In a New York City hotel room last November, I turned on my television to hear news I still refused to believe was inevitable. A grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., had decided not to file criminal charges against an officer who shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown. The decision effectively exonerated the officer and ensured that no trial or consequential examination of this widely discussed confrontation would occur.
My 17-year-old son watched blankly as my anger sunk into a bitter sadness. "Even Emmett Till got his day in court," I sputtered.
I now know that Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and his own teenage son were anxiously viewing the same broadcasts a few blocks away. Coates’ masterful new book, Between the World and Me, written as a letter from a father to his son, describes how the news played out in their West Side apartment:
"You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, ‘I’ve got to go,’ and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it."
It is difficult to recall reading a more moving and timely essay than Between the World and Me. In bold quotes across the book jacket, Toni Morrison describes Coates, quite appropriately, as the intellectual heir to James Baldwin.
And much like Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, the 39-year-old Coates combines compelling vignettes growing up poor, urban, and black in America with a fresh and vivid analysis of how the enduring legacy of white supremacy forms responses to both the perception and reality of racial violence.
As protesters swarmed into Times Square, I struggled to reconcile my own parochial upbringing in the south with the open, tolerant world I believed I was shaping for my son. We had flown in from the west coast to tour colleges and discuss his future. The purpose of our sojourn now felt narrow to me. But my son, otherwise bright, gracious, and increasingly aware of his own privilege, was mystified by my tears. Curious, tentative, but unable to share in the emotion of the moment, he earnestly wondered why Ferguson might matter this much.
Reading Between the World and Me, I realize how far I remain from the answers we both still need. In our case, both a father and his son were raised, in language pulled from Baldwin and repeated throughout the book, "believing (ourselves) to be white." This belief forms within and beyond our homes, relies on a national amnesia, draws on a conspiracy of carefully measured human interactions, and survives on America's unwillingness to wrestle with the demons of slavery.
I am the product of reactionary, small-town busing battles in the seventies. In seeming contrast, my son has come of age in notably progressive, multicultural San Francisco public schools. Coates' letter to his son is not addressing either of us, formally. But his message suggests that an enduring racial myth, inscribed with violence, and all too rarely questioned, bring together all who believe themselves white. My son and I may have grown up on different sides of the culture war, but we are tied to the same myth and it limits how far either of us will go to confront our American dilemma.
Coates is uniquely equipped to give this dilemma meaning and context during a year marked by a series of high profile police confrontations, often captured on camera, that have mirrored the terror in Ferguson. But he deftly shifts attention from the details of these recent events and instead forces the reader to examine their connection to a much longer history of violent disregard for the black body.
Between the World and Me continues to garner significant press attention for its timeliness, but like Baldwin, Coates is writing for the ages.
This achievement stands out most because, even in its bitter moments, the essay remains a parental love letter. As such, we are drawn to words that at once familiar and intimate, revealing the hopes and vulnerability of a father who, like me, feels such pressing need to save his child from and through his own history.
"The truth is that I owe you everything I have," Coates tells his son tenderly.
"I was grounded and domesticated by the plain fact that should I go down, I would not go down alone."
To read Coates is to consider just how dramatically different my own parenting imperative is from fathers who teach their sons resistance but who must contend with the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that such instruction will lead to bodily loss.
For those of us who grew up believing we are white, and perhaps especially for those of us raising sons all too likely to believe the same, there is at least one urgent message we should share alongside Coates: Our children need to know that they live in a nation, branded by violence, that values some bodies more than others. Indeed, they need to hear that, with sorrow and conviction, "This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it."