Ta-Nehisi Coates and writing about race in America

There's a reason why Ta-Nehisi Coates is currently one of the most high-profile commentators on race in the United States.

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Between the World and Me is an epistolary essay about race by the African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. It arrived in Britain last autumn laurelled to the hilt. Written as a letter to his young son, it became a New York Times number one bestseller and won several awards, including the National Book Award for non-fiction and a lucrative MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship. A national correspondent for the Atlantic and the author of an earlier memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, Coates is currently one of the most high-profile commentators on race in the United States.

Coates writes about his country’s fear of the black male body, particularly among those he defines as the “American Dreamers”, who aspire to a life of picket fences and strawberry shortcake. He sees fear in the teenage gangs of his Baltimore childhood, whose swagger and “customs of war” attest to their vulnerability and whose social codes and laws he had to learn to survive. He sees it in his father, who meted out corporal punishment with the justification: “Either I can beat him, or the police.”

Once outside the home, black youths remain vulnerable to “guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease” and, in effect, a state-sanctioned violence that allows the police to be exonerated for murder and sent back out on patrol. As Coates puts it so succinctly,
“Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets.” He goes further. Those who proclaim the ubiquity of black-on-black crime to play down police atrocities ignore the state’s responsibility for the socio-economic conditions that lead to such crime.

While he tells us about the internecine and institutional wars that make black bodies so “breakable”, he does not offer solutions to this, or explain how to survive without ending up incarcerated in the moneymaking corporate monster that needs to be fed – the prison system, the destination for one in 15 African-American adult males.

Coates is, by some criteria, middle class. His father was a captain in the Black Panthers and a publisher; later, he became a research librarian at Howard University, which Coates attended without graduating but left armed with a mind-expanding education that led to writing poetry and journalism. Class, however, is no protection against “the sword of the American citizenry” – the police. One acquaintance, Prince Jones, was the educated, born-again son of a prominent doctor who was shot dead by a policeman while en route to visit his fiancée. The circumstances of his death were highly suspicious. It was a case of mistaken identity. There were no witnesses. The black officer, cleared of any wrongdoing, resumed his duties. Coates considers the problem: “Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth” – even when the policeman was black.

When Coates makes these and other ­assertions, everyone is let off the hook, in a sense. The gangs that patrol the streets are fatalistically preordained by their oppressed history to do so and the police perpetrators of violence against black men are merely carrying out “the democratic will of the American people”. Where do you go with that? What is the role of individual and moral responsibility?

Between the World and Me has been compared favourably with The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s powerful 1963 book on race and religion, which begins with a letter to his nephew. Coates is clearly indebted to Baldwin but some of the overlaps are shocking. Baldwin’s book emerged before the Civil Rights Act 1964 brought a legislative end to racial discrimination and segregation. Assaulted by the New York police before he was a teenager, he wrote: “It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it.” Fifty years later, police killings of unarmed black men have gone viral in an age when every phone is a digital video camera. That Coates’s disquisition is so topical helps explain its popularity.

However, unlike Baldwin, who ended The Fire Next Time with a rallying cry for black and white people to unite to end America’s “racial nightmare”, Coates ends by imploring his own son to “struggle” but not to pin his hopes on converting the American Dreamers. Offering a vision would have elevated the already impressive intellectual scope of this book.

The Beautiful Struggle, first published in 2008, has now been issued in the UK on the back of the success of Between the World and Me, to which it serves as a companion piece. The linguistic skills on show here are so infused with the vernacular of the street and the rhythms of hip-hop that reading this book is an intoxicating experience, even if some of it goes by in a blur. Coates describes more fully his childhood in west Baltimore:

. . . the landscape gutted, dead eyes all around, and hundreds of kids slain every year from gunshots and bricks to the skull and every other undignified means to their end.

His exploration of his relationship with his father, Paul, a Vietnam veteran and Afrocentric radical who had seven children with four women, is particularly good. Coates lived with his parents throughout his childhood, with siblings from different mothers coming and going. He describes his father as he does himself – “from the street but not of it” – and felt both hatred and reverence towards him. Paul left the Panthers before the movement imploded, and started a grass-roots press in his basement in 1978, with titles that “ran the gamut from lynching to ancient Ethiopia to the memoirs of [the African-American cowboy] Nat Love”. Paul believed that the future could be altered by passing on knowledge and he educated his son in black history and culture.

Though the family was sometimes impecunious, both of his parents were college-educated professionals who were determined to help their children grow up safely and successfully. And yet, as a child, Coates was his own worst enemy. He almost squandered his opportunity to stay in a good school by playing the fool, to the point where his father had to sit in on his classes to try to curb his behaviour. Coates may have lived in a gang-addled ghetto, but it was not a situation out of the HBO crime drama The Wire. His parents had the wherewithal to set him on a path that ultimately took him out of the ghetto and made him one of its most celebrated chroniclers.

The author is excellent at driving home how things feel – the visceral, physical effect and negative impact of an externalised antagonist. He is less good at unravelling the psychology of our inner demons and offering strategies for the ways in which we hold ourselves back. Even in systemically racist societies, taking individual responsibility is a step towards self-improvement and the transformation of communities.

Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is published by Text Publishing (176pp, £10.99). The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates is published by Verso (228pp, £9.99)

Bernardine Evaristo’s most recent novel is “Mr Loverman” (Hamish Hamilton). She is a judge for the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the New Statesman

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue