Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recently published “Between the World and Me” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015) is a cri de coeur, an outpouring of heart, an unburdening of soul. Coates, a 40-year-old national correspondent for The Atlantic, has shaped his book as an extended intimate letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori – the only child of he and his wife. His theme is what it means to be black in America.
Coates grew up in West Baltimore, the very same neighborhood of mean streets and broken, dangerous schools that exploded yet again this past spring. He tells the reader, “When I was eleven (1986) my highest priority was the simple security of my body. My life was the immediate negotiation of violence – within my house and without.” He saw himself as an inhabitant of a world apart from “other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies.”
Coates admits to his son that he cannot comprehend “what it means to grow up with a black president, social networks, omnipresent media and black women everywhere in their natural hair.” Despite all these changes, he insists that America remains a country where white men often go unpunished when they kill black men: Trayvon Martin (Florida), Eric Garner (Staten Island), Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri) – a list that goes on and on.
By many measures, Coates has come to be a “successful” black man in America. Though he did not graduate, he was both nourished and nurtured at his “Mecca,” Howard University. He is able to earn a living pursuing his chosen career as a writer, and he seems to be in a stable, supportive marriage. Nevertheless, he argues that in America the deck continues to be stacked against black people. To his way of thinking, to his way of feeling, the rest of his countrymen “believe themselves to be white,” an invented construct that keeps black people at the bottom of society’s barrel so that everybody else can participate in the false and destructive American Dream of “being white” – that is to say, not being black.
At his most bitter, most angry, most depressed, Coates writes: “And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who sent them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”
Several pages further on, Coates laments to his son: “...you are powerless before the great crime of history that brought the ghettos to be.”
“It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country.”
“The essential below.” That is to say, those citizens who “think themselves white,” those citizens of the Dream, need black men and women to remain “below” them to serve as eternal stepping stones for their “white” advancement.
“Between the World and Me” is the title of a 1957 poem by Richard Wright, which Coates has chosen for the title of his book. Rarely has a title added such depth and context to the content of a written work. Wright’s poem begins: “And one morning while in the woods I stumbled upon the thing, /Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms /And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me...”
That “it,” that “thing” – Wright refuses to say the word – is the site of a lynching: “...a scorched coil of greasy hemp; /A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood... /And through the morning air the sun poured yellow surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull...”
The sense of dread and menace evoked in Wright’s poem is an unvoiced presence on every page of Coates’ book.
Throughout my reading and rereading of “Between the World and Me,” I have remained an outsider to Coates’ world. My personal world is and has always been privileged, overwhelmingly Jewish and almost exclusively white. Am I just one more child of the American Dream, one of millions of fellow citizens corrupted by the false and dangerous belief that I am white? I wonder what Coates would say to me.
It seems to me that I will be living with Coates’ book and with the poem that is its vital seed for quite sometime; I need to listen, to absorb, to be present and – at least for now – to be still.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.