Ta-Nehisi Coates, the writer of the Marvel’s Black Panther comics and oft-commentator at Atlantic Magazine, has been a voice of black intellectual reason since 2012, fearlessly penning editorial pieces about black culture in America and abroad in a very mainstream, mostly hipster magazine. While I came to Coates through the Black Panther story, I stayed for his hot takes on Ferguson, race and Barack Obama. I regularly share one of his articles, “Killing Dylan Roof”, with my students, who are surprised at the tone and the strength of Coates’ argument as they begin to look at corporal punishment with a discerning eye. What I love about Coates is his unfailing ability to clearly state his point. His prose, logic and consistent use of metaphors that actually make sense make it so I read his work with a sense of having gained knowledge, even if, at times, we disagree.
Coates penned Between the World and Me in 2015 as a first-person, nonfiction narrative written as a letter to his 15 year-old son. Inspired by James Baldwin’s novel, The Fire Next Time, this text is a testament to the fragile relationship between a black man and his body and how much truth we are willing to tell our children about the world we live in. For Coates, the black body is not only vulnerable to the violence heaped upon it by American “Dreamers” who believe themselves to be white, but our bodies are the only thing that black folks ever really can call our own. It is a fact Coates is desperate to relay to not only his own son, but all black sons and daughters.
This short, 152-page book reads as an autobiography, a love letter and a warning, couched in personal stories and anecdotes from a father to his son. There is a revelation and a coming of age–Coates takes readers through his awakening, each stopping point punctuated by the breaking of a black body and the pain surrounding the unnecessary and brutal claiming of those bodies. He extols the importance of black spaces in America, but also the necessity of world travel in order to better understand our own homeland. It is a text full of contradictions that one encounters when discovering one’s place in the world, making it poignant, honest and real. I could only hope to share in such an open narrative with my own daughter some day.