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On learning that the police officer who killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, had been exonerated, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ son went to his room and wept. Coates would not comfort him. He would not deny the reality that “in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage”.
Coates himself grew up in a tough Baltimore neighbourhood ruled by fear. Today, as a national correspondent for the Atlantic and a prize-winning writer, he is able to provide his son, Samori, with a relatively privileged upbringing. Yet he writes of his sorrow that he cannot guarantee his son’s safety in a society that, from the introduction of slavery in 1619, has been built on violence towards the “black body”, for which perpetrators are rarely held accountable. Coates has written Between the World and Me, a powerful and often lyrical blend of memoir, history and polemic, as a letter to Samori, so that he might grow “to be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world”.
Coates’ own father was a captain in the Black Panthers and a librarian with a passion for Africana. His mother taught him to write as a way of interrogating thought. They were proud atheists who “rejected all dogmas … We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God.” Between is not your usual American narrative: there are no lessons of forgiveness, no message of redemption. There is only this question: “How do I live free in this black body?”
Coates possesses a profoundly empathetic imagination and a tough intellect. When he re-creates stolen lives such as that of a slave or a university friend senselessly murdered by police, the impact is visceral. When he takes apart the notion of “whiteness”, he reframes the world. The “people who believe they are white”, he notes, once considered themselves merely Welsh, Corsican or other. By identifying as white, they embrace the idea of race as “a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world”; the inevitable result is racism, “the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them”. The lesson is expressed in one of Coates’ crystalline aphorisms: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.”
Between has been a bestseller in the US. New York Times journalist AO Scott calls it “essential, like water or air” and Toni Morrison anointed Coates the successor to James Baldwin. In an age when the US has both a black president and ongoing police violence against black citizens, this book is helping to guide a crucial conversation. Coates speaks to America, but Australia has reason to listen.
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