When his 15-year old son, Samori, was devastated by the news that Ferguson, Missouri police had been exonerated in the death of Michael Brown, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at The Atlantic and an eloquent, powerful voice on the subject of race relations, felt compelled to address his son’s despair. The resulting book was originally scheduled for publication in September, but was rushed into print by publisher Spiegel & Grau in response to a surge in interest that followed the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina.
An angry, proud, despairing, vigilant, fearful and fiercely loving father, Coates watches his son confront what he calls the barriers, distances and breaches that stand Between the World and Me (the phrase comes from a poem by Richard Wright). Offering wisdom as well as comfort, he guides Samori through these challenges as they concern the African diaspora, the range and significance of which Coates first glimpsed as a student at Howard University. Growing up in Baltimore, he had to learn the culture and ways of the gang-oriented street in order to survive. He was an indifferent student saved from a predictable fate by the discipline and expectations of his own father. He tells his son how he arrived in Washington, D.C., dazzled by the global span of black scholars, poets, music-makers and activists he finds there. He discovers a new kind of power in learning from them his true heritage and legacy, far removed from the white version of the American Dream.
Initially dismissive of the nonviolent protestors of the civil rights movement, Coates is inspired by the more pragmatic Malcolm X. With an honesty that is intimate and endearing, he recounts for Samori the moment when he fully realizes his country’s unacknowledged, deeply troubling history: In 2001, Prince Jones, an innocent African-American friend, is killed by a Maryland policeman. The officer is exonerated.
Coates understands that he cannot protect his son. Children born into African-American families, he says, come already endangered: Parents beat their children first so that police will not beat or kill them later. It is not enough to want or expect police to change. He believes reform cannot happen unless we as a nation change, recognizing that they are us.
In a June 2014 article for The Atlantic (“The Case for Reparations”), Coates catalogued a history of institutionalized wrongs inflicted upon African Americans, ranging from government policies to fraudulent business practices. Now Coates likens such racism to a disembodiment, and he calls on Samori—named for an African king who died resisting foreign rule—to reclaim his identity, his body.
Ultimately, Coates’ powerful message, driven by a parent’s love, remains painfully hopeful. The struggle for change has meaning, and questions matter, perhaps even more than the answers.