Book Review – Embodying Blackness: Review of Ta-Nehisi’s Between the World And Me

Rhone Fraser

In Between the World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son in an attempt to answer the question of how “one should live within a black body…within a country lost in the Dream.” What Coates describes as “the Dream” is the United States. White supremacist capitalist vision of the country and the world. “It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways…smells like peppermint but tastes like Strawberry shortcake,” a vision that appears tranquil and serene yet requires “looting and violence.” This “Dream” is one that Coates himself says he “wanted to escape into” but couldn’t because “the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” He later tells his son, “the Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.”

This notion of “the Dream” is an elaboration of a point made by James Baldwin in his letter to his nephew published in his 1963 work, The Fire Next Time, on which Coates seems to base his prose letter. Baldwin wrote that “the Negroes of this country…are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.” But throughout his address to his son, Coates has a slightly different message. Coates makes remarkably relevant applications of Baldwin’s 1963 message about the Dream to the pressing issues of 2015, specifically the murders of unarmed Black men. Coates notably heeds Baldwin’s 1963 message to understand the murders of Black men such as Michael Brown and Jordan Davis at the hands of White men. He tells his son that he heard him crying in his room after learning there was no indictment for the murder of Michael Brown:

“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…the question of how one should live within a black body…is the question of my life, and the pursuit of that question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”

Coates spends the entire book explaining exactly what “the pursuit of that question” means. He also comes into his own understanding about why his parents raised him the way they did. He tells his son that his father physically disciplined him harshly. He was beaten, Coates writes, “as if someone might steal [him] away, because that is exactly what was happening all around [them] Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns. Later, [he] would hear it in Dad’s voice ‘Either I can beat him, or the police.’”

He further writes, “[My father] beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body.” The “pursuit” includes understanding the rationale behind his father’s parenting and questioning the logic behind “the Dream.” It involves individual study apart from the conventional narratives taught by school classroom which was “a jail of other people’s interests.” It entails challenging the romantic notion that all famous Black historical figures were perfectly moral: “being Black did not immunize us from history’s logic or the lure of the dream.”

He provides as an example, the case of Queen Nzinga who successfully fended off Portuguese colonizers for centuries, but who, as closer scrutiny revealed, made human seats out of her servants, and if he was alive in that time, he too would probably have been turned into a seat. He tells his son about how his time at Howard aided the “pursuit” to be in control of his body: “the pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom…I felt myself in motion, still directed toward the total possession of my body, but by some other route which I could not before then have imagined.”

Ultimately, Coates tells his son, “my reclamation would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s through books, through my own study and exploration.” This included not only reading but, for Coates, taking assiduous notes on what one read, “I would open the books and read, while filling my composition books with notes on my reading, new vocabulary words, and sentences of my own invention.” He tells his son about his grandfather Paul Coates, a former librarian at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University which is home to rare book collections by and about people of African descent, including the Paul & Eslanda Robeson Collection.

Coates spends the second part of this book describing how his own study and exploration helped him unearth the details of the death of his colleague at Howard University, Prince Jones, who was murdered one month after Coates’ son, Samori, was born, and three months after he was pulled over by cops and let go. Not only by reading articles, but Coates’ own personal exploration of the collections at the Moorland and his experience of conducting a very candid interview with the mother of Prince Jones, Dr. Mabel Jones, in the third part of this book, also advanced his pursuit. He also details what it means for a free thinking Black man, who actively rejects Western patriarchy and homophobia, to not have control of one’s body. It means contortion. The need to “contort his body to address the block, contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues and contort again so as not to give the police a reason.”
Most significant in this book’s second part is Coates’ apology for yelling at a White woman who pushed his then five-year-old son as he was leaving a movie theater. As he describes it, a White man came to her defense, which Coates called “his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast.” The White man said, “I could have you arrested!” Coates replied saying he did not care, and came home shaken from the incident. He, however, interprets this exchange with “regret,” saying, “more than my shame I feel about my own actual violence, my greatest regret was that in seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.” From this exchange, he tells his son, Samori, “you are human and you will make mistakes.” However, Coates further remarks, “you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.”

He said he named his son Samori after Samori Toure, “who struggled against French colonizers for the right to his own black body. He died in captivity but the profits of that struggle and others like it are ours, even when the object of that struggle, as is so often true, escapes our grasp.” That is, even if the object of, say, racially desegregated hospitals escaped the grasp of Howard legend Dr. Charles Drew; or if the object of racially integrated public schools did not escape the grasp of Howard legend Justice Thurgood Marshall, Coates tells his son, “I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle.”

