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book review

Ta-Nehisi Coates with his son Samori as a child.

A few days after officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown and left his body to rot in the Missourian sun, Ta-Nehisi Coates posted a blog entry for The Atlantic, where he works as the magazine's national correspondent. "We are being told that Michael Brown attacked an armed man and tried to take his gun," Coates wrote. "The people who are telling us this hail from that universe where choke-holds are warm-fuzzies, where boys discard their skittles yelling, 'You're gonna die tonight,' and possess the power to summon and banish shotguns from the ether. These are the necessary myths of our country, and without them we are subject to the awful specter of history, and that is just too much for us to bear."

In his new book Between the World and Me, Coates offers a blistering interrogation of that universe and its mythology through a series of letters to his teenaged son Samori. Given the seemingly endless cycle of lethal violence against unarmed black Americans – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and the church massacre in Charleston, S.C. – this interrogation couldn't have come at a more urgent time. Between the World and Me is both a meditation on life in a country that weaponizes black skin and a rigorous examination of what Coates calls the Dream – the pernicious American concept of whiteness, fuelled since the days of the Middle Passage by the destruction of black bodies.

According to Coates, the violence that plundered and shattered bodies for the purpose of producing cotton, tobacco and cane sugar was not eliminated by the abolition of slavery. Instead, it was bequeathed to future generations and left in the hands of police, vigilantes and white supremacists. The passive acceptance of that violence is only made possible by the Dream: the idyllic, suburban universe of white America that "smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake." In Coates's view, this universe is not made for himself, his son, or any other black American, because "the dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies."

The contrapositive to that dream is the America that Coates inhabits, rife with violence, theft and heartbreak. It is the America which falls upon 14-year-old Samori with awful clarity, when Ferguson prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced that Wilson would not be indicted for the killing of Michael Brown. Rather than the lie of comforting words, Coates instead summarizes for Samori what his own grandparents tried to impart onto him: "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."

Coates illustrates his own pathfinding against the backdrop of Baltimore in the mid-1980s, a city gripped by crime, poverty and the twin epidemics of crack and HIV that ravaged inner city America. "To be black in the Baltimore of my youth," Coates writes, "was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease." Surviving the elements required an intimate relationship with fear and violence – in the household and in the streets – all of which Coates describes in romantic language wavering between grief and nostalgia.

Beyond the homiletic tone and the interrogatory narrative lies Coates's true gift for language. There is a rhythm to his storytelling that evokes a talented producer sampling beats, cutting together the various dialects of black America, including those of academia, hip-hop music, the church pulpit and black liberation. While contrasting life in Baltimore with that universe where the Dream sustains America's innocence, Coates writes "Fear ruled everything around me," a nod to the 1993 Wu-Tang Clan single C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). In describing the privileges of clarity that come with living in black skin, Coates tells his son, "We are, as Derrick Bell once wrote, the 'faces at the bottom of the well.'" Echoing the tragic story of runaway slave Margaret Garner, Coates writes, "I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made." Coates may identify as an atheist, but this haunting passage whispers the deepest fears of black parents, most of whom have felt the impulse to send their children back to God, to save them from the coming woe.

Between the World and Me is not without its flaws. The epistolary structure, father imparting wisdom to son, casts a wide net on issues of history and race, but pulls tight on the matter of gender. Coates does pay respect to the women who sustained him and nurtured his development – his mother who encouraged him to pour his emotions into writing, the Howard University professor who taught him to apply intellectual rigour and avoid constructing an Afrocentric version of the Dream – yet they still exist within the margins of the narrative. For all Coates offers in this book, there is no exploration of black womanhood in the context of history, normative concepts of femininity, or the justice system. Also missing is an exploration of black womanhood in relation to men, black and otherwise.

Coates acknowledges that "the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways that I could never know," but rather than exploring this line of thought much further, he cuts the thread. In the wake of Rekia Boyd's death at the hands of Chicago Police detective Dante Servin, the serial rape of black women by Oklahoma City officer Daniel Holtzclaw and the recent death of Sandra Bland while in custody of Waller County police, this conversation is at least as urgent for black women. Coates is right: he will never know the experience of street harassment or domestic abuse in the body of a black woman and that is precisely why his son (and many others) needs to have this conversation with his father.

Given Coates's history of thoughtful analysis on the intersections of racism, culture, and politics, it may be tempting – especially for white readers – to expect to be taken on a deep dive. Between the World and Me does draw from history, anecdotes and deeply wrenching personal meditations to illustrate how thoroughly racism has diffused through both America's institutions and everyday life, but there are no easy answers to be found here. This is by no means a textbook on American blackness; no such literature exists, and Coates spends almost a quarter of the book describing his own folly in seeking it. What Coates has produced instead is a brilliant primer on the experience of black maleness in America and the man-made structures that shape it.

Andray Domise is a writer, community activist, and co-host of the Canadian politics podcast Canadaland Commons.

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