I read Between the World and Me a lifetime ago, in early summer when it was strange to leave the neighborhood again after so many weeks of stillness. It is a hard book, not because of the difficulty of language or of its concepts, but because of the hardness of its subject: how to live and be Black in America. It is hard because of the unflinching clarity of thought that Coates brings to his question. Clear writing comes from clear thinking, and Coates’ writing is very clear indeed.
Drawing on James Baldwin’s 1962 “Letter to My Nephew,” Coates structures Between the World and Me” as a letter to his son:
I write to you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniform pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of the road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held accountable. (p. 9)
Many names, too many names, have been added to the list since the book was published in 2015. This summer, after a policeman named Derek Chauvin killed a Black man named George Floyd by kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while other police officers looked on, a large wave of protests pressed for change. Will there be change? If so, how much? No one knows, and in the meantime, Coates, his son, and millions of Americans have to live with Coates’ question every waking moment.
I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream [of white American innocence], is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself. (p. 12)
In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live — specifically, how do I live free in this black body? It is a profound question because America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men. I have asked the question through my reading and writings, through the music of my youth, through arguments with your grandfather, with your mother, your aunt Janai, your uncle Ben. I have searched for answers in nationalist myth, in classrooms, out on the streets, and on other continents. The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment. (p. 12)
The book is unrelenting, but it is by no means grim.
I remember sitting in my seventh-grade French class and not having any idea why I was there. I did not know any French people, and nothing around me suggested I ever would. France was a rock rotating in another galaxy, around another sun, in another sky that I would never cross. Why, precisely, was I sitting in this classroom?
The question was never answered. I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. I loved a few of my teachers. But I cannot say I truly believed any of them. (p. 26)
As an adult, Coates lived under that other sky, woke up under that other sun, took his wife and son to live for a while in that other galaxy, in France. Enough of the teachers believed in him that he not only grew up, he grew into greatness. Curiosity got the better of him, and he got the better for it.
I knew that there were theories, even in the mouths of black people … that viewed the destruction of the black body as incidental to the preservation of order. According to this theory ‘safety’ was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value I understood. What I would not have given, back in Baltimore, for a line of officers, agents of my country and my community, patrolling my route to school? There were no such officers, and whenever I saw the police it meant that something had already gone wrong. All along I knew that there were some, those who lived in the Dream, for whom the conversation was different. Their ‘safety’ was in schools, portfolios, and skyscrapers. Ours was in men with guns who could only view us with the same contempt as the society that sent them. (pp. 84–85)
Police reform is one of the most difficult problems any polity faces. There is no reason to think it will be easy anywhere in America.
The whole narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are. I think of that summer that you may remember when I loaded you and your cousin Christopher into the back seat of a rented car and pushed out to see what remained of Petersburg, Shirley Plantation, and the Wilderness. I was obsessed with the Civil War because six hundred thousand people had died in it. And yet it had been glossed over in my education, and in popular culture, representations of the war and its reasons seemed obscured. And yet I knew that in 1859 we were enslaved and in 1865 we were not, and what happened to us in those years struck me as having some amount of import. But whenever I visited any of the battlefields, I felt like I was greeted as if I were a nosy accountant conducting an audit and someone was trying to hide the books. (p. 99)
Coates wanted to write a Civil War novel, and he wound up with Between the World and Me instead. The paragraph above shows part of why. (He has since written The Water Dancer, a Civil War novel, but I have not read it.) The Civil War is often portrayed as a struggle between factions of white people, with Black people as props, incidental to the action. They were central; subjects, not objects.
At the outset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies — cotton — was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. (p. 101)
Then. And now:
Michael Brown did not die as so many of his defenders supposed. And still the questions behind the questions are never asked. Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? Is that what we wish civilization to be? (p. 131)