The Price is Black

by Stennett Nyekanyeka

I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes Between the World and Me as a letter to his son.  The book serves as a follow-up to The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, his first book, published in 2008.  Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, builds on the success of his first book and various articles written after such as The Case for Reparations.  Between the World and Me delves further into the black father-son and the responsibility (or burden) black parents face when racing a black child in the United States of America. 

In the first chapter of the book Coates inquires, “How do I live free in this black body?”  Which I argue is the thesis and conclusion of the book.  Using anecdotal evidence coming of age in Baltimore and attending Howard University, he slowly posits that free and black are paradoxes.  A paradox unexamined amongst the narrative of the exceptional America. 

There’s the instance of a woman pushing his five-year-old son in a movie theater and Coates not being able to defend him but instead being threatened with arrest.  There’s the cognitive dissonance produced by the combination of abusive police units and a public wanting you to show honor to the public safety officials who lost their lives during 9/11.  As Coates says, “Bin Laden was not the first man to bring terror to that section of the city.”  

Coates emulates the late James Baldwin’s work The Fire Next Time, which contains two essays.  The first is entitled My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation and the second Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind.  Critics of the book cite insist that Coates writes in a self-indulgent tone indicative of a writer caught in his success.  Let's call that a point in favor of the critics.  The result is oftentimes verbose as Coates expresses the love and fear he has for his son growing up as a black boy.

 A better criticism of the book is the lack of a voice for black women. To truly come full circle with replicating Baldwin’s essays, the book needs more examination the black woman’s oppression in America.  Though on a surface level, Baldwin used multiple vehicles to show how black women affected him through different lenses; his puberty, the black Christian church, the Nation of Islam, and their subjugation in the eyes of the white man.  Granted, Coates dedicates the third chapter to the mother of Prince Jones, Dr. Jones, her narrative is narrowly driven by Coates' third-person perspective. 

Regardless, the book sheds light on subjects in the black community that go unexplored in mainstream media.  In an America dubbed “post-racial”, some responses to Between the World and Me prove that it is everything but that very concept.  One of the most telling is The Letter of Despair published anonymously in The Economist.  Equipped with a photo irrelevant to the book itself, the author criticizes Coates' view of public safety organizations and “Manichean” world views.  Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times argues the same thing. 

Here are two national thought-leading publications that undercut yet reaffirm the reason a work like Between the World and Me is needed.  The review from The Economist states, “Racial mixing in the suburbs over the past two decades suggests otherwise: real life is not so Manichean.”

Referencing his contrast of America’s white suburbs to its black ghettos, the anonymous writer implies that this racial mixing negates the institutions and policies that have created these black ghettos.  Furthermore, the author goes on to say, “Mr. Coates does not spare well-intentioned individuals for their part in maiming black bodies, however indirect that may be.”

On a national stage, the author has thrown the work aside as untrue and impertinent.  And if his claims are deemed valid, what does America mean when it mentions a Post-Racial America?   How can the facts of experience be deemed untrue?  Coates writes about his friend, Prince, being unjustly murdered by a police officer in Fairfax, Va, and at what point does racial mixing save him?  And those who survived him when the officers faced no charges?

To quote Baldwin, “The privacy of his (the American Negro) experience, which is only beginning to be recognized in language, and which is denied or ignored in official and popular speech—hence the Negro idiom—lends credibility to any system that pretends to clarify it.” 

As black writers and black readers, we must affirm our own works and enjoy the give and take of that shared experience.  In the eyes of Baldwin, “there has been almost no language,” to express the black culture.  Each time a black writer provides new material to the genre that is the development of language. 

To “live free in this black body” means to be able to establish an identifiable black language, a language in its infancy.  The paradox is that an identifiable black language can only conflict with the language of American exceptionalism.  Live free.