Why white Amer­ica in­sists on its racial in­no­cence

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Thomas Chat­ter­ton Wil­liams is an Amer­i­can writer in Paris and the au­thor of a memoir, “Los­ing My Cool: Love, Literature and a Black Man’s Es­cape From the Crowd.” book­world@wash­post.com

Book re­view by Thomas Chat­ter­ton Wil­liams

Su­san Son­tag once ob­served: “Great writ­ers are ei­ther hus­bands or lovers. Some writ­ers sup­ply the solid virtues of a hus­band [while oth­ers have] the gifts of a lover, gifts of tem­per­a­ment rather than of moral good­ness.” She was writ­ing about Al­bert Ca­mus, “the ideal hus­band,” but she also men­tions in pass­ing Ge­orge Or­well and no­tably James Bald­win, “two other hus­bandly writ­ers who es­say to com­bine the role of artist with civic con­science.” In times of in­sta­bil­ity, pas­sion and in­san­ity, Son­tag ar­gues, read­ers tend to ap­proach writ­ers such as these with a lov­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion that mixes the per­sonal, moral and literary to a de­gree that tran­scends the sheer con­tent of the work.

I thought a lot about this as­sess­ment as the pre-pub­li­ca­tion pro­mo­tional copy and early reader re­ac­tions be­gan ap­pear­ing for Ta-Ne­hisi Coates’s pocket-size new memoir, “Be­tween the World and Me,” a riv­et­ing med­i­ta­tion on the state of race in Amer­ica. It could hardly ar­rive at a more tu­mul­tuous mo­ment. On the heels of a mas­sacre, al­legedly by a young white su­prem­a­cist, in a black church in Charleston, S.C., in the midst of a year of protest and un­rest in re­sponse to a spate of ex­tra­ju­di­cial po­lice killings of blacks and highly con­tentious of­fi­cer ac­quit­tals, to read the news is to feel that black Amer­ica is un­der con­stant siege.

Into this storm Coates steps. A na­tional cor­re­spon­dent at the At­lantic with an im­mensely pop­u­lar blog, he has come in re­cent years, by dint of for­mi­da­ble writ­ing tal­ent and pro­lifi­cacy, along with what can only be de­scribed as an at­trac­tive brand of hu­mil­ity and an earnest ap­petite for self-im­prove­ment, to oc­cupy a unique place in the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion on race as a charis­matic thought leader of the black and white left. The com­par­isons to Bald­win have been im­me­di­ate: “I’ve been won­der­ing who might fill the in­tel­lec­tual void that plagued me af­ter James Bald­win died,” Toni Mor­ri­son wrote in a widely cir­cu­lated blurb. “Clearly it is Ta-Ne­hisi Coates.”

He is not only con­scious of the com­par­i­son, he courts it, be­gin­ning with the form of the book, a let­ter to his 15-year-old son, Samori, that pur­pose­fully con­jures Bald­win’s 1962 “My Dun­geon Shook,” it­self a let­ter to his 15-year-old nephew, James. And though the ti­tle is drawn from Richard Wright, the an­i­mat­ing spirit of “Be­tween the World and Me” is Bald­win’s, too: “This is the crime of which I ac­cuse my coun­try and my coun­try­men . . . that they have de­stroyed and are de­stroy­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it,” Bald­win writes to his nephew. “But it is not per­mis­si­ble that the au­thors of dev­as­ta­tion should also be in­no­cent. It is the in­no­cence which con­sti­tutes the crime.”

What Bald­win di­ag­noses as white Amer­ica’s piti­ful need for in­no­cence, Coates refers to re­peat­edly as “the Dream”: “The Dream is tree­houses and the Cub Scouts,” he writes early on. “The Dream smells like pep­per­mint but tastes like straw­berry short­cake. . . . The Dream rests on our backs, the bed­ding made from our bod­ies.” Whereas Bald­win warns his nephew, “This in­no­cent coun­try set you down in a ghetto. . . . You were born into a so­ci­ety which spelled out with bru­tal clar­ity . . . that you were a worth­less hu­man be­ing,” Coates’s bril­liant in­no­va­tion is not to ar­tic­u­late but to em­body the point, draw­ing on his hemmed-in child­hood in 1980s and ’90s West Bal­ti­more. He sketches with an ax­iomatic pre­ci­sion what such a ter­ri­ble as­ser­tion means in stark hu­man terms.

What “Be­tween the World and Me” does bet­ter than any other re­cent book I can think of is re­lent­lessly drive home the point that “racism is a vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence.” As Coates so com­pellingly ex­plains, “It dis­lodges brains, blocks air­ways, rips mus­cle, ex­tracts or­gans, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” To be black in the ghetto of his youth “was to be naked be­fore the el­e­ments of the world, be­fore all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and dis­ease.” Through­out this book, he de­scribes be­ing in an at times fever­ish, at times numb-in­duc­ing fear for the safety of his own body. Here he is as a school­boy in the park­ing lot of a 7-Eleven, sud­denly aware that a slightly older black boy with a pis­tol holds his life in the crook of his fin­ger; here he is on the eve of fa­ther­hood, stopped by a Prince Ge­orge’s County po­lice of­fi­cer and ter­ri­fied that one mis­take — or less than that — could ren­der Samori fa­ther­less be­fore he is born. Cru­cially, both of these threats for Coates amount to ex­actly the same thing; both flow from the same poi­soned well­spring of white supremacy that ir­ri­gated a coun­try with the cat­e­gor­i­cal dis­re­spect for black life.

