Is It Anger or Abandonment? Ta-Nehisi Coates' Tie Between God, America and Being Black In America
Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t a writer that minces his words, he simply tells it as it should be. Politicians, history books, the news, aren’t too keen on being brutally honest but “Between the World and Me” delivers a loaded punch. In 2008 Coates published his first book, a father-son memoir called "The Beautiful Struggle." In 2012 he wrote "Fear Of A Black President," an essay where he frustratingly writes about the impact, or lack thereof, that Barack Obama has had on the race issue that affect this nation, "(Barack Obama) He has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean”." In 2014 Coates wrote "The Case for Reparations," where he states, "Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts of our ancestors, America will never be whole." "Between the World and Me" was anticipated after a scion of two controversial articles where he passionately challenges white supremacy. Inspired by James Baldwin "The Fire Next Time," 'Between the World and Me" is written in letter form between father and son on this nation’s duplicitous vulgarities that lay the makeup of the America we live in today. There are many books that have been written on black identity, but rather than numbing the reader with what it means to be black he instead recollects on his own memories that have shaped the man he is today and the experiences that awakened him to white plunder.
Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, grew up witnessing violence in the streets and experienced strong punishment in his home, but it was birthed from a terror that only a parent could understand. Coming of age in West Baltimore there lied a common unease in black homes that if the parents don't get you the police will. "Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made." In his community violence was the only way parents knew how to protect their children; the streets he walked every day were battle grounds for gang rivalry, boxing rings for the local neighborhood girls, financial gains for those that sold drugs and shooting ranges for cops that needed target practice. This crippling fear saturates the book. The way Ta-Nehisi explains the harsh discipline in his home, from the outside looking in, can easily appear as crossing the line into child abuse. "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." Yet Coates makes it clear that this form of chastisement could have been the reason he did not end up a statistic, the firm grip of his parents is what kept him in line. He comes from a history of slain family members, reasons unknown to the reader, but reasons that drove his parents to anxiety and worry.
Accepted into Howard University, or as Coates proudly calls it, The Mecca, was a turning point in his life. He was encompassed in a space where blacks of every diaspora congregated and became a multiformity of one student body. A prominent African American institution, he fell in love, discovered The Yard, and was sculpted and molded by books that helped his self-discovery. The emotional force behind “Between the World and Me” is not just that it is written to his son, but it discusses the murder of a fellow Howard Alumni, Prince Jones. While attending Howard Coates was ached by questions and even while sitting at Prince's funeral so many years later, he became enraged by those same questions. Jones was killed yards away from his fiancées house, an undercover police officer followed him and wrongfully shot him to death. There was no prosecution and the case was dismissed. This not only serves as a catalyst for Ta-Nehisi's fear but a condemnation towards a God that in scripture states that He will protect you and an anger towards a God he does not understand. "And if he, good Christian, scion of a striving class, patron saint of the twice as good, could be forever bound, who then could not?"
Americans are led to believe that if your work ethic matches your faith you can achieve anything. The Pledge of Allegiance, a salute to those that live, serve, and die in this country co-sign that same American Dream. A prelude to "The Fire Next Time," Baldwin wrote a letter in The New Yorker magazine to his nephew where he states:
You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity.
Picking up where Baldwin left off Ta-Nehisi attacks that farce of The Dream with a vengeance, leaving readers gutted and defenseless. If you’re reading this book looking to defend your country Coates angrily reminds us of the history Americans choose to ignore and escape from; African Americans were treated as machinery and sold as property, “You cannot forget how much they took from us and how hey transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold."
Understanding what it means to be black in America is realizing that at any given moment the black body is vulnerable to attack at any time, and it can be violated with impunity and easily become a face on another t-shirt. “Between The World and Me” comes in the thick of "Black Lives Matter," Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and a plethora of slain African Americans that were killed by acts of racism. Coates makes it clear that there is a distinction between Black America and White America, but it will take more than everyone holding hands and screaming world peace to recognize the brokenness that is of this nation. Unfortunately, Ta-Nehisi does not provide an answer to ending racism and according to his pessimistic tone there may never be a solution. "The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise." Damned if you do damned if you don't the fight continues unabated. Excellency does not equate a life void of white supremacy.
There is a rather mechanical over usage of the term, "the body." I landed on an interview where he describes his vapid use of the term, and states that there is a “physical experience that black people carry.” In America, "the body" is seen as just that, a body deprived of a soul, a name, and failure to understand that someone is wearing that skin. "But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, 'white people' would cease to exist for want of reasons." Reading this frequently throughout the book is like removing blinders from your eyes, as revolutionary as it may be for those that identify as white it is simultaneously a slap in the face.
Coates provides no ounce of optimism since his belief in the justice system or any faith for the future of the black community is imponderable. His rejection of any religious dogma is the antithesis of the foundation that is deeply rooted in the black community: Christianity. In a land that profited from slavery a just God would mean a world of justice. "We would not kneel before their God. And so I had no sense that any just God was on my side. 'The meek shall inherit the earth' meant nothing to me." Coates provides a morbid arc of the trajectory of racism in the Americas and leaves no hope for where it will lead to. He speaks heavily on responsibility, a responsibility I interpreted as a double edged sword. The moment you forget this social consciousness you risk becoming another statistic, but I ponder if this responsibility is a task that is too heavy on the shoulders of a young teenage boy that is his son. That maybe he is mincing the hope in a child that may not see himself changing the world, but desires to be a spark. "I wanted you to have your own life, apart from fear-even apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next."
There is an unprecedented link between the America that enslaved black people and a God that promises justice to those that serve Him. Coates rebukes both. He believes in neither the nation nor the God over it. Reading this book I wondered if Coates feels abandoned. He carries a justifiable anger, but it is an anger that will burn through any ray of optimism. My disappointment with “Between the World and Me” is that he left no belief for his readers, or even his son. As important as it is to be consciously aware, I agree with Toni Morrison's endorsement that this book is 'required,' (mostly for whites) however I turned the last page asking the same questions Ta-Nehisi did. I felt powerless, doomed, and scared for the future of African Americans. For the survival of anyone’s soul hope is needed for self-preservation and I finished this book feeling a loss of hope, not for myself, but for Ta-Nehisi. Nonetheless, 'Between the World and Me' is more for those that identify as white and less for those that relate to his experiences. Not all African Americans have the same struggles, but as an African American, we share the same fears. If fans or naysayers agree with him being in the likes of Baldwin then you might as well say James passed the torch to Coates himself but the tragedy of Mr. Coates vision, he leaves out the possibility of hope, even in himself.
Copyright 2016 Crystal Hardman