A System That Makes You Breakable

Against the Current, No. 179, November/December 2015

Leighton Stein

Between the World and Me
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel and Grau,152 pages, $24 hardcover.

IN A POPULAR downtown Detroit coffee shop, I had a brief exchange with an elderly white man, whom we can call Joe, both of us perched on stools, awash in hard sunshine, life emanating from the streets. We quickly exhausted our stock of common referents: small talk ran dry.

I fidgeted on my stool, my gaze falling to my coffee cup, a black ring staining white porcelain. So I asked him what he thought of the developments around the city. He was overjoyed, shared freely his memories of Detroit.

Clasping my hands together, I asked if the city’s resurgence would help poor folk. Joe evaded my question, guided me back to memory lane. I asked again as he gathered himself to depart, he paused, swiped a finger across his phone screen and showed me a quote: “Our real illiteracy is our inability to create” (Friedensreich Hundertwasser) — by which Joe meant that Black folk in the city had failed in some essential way, failed to create anything like these newly teeming corridors of commerce and community.

What reality did this man have mapped behind his eyes?  Surely he was dreaming — or blind.
Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the effects upon the world of this particular blindness in Between the World and Me,” his unflinching appraisal of race relations presented in a letter to his son, reminiscent of James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time (1963).

Had Coates been seated in my place, he might simply have pointed out that inability as “the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”

From a very early age, Coates noticed the discrepancies between the “pandemonium of West Baltimore” and the pristine, neatly ordered images on TV. He details the fear permeating every mannerism, actuating reckless aggression in the streets and straining family relationships.

A fear connected to a “system that makes your body breakable,” whose historical genealogy originates in slavery’s Middle Passage, continues with the reaction of white power to Reconstruction’s promises, through Jim Crow and after the furor of the Civil Rights Movement — all the insidious practices that constrain, threaten and destroy Black flourishing.

But Coates keeps the specifics of this history in the background, for the most part assumed as common knowledge. One might profitably orient Between the World and Me as a kind of philosophical commentary upon his recent essay, “The Case for Reparations.”

Where in the latter he used the tools of journalism to lay out a tightly controlled narrative, where public strife was disjoined from his personal strife, where these possibilities for expression were truncated, Coates takes a different tack here.

His prose has no concentrated rhetorical scheme; rather he quilts into the text a range of styles: indignant reproach and detached reportage, the physicality of critical analysis and the poignancy of deep poetry.

Coates, a national correspondent for The Alantic, has burst on the scene in recent years for his powerful indictments of racial realities in America. He describes himself as a writer, not an activist, and lays out no strategic roadmap for change. Yet his arguments concerning the structure of American society, at times lost amid his verbal fireworks, are nonetheless persuasive.

Wrath and Random Mangling

As the contemporary American scene echoes the “wrath and random mangling, the gnashing of head and brains blown out” so typical of slavery, Coates’ pages are seared with names now erected into indictments against police brutality.

This is not a sensationalized index of violence; but even when the scenes shift to the Mecca, his tender designation for Howard University, or to Paris where he finds the burden of having a Black body temporarily alleviated, even as he remembers his son’s birth and maturation, there is always a sinister haze of violence, specific — a corpse, materializing, dragged up to the surface of the page, a forgotten victim: Prince Jones — and broad, “the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason.”

It is there in the title, “Between the World and Me,” taken from a surreal and horrific poem by Richard Wright about the ritual of the lynching party, of the body scorched and hung on display, about the confrontation with fear and hopelessness this fact brings.

Throughout this essay-as-letter, Coates tacitly implies a question. What is it that obscures or impedes his contact with the world? Only “White America” determined “to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies,” determined to believe “that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.”

One might wonder if he offers some solution, if he reaches out an olive branch to the America filled with “unworried boys…pie and pot roast…white fences and green lawns.” Coates is frankly a pessimist, placing no belief in the Dreamers, a term meant to capture the mythology of innocence and exceptionalism and inevitable progress — no belief in them who perfected their techniques for profit extraction on Black bodies, transfiguring sweat and blood “into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold,” and who’ve now imposed their schemes upon the earth itself.

But his pessimism is filtered through a blues sensibility. Repudiating recourse to a “comforting narrative of divine law,” and to some grand arch of redemptive of justice, wavering on the line that divides hope from despair, he recognizes that struggle is “the only portion of this world under your control,” to struggle against the disease of self-hatred and to see without “eyes…blindfolded by fear,” and to embrace Black power, a “deep knowledge of how fragile everything is.”

In the American Galaxy, as Coates calls it, Joe, my coffee shop associate, can see a blank slate Detroit ripe for development; and in September 2001 a Prince George County, Maryland policeman can stalk and kill 25-year-old Prince Jones, an associate of Coates who attended Howard, the “holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth” a few feet from his fiancé’s house.

Between the World and Me is in the end a testimonial to distances, to “our world’s physical laws,” race and power, fear and violence — love as well, the love Coates has for his son and for the Black folk crafting their “common language…fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream.”

November-December 2015—ATC 179