Ta-Nehisi Coates is quickly becoming one of America’s great public intellectuals. Bijan Stephen, an Associate Editor at The New Republic and an old friend, recently wrote about Coates’s latest book, Between the World and Me. He writes:
Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, and his body of work concerns, in general, confronting that violence on its structural terms: racism’s history, the institutions that allow it to persist, and its economic and social consequences. Between the World and Me is something of a departure, as the book is unabashedly personal and concerns the pain that comes in violence’s aftermath. The book is a biographical letter to Coates’s son, Samori. Part memoir, part diary, and wholly necessary, it is precisely the document this country needs right now.
Yet Coates isn’t writing to you, or to me, or for either of us. Between the World and Me is a father’s advice to his only child after four decades of living as a black man in America. Its creation was an intimate act, and Coates’s decision to publish the book—as America begins to confront the mundane brutality the country visits on 13.6 percent of her citizenry—reads as a necessarily urgent response to the social climate in the U.S.
Coates centers his story around the death of an old classmate, Prince Jones, who was killed by police, and Stephen goes on to describe the importance of Coates’s atheism:
Jones was followed from Maryland to Virginia by an undercover cop (“a known liar,” as Coates describes him) dressed as a drug dealer who suspected Jones was himself a drug dealer. Jones was unceremoniously killed, allegedly for trying to run over the policeman. The only witness to the crime was the officer himself; he was acquitted and returned to duty shortly thereafter. The loss made Coates’s blood run cold. “The truth is that 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.” And later, at Jones’s funeral, he found no room to absolve. “For the crime of destroying the body of Prince Jones, I did not believe in forgiveness. When the assembled mourners bowed their heads in prayer, I was divided from them because I believed that the void would not answer back.”
This last part, Coates’s atheism, is necessary to understand his fixation on the holiness of the black body. The body is a sacred object and a site of devotion because, he believes, the here and now is all there is, and because those bodies have been historically devalued. The black body was currency in the antebellum South, and it is currency today; Coates concludes—not wrongly—that black lives are excluded from the calculation of acceptable risk. We dispose of them easily. Though his son will have a much more privileged childhood than Coates himself, the integrity of Samori’s body is in as much danger.
Stephens quotes more of Coates’s potent writing:
Between the World and Me is a letter, but it is a twinned chronicle: It is the story of how Coates woke up to America, and it is also the story of passing his hard-won consciousness, as another student of history, down to his legacy, his only child. The book is primarily concerned with what Coates terms “The Dream.” “The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake,” Coates writes. “And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” If you’re not white, if you’re not male, if you’re not relatively wealthy, Coates’s words resonate deeply, immediately. Black Americans—and other disadvantaged groups—were never intended to be a part of the Dream, and you need only to look at history to understand how fully they’ve been excluded. “You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold,” Coates writes to his son. Further along in the text, Coates mentions that African Americans have been free for less time than they were enslaved. He enjoins his son to never forget this, to always remember that there is no arc to the universe, much less a moral one. “[Y]our future peers and colleagues … might try to convince you that everything I know, all the things I’m sharing with you here, are an illusion, or a fact of a distant past that need not be discussed.”
The entire review is worth a read, and I eagerly await Coates’s book in the mail. I’d like to be a part of an atheist movement that places more emphasis on vital and urgent voices like Ta-Nahesi Coates than the tired voices of old, white New Atheists.