The burden of being black and male

ta-nehisi coates

Author and journalist Ta-Nehihi Coates

Generally speaking, I read fiction for entertainment and nonfiction to learn something. That doesn’t the two are mutually exclusive. Fictional characters and plots can provide valuable insight and perspective into class and culture.

But when I seek out a deeply reported book that’s based on real people and events, I’m expecting to come away with a fuller understanding of something that goes well beyond the headlines — whether it’s the hidden world of daily life in a Mumbai slum (Katherine Boo, “Beyond The Beautiful Forevers” or the hazardous journey of a Honduran boy traveling to the United States in search of his mother (Sonia Nazario, “Enrique’s Journey”).

To those two examples I add “Between The World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

It’s a thin book, just 152 pages, but it packs a big punch. Written in the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, Coates’ memoir draws on his analysis of American history, personal experiences growing up on the streets of Baltimore, his intellectual awakening at Howard University and fresh reporting on events based on today’s headlines.

As a 40-year-old father, Coates seeks to provide his son a context for understanding police brutality as state-sanctioned violence, a manifestation of the institutional racism that puts him — a relatively privileged teenager with college-educated parents — at risk because of what others see and think when they glimpse his dark skin.

In short, it is “the talk” that so many black parents have with their sons about racial profiling and the perils of black male life.

“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it,” Coates writes.

Toni Morrison calls the book “required reading.” I couldn’t agree more. The book, a New York Times bestseller, was chosen last year for the National Book Award for Nonfiction amid a wave of honors and publicity for Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He was named a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius grant,” invited to speak at the University of Virginia’s Community MLK Celebration and was interviewed on NPR and The Colbert Report among others.


Make no mistake. The book is all about America’s racial history and Coates’ assertion that the legacy of slavery and segregation is a criminal justice system, based on fear, subjugation, that imprisons black people in grossly disproportionate numbers and routinely exonerates police officers who kill unarmed black people, typically returning them to service.

Barely six pages into the book, the names of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others killed by police smack you in the face. Go one more page and there’s a reference to “a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer.” It is, of course, the image captured at a Ferguson-related rally in Portland, Oregon, that went viral late last year.

coates book coverDeeper into the book, Coates recounts the shock and heartache of learning that a Howard classmate, a Bible-toting vegetarian son of a Philadelphia radiologist, was tailed one night by a suburban cop through three jurisdictions and shot six times — once in the arm, five times in the back. No drugs or guns were found in the car.

The cop, black in this case, worked for Prince Georges County, an upscale black-majority county adjacent to Washington, D.C. No surprise that the cop was cleared of wrongdoing in the death of 25-year-old Prince Jones Jr. and returned to the streets.

Not mentioned in the book — but also illustrative of Coates’ argument — is this example close to home. As 2015 ended, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that the city of Portland must rehire a white police officer who was fired in 2010 after fatally shooting an unarmed black man in the back.

Spurred by the 2014 death of Michael Brown, The Washington Post conducted a study of police shootings in the United States last year and found that cops shot and killed nearly 1,000 people, many of them under questionable circumstances, including about 250  people (one in four) with psychological problems.

“Although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police,” the Post reported.

If you view such deaths as tragic but unrelated incidents, you see the world differently from Coates. He contends that they are the result of a pattern of centuries of mistreatment and use of force against black Americans.

“I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth,” Coates writes of his college friend.

“The truth is that the 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,” he adds. “The abuses that have followed from these policies…are the product of democratic will.”

Coates is himself the son of a former Black Panther Party member who later became a librarian at Howard. He writes with the unflinching directness of Richard Wright, whose poem inspired the book’s title, and the eloquence of James Baldwin.

Little wonder that the New York Observer calls him “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States.”

(Thank you, Carol Robinson, for mentioning this book when I recently asked Facebook friends what they were reading.)


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