Notes from a New Native Son


Coates Pic

Since the preparation for the July publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, two fresh incidents in America’s complicated racial history have taken place. The tragedy of the shootings in the Charleston, South Carolina Sunday school by a white supremacist has resulted in the rapid reconsideration of the symbolism of the confederate flag, and, in most Southern state legislative buildings, the removal of that flag. Surprising swift was the exposure of the nature of the Southern heritage being celebrated, a heritage founded on the mid-19th century Southern cause to preserve slavery and the mid-20th century Southern impulse to resist Civil Rights legislation.

The arrest by an overly aggressive Texas white policeman of African-American Sandra Bland for failure to signal a lane change (a lane change made to accommodate the fast-closing policeman behind her) and her subsequent alleged hanging in her jail cell is yet another reminder of the vulnerability of black citizens in society. Future episodes are not likely to be diminished either by the high public visibility of other cases like those of Michael Brown and Travon Martin  much less by the removal of battle flags of the Army of Northern Virginia from the shelves at K-Mart.

No doubt Coates would provide valuable insight about these cases, insights that any reader of his important new book would be able to extrapolate from the contents of the wise and provocative Between the World and Me.

Between the World and Me is presented as an extended message of the almost 40 year old Coates to his almost 15 year old son. Although confident that his son has absorbed the lessons of the exoneration of the police in the Mike Brown case and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, he wants his son to understand that although his teenage years are quite different than his fathers (he’s coming of age during the administration of a black president) he faces the same threats to his bodily safety that previous generations of black men and women have faced. An atheist who finds no solace in the exaltation of suffering occasionally preached in the black church, he urges his son to look for answers in the personal struggle, not because the struggle will pay off, but rather because it’s the only means to maintain one’s dignity. In a universe where the “moral arc bends toward chaos” rather than justice, what’s left is the righteous self-interrogation through the reading of history.

While he’s seen many members of his generation succeed because they accepted the mandate that they “try twice as hard” and “be twice as good,” he refrains from giving his son this advice, even though he knows that his fortunate son will absorb this maxim.

This extended message to his son takes a number of different forms. It’s an examination of American history and the place of race in that history; it’s an accounting of his own life and the formative influences on it.

Coates, whose provocative 2013 article in the Atlantic, where he is a contributing editor, making the case for reparations, is fully mindful of the ways in which national prosperity has been achieved from the uncompensated and physically stressful labors of black bodies and from the fear instilled by white society. His essay is peppered with litanies of the ways in which slavery “rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, and breaks teeth.” 12 Years a Slave must replace Roots in our imagination.

He reminds his son (and us) that the wealth wrapped up in slave property was larger than that in American industry, workshops and railroads. The greatest concentration of millionaires was in a most unlikely place: the Mississippi River delta where plantation slave populations frequently exceeded 200.

The nation made another “down-payment on its mortgage” in the post-World War II years when black GI bills did not enjoy the same benefits as their white counterparts and where real estate red lining was common practice in Northern cities that were absorbing the participants in the Great Migration. As a result of deliberate government policies that advantaged whites, black family wealth today (not yearly salary) is significantly lower than that of whites of the same educational attainment. He also is aware of how government policies and other forces helped to forge the notion of whiteness, conferring opportunity and dignity upon previous discredited “barbarians” from Ireland and the Mediterranean.

And the law and order, militarized America ushered in by Nixon and Reagan and increased by the Bushes and even the now apologetic Democrat Clinton, has dramatically increased our prison populations, thus providing a jobs program for prison personnel and investment opportunities for stock holders in the prison-industrial complex.

Coates makes no distinction between the prejudicial cop on the beat (whether black or white or brown) and the mortgage lenders who duped minority populations into taking on risky mortgages. He wants to cast the net of complicity as wide as he can, rebutting any attempt on our part to point fingers at the “bad apples” in the police departments, HR units, or in the loan industry. The red line drawn around Mike Brown’s body is no different than the red line drawn around North Lawndale.

He’s particularly hard on the Dreamers, those citizens who choose to live in what Gore Vidal called “the United States of Amnesia.” These are citizens incurious about American history, defensive about being charged with exhibiting white privilege, and committed to the idea of American exceptionalism. He wonders when we will be able to turn away from the “brightly rendered version” of this country and turn toward something “murkier and unknown.” Perhaps the killings in the Charleston AME Baptist church will point the way. Perhaps visits to Civil War battle sites, like the ones that Coates took with his son, will get us to see beyond the southern soldiers as earlier incarnations of The Dukes of Hazard, just two country boys out having fun.

Running through the book is a personal history, a coming-of-age story that builds upon his 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. Coates grows up in West Baltimore and quickly learns the street codes the obedience to which insures personal safety. Forsaking the life of the streets for the life in the classroom, he finds it too  insufficient. A self-defined student of the library than the classroom, he finds Malcolm X’s self-education and intellectual-spiritual evolution as a model. The schools are too eager to send out the “be twice as good” message. The schools are less interested in Art and History than they are in squashing curiosity and promoting discipline and obedience to authority. He finds it frustrating that the admonitions to take personal responsibility are offered in a country “authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility.” He finds it equally frustrating that the white kid on the tricycle is getting a different message, not “be twice as good,” but rather “take twice as much.”

Coates is particularly instructive on his matriculation at Washington D.C.’s Howard University, a place that he calls the Mecca because it serves as a crossroads for the black diaspora. It’s there that he becomes infatuated with the myths of a glorious Nubian past that were foundational in African-American study departments, only to see that these myths were misleading and potentially destructive. It’s here that he meets his Chicago born wife. And it’s here that he meets Prince Jones, a charismatic, athletic classmate. In one of the more poignant accounts in the book we read about the death of Prince Jones in 2000, the victim of a mistaken identity in which a black Prince George County undercover drug agent followed Jones across three jurisdictions and fatally shot him. That Prince Jones was a child of privilege, the son of a prominent Louisiana radiologist and the beneficiary of all of the good things that his parents wealth could by, means that no black body is beyond suspicion.

Coates contemplates the loss of lives but also the loss of valuable time: the accumulation of many moments spent by black citizens readying the masks for presentation in public; the enormous amount of time spent by parent like Mrs. Jones in rearing a child and preparing him for the world, a world that is indifferent to his life.

In writing to his son, Coates clearly conveys to his son that his black life matters. We are the beneficiaries of this impassioned fatherly meditation for we are able to see – perhaps for the first time or perhaps even in deeper ways than before – that black lives, and all lives, matter.

Coates’s book begins with a set of quotations from Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Coates continues the tradition of searing and provocative cultural analysis set down by these native sons.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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