When I started writing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s hot new book Between the World and Me earlier this week (here and here), I did so because Coates is an influential public intellectual and the book has been the subject of universal acclaim. Today NR editor Rich Lowry dissents in his excellent column “The toxic worldview of Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Rich’s column makes an important contribution. I urge interested readers to check it out.
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Coates writes of the “breaking” of the (black) “body” repeatedly throughout the book. According to Coates, “people who believe themselves to be white” have constructed the notion of race and subjugated blacks from the beginning of American history to date through the breaking of the black body. “People who believe they are white” are those who believe that the United States is an exceptional nation and who believe in the American Dream. Coates calls them Dreamers and, unlike President Obama’s DREAMers, they are not to be indulged. They are to be resisted.
Coates fears for the integrity and security of the black body. His fear is the intended product of “people who believe they are white.” It is their means of control.
In the course of his short book, however, Coates’s body is the subject of physical violence committed only by his parents. When he is six, he slips away from his parents at a public park in Baltimore. Coates writes (16-18):
Dad did what every parent I know would have done–he reached for his belt. I remember watching him in a kind of daze, awed at the distance between punishment and offense. Later, I would hear it in Dad’s voice–“Either I can beat him, or the police.” Maybe it saved me, maybe it didn’t. All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit. What I know is that father who slammed their teenage boys for sass would then release them to streets where their boys employed, and were subject to, the same justice….Our parents resorted to the lash the way flagellants in the plague years resorted to the scourge.
Coates’s beating by his father leads immediately to declamation of his nakedness “before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” Coates’s attributes his young vulnerability to the Man. Addressing his son, he writes:
The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body….However, you call it, the result was our infirmity before the criminal forces of the world. It does not matter if the agent of those forces is white or black–what matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable.
Coates subsequently declares (60-61): “I am black, and have been plundered and lost my body.” Coates writes that his parents “ruled with the fearsome rod….I grew up in a house drawn between love and fear.”
Coates returns to the beatings administered by his father. In the most graphic of these passages, Coates writes (82):
Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra–“Either I can beat him or the police.” I understood it all–the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket….
Toward the end of the book, Coates alludes for the last time to the actual violence he experienced at the hands of his parents (130): “My life was the immediate negotiation of violence–within my house and without.”
Coates recounts one encounter with law enforcement. It is an uneventful traffic stop in Prince George’s County (75-76). The traffic stop leads in to the book’s moving account of the death of Coates’s fellow Howard University student Prince Jones. We will turn to Jones’s death in part 3.