By Mark Naison (August 13, 2015)
Let me say at the outset that I cannot be objective in reviewing Ta-Nehisi Coates new book, “Between the World and Me,” which is addressed to his 15 year old son, who burst into tears when learning that the Ferguson Grand Jury refused to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown. I have a 11 year old bi-racial granddaughter who is the light of my life- she is beautiful, smart, athletic with a great future. But when Michael Brown was killed, the first thought that came into my mind was “Thank God she is not a boy.” No grandfather should think such thoughts, but those are the thoughts Black parents have to think every day. Because as Coates reminds us, Black bodies, for as long as we have been a nation, have littered the pathways that whites have walked toward their version of “The American Dream,” and even today, the life of a Black person can be snuffed out if he or she is in the wrong place and the wrong time and those who do the killing will rarely be punished.
The image of America as a nation whose progress has been built on the exploitation and murder of Black people is not going to win any popularity contests in mainstream political discourse. There are historical works, such as Edward Baptist’s “The Half Never Been Told,” which provide concrete evidence for such an argument, with a tone that is less confrontational, and with a less pessimistic vision of the American future.
But what Coates does, with unmatched clarity, is to describe how Black parents, and children, and entire communities have been traumatized by the fear that Black life is cheap and could be sniffed out at the drop of a hat with little recourse from the law because the law is complicit in its devaluation. And he does so in a way that may be more effective than an historian or a sociologist presenting data because he takes us into the mind of a parent terrified for the life of their child, a perspective any parent can readily identify with
Here is how Coates describes this fear to his son. There is no distance in his writing. Just imagine what it takes to address your own child this way:
“I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely when you leave me and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age, the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid….
“It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their puffy big coats and full length fur collared leathers, which was their armor against the worlds. . . . I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear and all I see is them girding themselves against the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered around their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on in their practiced bop, their slouching denim, their big T-shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps . . . .
“I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew, the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters or their own lives, their own streets, their own bodies. . . .
“ And I saw it in my own father, who loves you, who counsels you, who slipped me money to care for you. My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away. Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail to drugs to guns. . . .And now they were gone and their legacy was a great fear”
In all of African American memoir literature, and in all memoir literature I know of, there is no comparable passage to this written to speak to one’s child. Can you imagine what depths of despair it took for Coates to write this?
This is a book which sees nothing but continuity between the slave ship, the overseers whip, the slave market auction, late night rapes and seductions, the mass murder of black union soldiers, Black Codes and the Night Riders, Jim Crow Laws, lynchings and prison farms and today’s toxic mix of ghettoization, the drug war, stop and frisk, and police murders of unarmed Black men and women. All of these Coates suggest, so that white people can feel virtuous and secure and able to say the violence was all in the past or that black people’s marginality is their own fault. When in fact their entire society, which they proclaim has been a beacon to the world’s peoples, was based on murder and theft.
Is this world view credible? Yes, but it is also incomplete, especially when considering economics. Over the last thirty years, the exportation of jobs, the destruction of unions, and the financialization of the economy, coupled with wage compression and a housing and credit card bubble, have brought unprecedented economic insecurity into the lives of working class and middle class whites. Coates talks about the American Dream as though it is still intact for most white people, when it is in fact quickly slipping out of their grasp. He erases distinctions between white elites, who are monopolizing the nation’s wealth, a still secure upper middle class, a floundering and shrinking white middle class, and a white working class which is steadily being driven into poverty and insecurity, and is, in some places, intermarrying and/or becoming part of extended families with Black and Latino working class people stuck in the same predicament/ And this is hardly accidental. Coates, who grew up in inner city Baltimore, attended Howard University, and found his career in a world of insurgent, and counter cultural journalism where the whites he would meet were liberal intellectuals, had little experience living with, or working with working class or blue collar whites, and it is not surprising their angst, rage or confusion about their declining status has little place in this book.
But though Coates book may erase distinctions between whites, and underestimate the ways class and economics shapes current forms of white privilege, his descriptions of how Black people have internalized the multiple traumas they have suffered and how they fear for their children at a time when state violence against and police harassment of black people is an ever present danger have an authenticity that cannot be reduced to statistics.
Coates stories, of the Baltimore community he grew up in, of his family he visited in the South, of his friends at Howard, of the people he lived with in New York’s inner city neighborhoods show a people who are vibrant, resilient, creative and at times brilliantly insightful, yet can never shake off the fear that something terrible could happen to them at any moment. And no one can from outside can say that is not real! How could you, in the wake of the deaths of Travon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and now Sandra Bland?
And Coates has a story that for him, puts these contemporary deaths in terrifying context, a story that helps carry the narrative of this book through to its conclusion. The subject is a fellow student from Howard, Prince Jones, who became his close friend even after successfully winning the affections of a young woman Coates was in love with. Jones was chased down and murdered near his own home by a Prince George County narcotic detective even though he was unarmed, and had no criminal record. The police officer who killed Jones was Black, most public officials in the country were Black, and yet no criminal charges were filed in Jones death. If Jones, a popular talented student at a Black college could die this way, Coates concluded, what Black person would really feel secure. It would be no exaggeration to say Jones death left Coates with something approaching PTSD, whose symptoms recurred with a vengeance in the wake of the police murders that have taken place during the last two years
Significantly, the book ends with a meeting Coates had with Prince Jones mother, a well respected physician who grew up in a black working class family in Louisiana. She is calm, dignified, yet permanently scarred by what would have to be called the worst tragedy that could ever befall a parent, the premature death of a child, made all the more horrible that is was done by agents of a government that is supposed to represent her, and protect her and her loved ones.
This is how Coates interprets the outcome:
“And she could not lean on her country for help. When it came to her son, Dr Jones country did what it dies best- it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of the theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, here in this world.”
At a time when the Dream is seeming out of reach to more and more Americans, of all races, the experiences Coates describes must be confronted in all their complexity and tragic power. The pain of Black parents and Black families feeling their children are unnecessarily and unjustly at risk must be heard loudly and clearly. It must never be pushed aside because some think it inconvenient. Until we address it, we can never say we are making real social progress.
Coates book makes sure we will never forget that perspective. For that we should all be extremely grateful
I want to end with something that took place in one of my classes at Fordham during the fall of 2014. We had just heard the news that the Grand Jury in Ferguson had declined to indict the police officer who killed Mike Brown and the class wanted to talk about it. One of my students, a beautiful, brilliant white student from Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn who taught hip hop dance in local schools raised her hand. I called on her and this is what she said. “When I heard what the Grand Jury decided, I couldn’t sleep, so I called my Black friend. I told her, “I am so angry about the verdict I can’t sleep.” She interrupted me and said “ You have the luxury of being angry. You’re white. We are terrified.” People in the class started crying. They got it.
Ti-Nahisi Coates book has that same power. It should make us cry, and want to so something about the policies, and institutional patterns, that make Black parents, and Black families feel so very vulnerable, and so very alone.