In so­ci­o­log­i­cal par­lance, Coates is a rigid struc­tural­ist, with­out even a thinly veiled dis­dain for those who would ar­gue that op­pressed blacks, like that gun-tot­ing teen who men­aced him at the 7-Eleven, de­velop modes of be­hav­ior that con­trib­ute to and sus­tain their op­pres­sion. They are, he ar­gues, sub­ject to larger dy­nam­ics. The naked­ness he feels be­fore the crim­i­nal forces of the world “is not an er­ror, nor pathol­ogy. The naked­ness is the cor­rect and in­tended re­sult of pol­icy. . . . It does not mat­ter if the agent of those forces is white or black ... what mat­ters is the sys­tem that makes your body break­able.” These are un­o­rig­i­nal though nonethe­less tremen­dously pro­found in­sights that bear se­ri­ous scru­tiny; what he makes of them now will sep­a­rate him not just from Bald­win but also from pre­vi­ous it­er­a­tions of him­self.

The Coates of “Be­tween the World and Me” is in many ways the apoth­e­o­sis of the in­creas­ingly somber es­say­ist who in re­cent years has been de­scribed— and has fre­quently de­scribed him­self — as work­ing in a “blue pe­riod.” “I had al­ways con­sid­ered a vaguely de­fined ‘ hope’ to be a pre­req­ui­site for writ­ing,” he wrote on his blog in 2014. “What kind of in­tel­lec­tual con­fronts a prob­lem and con­cludes, ‘Beats the hell out me.’ ” Fur­ther back, in 2010, he ven­tured more: “Watch­ing my own son in­ter­act with the world, in a way that I did not, I’ve of­ten felt that there re­ally could be — at some dis­tant point — a pos­tra­cial mo­ment.” But that op­ti­mism be­longed to a time be­fore Trayvon Martin, be­fore Jor­dan Davis, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Craw­ford, Renisha McBride, Wal­ter Scott — there are too many to name.

To­day, dur­ing the sec­ond ad­min­is­tra­tion of our na­tion’s first black pres­i­dent, his mes­sage for his son is bleak: “Our tri­umphs can never re­deem this. Per­haps our tri­umphs are not even the point. Per­haps strug­gle is all we have.”

A peo­ple in pos­ses­sion of noth­ing but strug­gle is by def­i­ni­tion a peo­ple com­posed of eter­nal vic­tims. This is a blues that even Bald­win, friend to Martin Luther King Jr. and most elo­quent wit­ness to the racial terror of the ’60s, could never al­low. “It seemed to me that if I took the role of a vic­tim then I was sim­ply re­as­sur­ing the de­fend­ers of the sta­tus quo,” Bald­win told the Paris Re­view shortly be­fore he died; “as long as I was a vic­tim they could pity me and add a few more pen­nies to my home-re­lief check. Noth­ing would change in that way. ... It was be­neath me to blame any­body for what hap­pened to me.”

Coates is still a re­mark­ably young writer, not even 40 years old. He has now writ­ten two books, mem­oirs both. Whether, ul­ti­mately, he will de­serve Bald­win’s enor­mous literary rep­u­ta­tion — rooted in a sin­gu­larly ex­pres­sive style and a di­verse body of ground­break­ing nov­els, es­says, jour­nal­ism, plays and as­ton­ish­ing or­a­tory — or whether he will strike fu­ture read­ers as a highly distin­guished im­i­ta­tor of the master is a ques­tion that will clar­ify it­self only with a much larger body of work.

What is clear now is that he has in­dis­putably in­her­ited the man­tle of “Amer­ica’s con­science.” It is a role he has sought — and also been thrust into — in the age of Obama. This is both a cov­eted and a dan­ger­ous po­si­tion to be in. “A writer who acts as public con­science needs ex­tra­or­di­nary nerve and fine in­stincts, like a boxer,” Son­tag cau­tioned. “Af­ter a time, these in­stincts in­evitably fal­ter. He also needs to be emo­tion­ally tough.” Coates has al­ready pub­licly fal­tered on ac­count of hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity, most no­tably in a heavy-handed and cringe-in­duc­ing dis­pute with a mi­nor jour­nal­ist who had the temer­ity to ques­tion his hy­per­bolic anoint­ment of the MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry as the na­tion’s “fore­most public in­tel­lec­tual.”

But in this book he is fir­ing on all cylin­ders, and it is some­thing to be­hold: a ma­ture writer en­tirely con­sumed by a mo­men­tous sub­ject and work­ing at the ex­treme of his con­sid­er­able pow­ers at the very mo­ment na­tional events most con­form to his vi­sion. It is hard, per­haps im­pos­si­ble, not to be en­rap­tured by his right­eous and — un­like with Bald­win — love­less in­dig­na­tion. For ours is a time not so much of hus­bands and lovers as of pla­tonic friends, writ­ers who in­spire scant gen­uine emo­tion. Ours is the per­fect time for a very good hus­band to ex­hort us all to feel.

BE­TWEEN THE WORLD AND ME By Ta-Ne­hisi Coates Spiegel & Grau. 152 pp. $24


Ta-Ne­hisi Coates, a na­tional cor­re­spon­dent for the At­lantic, has de­scribed him­self in re­cent years as work­ing in a “blue pe­riod.”

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