““I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rodgers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers.”
After years as a successful and important career writing for The Village Voice, Time, The Atlantic and others, Ta-Nehisi Coates established himself as a key voice in US journalism. 2008 saw the release of his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, which he followed with the short but sharp essay collection, Between the World and Me, in 2015. Split into three thematically-linked pieces, the work uses a similar method to that of James Baldwin’s ‘My Dungeon Shook’ in The Fire Next Time, with Coates writing the essays in the style of a letter to his son. His central point is to reinforce visceral, physical nature of racism, and how this determines every moment and gesture in the life of a black person, the murder of Prince Carmen Jones Jr., a college friend of Coates killed by police in 2000, a recurring point of reference.
In the first piece, Coates speaks of the harsh punishments his father would use against him (“Either I can beat him or the police,” he quotes him as saying), and the unerring language and tone of the essays is its own tough love from father to son. The realities of violence are made clear, as are those of white supremacy and atheism, institutional racism, the constant fear. No topic is coated in sugar, no punches are pulled, no real redemption is offered beyond extolling the value of constant vigilance and a knowledge of your position in the world.
And, if this is an uncomfortable truth for Coates’ son, then it is even more uncomfortable for us white people who like to believe in equality in our own passive way. Firstly, there is the bone-deep unease that comes with our sheer inaction, our stasis in the face of an unfathomably conspicuous white dominance. How can kids still get murdered again and again by police officers who face little or no consequence? How can 60% of black men who do not finish school end up in jail? How can we still load people into ghettos and act with indignation or fear when violence and tragedy ensues? It seems, for all the talk and moral reasoning, personal comfort still allows some perceived distance from the suffering that allows us to pretend we can or should do nothing.
Secondly dawns a slower horror, though one very much feeding into the first. Throughout the book, despite the fear and sadness, Coates makes clear the rich sense of identity experienced by black peoples, a sense of belonging achieved through ethnicity and culture that is best highlighted in his eulogising on Howard University. For all of our bluster and trying, white people do not have the same sense of identity. What could be said to unite white people beyond capitalism and power? So instead we must dream, become simulacra of Buck Rodgers and Aragorn and Skywalker, pretend to be all-powerful heroes of importance. The implications of this are clear—the only way to conjure a sense of power is to exert control over others—and the result an emptiness we have no way of filling.
Just as with the inequalities and dangers Coates’ son will face as he becomes a man, there is no quickfire solution that will make our problems go away. We too need constant vigilance, an equal and opposite awareness to that of which Coates holds. We too must arm ourselves with knowledge, a never ending interrogation of who we are and what that means.
Between the World and Me is out now on Spiegel & Grau. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power is out in October. Coates also works for The Atlantic, and writes the Black Panther series for Marvel Comics.