In the context of this year’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists rallied against plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” – penned in the form of a letter to the writer’s teenage son – is a damning account of the state of the black body in the United States, with particular attention paid to the country’s racial history (“The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration”) and the everyday experiences of the average black American male. In this vein, the themes of discrimination and prejudice, police violence and arrest, and the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and other minorities (movingly detailed in Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”) should be familiar.
“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies – the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects – are the product of democratic will … The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is rule by majoritarian pigs”.
Coates, however, goes one step further to question the notions of race, ethnicity, and racecraft (“Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus”, he quoted American sports journalist, against tribal ownership). Throughout the three parts to this personal narrative – first, his own growing-up journey, emphasising the corporeality of being black, the persistence of white supremacy in the country, and his route to “The Mecca”, or Howard University; second, the mistaken killing of his college friend Prince Carmen Jones Jr. by a policeman; and third, an interview with the mother of the late Jones Jr. – he built on this thesis. “In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after”.
It may be tempting, at first glance, to put “Between the World and Me” in conversation with J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”, given the similar concerns over socio-economic dislocation. But this equivalence would be a superficial one, for there is something more to the experiences of the African-Americans vis-à-vis the working class whites of Appalachia, of racist abuse and violence. What both books do point to are deeper, unresolved problems of disenfranchisement in a country often perceived to be the greatest country in the world. That perception is built upon the belief of the American Dream, that its possession “is the natural result of grit, honour, and good works”, and in this vein expectations of systemic change – of a system which supports entrenched beliefs and institutions – are quickly dented.