Monday, September 14, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, A Justifiably Angry Man

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written two books and is the recipient of numerous prizes for opinion writing and journalism. But the article that probably brought him the most renown was the in-depth "Atlantic" cover story, "The Case for Reparations," an amazing, convincing piece of writing that details how we, the people of these United States, profited from the physical and economic enslavement of the African people.

His new book, "Between the World and Me," has been called required reading by Toni Morrison. What she doesn't say is that it should be required reading for white folks. After all, black people already understand the sickening, underlying angst that colors every day in a world that disrespects them with impunity. This tiny book, a 152 page letter to Coates' fifteen-year-old son, filled me with despair because I believe that the writer was being realistic in his advice.


Twenty years ago I never would have said this, naively believing that we'd come so far in race relations in the U.S. Now we have a man like Donald Trump leading in the polls in a presidential election. Have we stooped that low?

Coates is not a man of God. He rails at the thought that black people believe that they must wait until they get to a so-called promised land to achieve the freedom that should be guaranteed them here on earth. Coates is not a fan of the non-violent stance of a Martin Luther King, Jr. He is a follower of Malcolm X and he tells his son why.

Using the Michael Brown incident as a catalyst, Coates speaks eloquently of the body. How with one false move, in one moment of wrong place/wrong time, a black man can lose his body - his life. He doesn't want this for his son. But he doesn't want him to stand down either. Coates was raised by two loving middle-class parents but his father did not spare the rod. Coates was punished for being too weak, for allowing a bully to steal his bike, for avoiding certain streets and people while growing up in Baltimore. At one point he describes how he learned to smell a fight on the summer air, when heat and tempers flared.

It's so difficult for many of us to imagine this feeling of being terrified to walk to school, to have to plot your course, to avoid eye contact with the gang members, the kid with a pistol flailing around. The physical anxiety had to be overwhelming and, internalized, no doubt led to the growth of a man who is bottling up a justifiable rage. It informs his words on every page.

But tempering that anger is the deep, abiding love Coates has for his son, his wife, his family, and for Howard University, which he refers to as Mecca. Here he discovered a haven for students like himself, looking for answers to previously indecipherable questions. His wife helps him adopt a gentler way, she introduces him to the joys of travel, searching for other cultures that might be a better fit.

I think it's such a beautiful labor of love to put down on paper a lesson of this magnitude. The book becomes almost a genealogy of black families from their time in Africa, to their kidnapping, and their displacement here in this country, their accomplishments all the more remarkable under the circumstances.

Coates tells his child, Samori, that he is a young man growing in consciousness. He says that he hopes Samori never feels the need to constrict himself to make other people comfortable. Coates, on the other hand, may make some readers uncomfortable and that's a good thing. If we are to grow in consciousness ourselves then we must be snapped out of our complacency and walk in another's shoes. This is a good place to begin that journey.

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