writing, though few would argue it isn’t worth the wait. (His blockbuster 2014 Atlantic cover story on housing discrimination and compensation, “The Case for Reparations,” which clocked in at 16,000 words, took a year to research and write.) He’s also unafraid of changing his mind, zigging this and that way along an intellectual path that’s often inconsistent, though usually interesting. Between the World and Me was originally supposed to be a book of Civil War essays. He’s also, at times, worked on a novel. Where the early days of his blog had all the delightful sparkle and satisfying pop of a good fireworks display, his current work is a precise and powerful distillation of that light and heat and sound. Illuminating, painful, and urgent—Between the World and Me has all the fantastic power of a light saber, a magic missile, a ray gun.

Critics have overwhelmingly embraced the book. Toni Morrison gave it her blurbed imprimatur, linking Coates to James Baldwin. Coates himself invites the comparison—Between the World and Me’s letter format is an explicit call back to Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook,” a letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation, first published in The Progressive and then collected in his seminal The Fire Next Time. While 15-year-old Samori Coates did read the book over a few times before it went to publication, and the content itself draws from conversations Coates has had with his son—it’s a literary device. The second person compels readers in a very particular, and powerful, way: Regardless of our age or nationality or race or gender, this trick of grammar places us directly inside this father-son dynamic. We, the “you,” are both parent and child, trying desperately to make a meaningful life inside a brutal and capricious system without the benefit of religion but with the tools of history. Alongside the inclusiveness of the letter, the intimacy it affords, Coates does not write (explicitly, exclusively) for a white audience. “When people who are not black are interested in what I do, frankly, I’m always surprised,” Coates told New York Magazine. “I don’t know if it’s my low expectations for white people or what.” (In this he echoes Morrison, who has said proudly: “I’m writing for black people.”) It’s not his work to educate white people; it’s to communicate in writing what he has communicated in speech to his son. That’s enough.

Coates hammers the same words over and over—body, plunder, the Dream, Mecca. Though it’s repetitive, it’s to a purpose. They function almost as Wagnerian themes (minus Wagner’s crazy racism), a lyric unit that both signals meaning and knits the book together. They help ground Coates vision of a non-religious (and specifically non-Christian) movement against white supremacy and its attendant theft of black life and property, as well as a stronghold for that struggle. “The body is the mind,” Coates said to Gawker. There is no inside/outside, soul/vessel dichotomy for him. He condemns the American Dream not only as an ideal funded by white-on-black theft, but also as a worldview that is willfully ignorant. The empowering effect of Mecca, a place where blackness is both beloved and celebrated, Coates found at Howard. “I did not want to raise you in fear or false memory,” Coates writes to his son. “I did not want you forced to mask your joys and bind your eyes. What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness.”

Coates finds the hope-filled promises of the future empty without a serious reckoning with the past. Though he’s unsentimental, Coates rejects cynicism. It’s okay to feel bad about everything that has gone wrong and that continues to go wrong. In fact, it’s preferable to the anesthetizing effect of writing that ends in over-simple statements of hope (false or otherwise). What he’s interested in for his son, for the country-at-large, is honesty. “I resolved to hide nothing from you.”

Follow Molly McArdle on twitter @mollitudo

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