What Coates means here is clearly a struggle against hegemony: a counterhegemonic struggle that sees a new world through the lens of Black Struggle that ultimately is not based on valuing property in direct proportion to its distance from Black people. “‘Black-on-Black crime’ is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.” The section ends with Coates introducing his son to the mother of Jordan Davis who says to him that his life matters, and with his trip to Europe, where he said, “I had never felt myself so far outside someone else’s dream. Now I felt the deeper weight of my generational chains—my body confined, by history and policy, to certain zones.” He apologizes for the “generational chains” he tried to clasp onto his son’s wrists, in terms of not displaying affection to him and not wanting his son to make new friends.

The third section is most significant in his underscoring the importance of his son to struggle, and the overall context of this struggle with industrialists like the Rockefellers and their white supremacist world. This is where his message diverts from Baldwin’s 1963 letter to his nephew. Where Baldwin writes “we cannot be free until they [the racist industrialists] are free,” Coates writes, “do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”
Where Baldwin writes “you must accept them with love…We, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it,” Coates writes, “I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still you must struggle.” A logical question Samori could later pose in response to the expectation that he should struggle as a Black man is—how? The answer to that, like those that Coates’ parents provided, is neither final nor direct. It is related to the answer of how to live within a Black body: pursuit of self-knowledge.

However, Baldwin and Coates disagree about the ability of the younger generations in their time to affect real social change. Baldwin wrote that “the Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.” Coates is more skeptical. He wants to be part of the deconstruction of the American dream, most likely because he has a son. But as a father, Coates does not want to lose his son to this deconstruction. He tells his son to not give his body “to Birmingham sheriffs nor to the insidious gravity of the streets,” and seems more skeptical about the ability of Black men to affect social change: “you are powerless before the great crime of history that brought the ghettoes to us.”

Baldwin did not think Negroes powerless at all, and his work essentially anticipated the later rebellions, like those of Watts, Newark and Detroit in 1965, against White supremacist capitalism. Decades later, Coates has the added burden of confronting the potential loss of his own son to the revolution that would destroy the Dream. Even as he teaches his son to struggle, he preaches caution. What conflicts will Coates’ work anticipate?

The entire book becomes a searing spiritual, historical, and psychological journey where the reader feels increasing sympathy for the speaker’s attempt to tell his son exactly how a Black man can live in his body in the United States. The reader hopes that the speaker’s son, and Black boys like him, will not be the next randomly selected Black body that the Dream-as-parasite chooses to beat, imprison, murder, and claim in order to remain living. The reader cannot help throughout this journey to root for the father in an attempt to build a strong path of communication despite the random violence of the Dream.

Like a good historical film, in the lines of Philippe Niang’s 2012 film, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Coates’ book should be a supplement to an understanding of history, not a substitute for it. Pursuit of knowledge should also reveal the crucial ingredient to “the struggle” ignored in Coates’ piece but assumed in Baldwin’s letter, which is the importance of organizational bodies. All the influential people Coates tells his son about belonged to organizations with counterhegemonic causes or “objects.” Individual names, like Malcolm X, were listed, but their organizations they belonged to, like the Organization of Afro-American Unity, were absent in Coates’ text. Baldwin spent pages talking about the Nation of Islam and why it appealed to Malcolm X and the

To his credit, Coates writes that “Black people have not—probably no people have ever—liberated themselves strictly through their own efforts.” However, he could have given clearer examples of what an individual struggle means in the context of an organization struggling for a greater object. He names Kwame Ture without naming his time in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) nor his All-African Peoples’ Revolutionary Party. Ture, in his autobiography, tells the story of a pair of malicious boys who threw rocks at passing groups of ducks, cows, and dogs, but never at a hornets’ nest. Why not, he asks. Because they’re organized. Discussing these organizations would have aided his cause of showing what it is like to live within a Black body. It means shedding the identity of the so-called “objective” journalist who, whether working for liberal or conservative papers, ultimately serves the interests of industrialists. It is not the pursuit of individual study alone that advances struggle; it is the pursuit of struggle itself within an organizational body. Coates’ work is a necessary beginning template for struggle.


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