The Despair of Ta-Nehisi Coates

by Carl Proper

Coates

a review of “Between the World and Me”, by Ta-Nehisi Coates {Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2015}

and “The Beautiful Struggle,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2008}

When I was your age,” Coates tells his son, Samori, “the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”

 Their fear is well founded.  There is no safe place for a black man in Coates’ America.  He sees a nation of Dreamers “who think they are white,” continuously chasing “plunder.”  Their heritage includes the right to destroy black men’s bodies with impunity.  And plunder now includes dreams that may destroy the Earth itself.

In this world, the descendants of slaves often take their fear and anger out on each other.

For Coates, fear begins at home.  His father, a military veteran and disillusioned former Black Panther captain, disciplines his children with his fists. Dad hopes his blows will prevent them from confronting police.  “Maybe this saved me.  Maybe it didn’t,” Ta-Nehisi demurs. “We were afraid of those who loved us most.”

In the West Baltimore ghetto of Coates’ childhood, “the crews, the young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage, were the greatest danger. [They] walked the blocks of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power.  They would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power.”

But “their knowledge peaked at seventeen.” And, as all understood, “young black men who dropped out of school were headed for jail.”  Their bodies were forfeit, after a few years of adolescent bravado.

Even in school, the street code demands violent response to disrespect.  Coates is twice suspended, once for threatening a teacher, once for a confrontation with another student. When Coates’ Dad hears of the threat to the teacher, he comes to school and punches his son in front of the class. “He swung like he was afraid,” Coates writes, like the world was closing in and cornering him, like he was trying to save my life.”

Growing up, Coates “loved Malcolm X”, not for his anger, but because “Malcolm never lied.”

Coates also does not lie. Threats come from all directions, from blacks as well as whites, from home and school as well as from police and strangers.

Only at Howard University, a predominantly black school in Washington, D.C, known as “the Mecca” to Coates, does the background fear begin to fade away.  Here, he finds himself as a man and a writer.  His closest male friend is Prince Jones, son of a former maid who has worked her way up to a position as Professor.  Prince is a bone-deep Christian, and a happy soulmate for Coates.  Then, driving one day through predominantly black Prince George’s County, Virginia, a few miles from the District of Columbia, Prince has a never-clarified encounter with a black policeman.  He is shot and killed.  No one is charged. No one is punished.

No one is safe.

Some years later, Coates finds a living as a writer in New York City.  He dreams again of protecting his family and son from the dangers he has experienced.  Then, in a confrontation on a movie theater escalator, a white woman shoves his five-year-old son out of her way. When Coates raises his voice at the woman, white theater-goers intervene.  “I could have you arrested,” one warns.

In the time of Trayvon Martin, Coates and his son both understand their bodies are always at risk.  As the book ends, he is driving through the rain, past the old “ghettos,” and the “old fear” returns.

Coates’ beautifully written, sparely worded second book evokes the despair of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.”  Coates has been criticized by some for not offering hope or solutions to African Americans’ problems.  This reflects his experience, that neither violent resistance nor peaceful coexistence can put an end to Dreamers’ plunder.

But a farewell to arms, and fists, would be a start.

Carl Proper was a member and staff member for the ILGWU, UNITE and UNITE HERE for forty years. After leaving the Peace Corps, he took a job as a cloth spreader in a union factory, and was hired from there as an Organizer. He served at various times as Organizer, Educational Director and Business Agent for the New England Joint Board; and as Assistant and Executive Assistant to ILGWU and UNITE President Jay Mazur; and as Executive Director for the union’s labor-management industry development committee.
He is now retired and living in Washington, DC.

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