MLK Day & the Most Important Book of 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), $24

James Baldwin, Collected Essays (edited by Toni Morrison, Library of America, 1998), $35

Coates

The King family lost a husband and father with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His body was stolen, but he lives on in his writings and teachings. We honor his life and pursuit of justice today.

A half-century after the Civil Rights Movement, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a letter to his teenage son explaining the state of race relations in America. The letter was published as Between the World and Me and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. As Toni Morrison says on the dust jacket, it is “required reading.” It is the most important book of year.

Coates references James Baldwin only twice in the book, but his format resembles The Fire Next Time (1963)—a letter to Baldwin’s nephew—and many insights are Baldwin-inspired, updated for the 21st century context of dash cams, private prisons, and the “new Jim Crow” (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness, 2010).

Coates believes that a race-based society grows from historical power imbalances rooted in fear and control of the body. With clarity of language and brutal honesty, Coates shares personal stories to show how living in black skin renders life in America to be a struggle against disembodiment. He concludes a story about his father’s anger: “This was a war for the possession of his body and that would be the war of his whole life.”

Coates reads and writes in search of meaning and understanding. He discusses many authors and poets such that, in a sense, Between the World and Me is a literary treatise on race relations in American culture. Coates discusses the “narrative” of America that perpetuates our looking away. He calls this narrative “the Dream,” the idea that success in America derives from hard work instead of traditional power imbalances. Coates loved The Dukes of Hazzard growing up and offers the TV show as an example of how pop culture helps us look away from injustice and believe in “the Dream.”

“Historians conjured the Dream. Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories.”

Pat Conroy seems to acknowledge Coates’s point by calling Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936) a “singular, canonical moment in Southern mythmaking” (see Conroy, My Reading Life, 2010). For Baldwin, a belief in the myth of human inequality “protects moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality.” In 1955, Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son (1955) about history’s influence on the present:

“Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors…. Every legend, moreover, contains its residuum of truth, and the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.”

Like Baldwin, Coates blames our lingering history—not individuals—for racial injustices today. “This is the import of the history all around us, though very few people like to think about it.” Coates explains to his son:

“The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from the police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight…. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.”

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates teaches his son about history, language, inequality, and opportunity. He reminds American readers that we can no longer look away.

“It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods.”

Let’s not forget our collective history as Americans. Let’s remember the good and the bad of how we arrived here. Let’s remember that Dr. King wrote to white clergymen in Birmingham from a narrow jail cell about the “interrelatedness of all communities and states,” proclaiming “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (see King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964). Today, let’s thank Coates for the reminder. Tomorrow, let’s not dare look away.

-Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

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