Biographical Information

Ta-Nehisi Coates was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1975 during the Crack Epidemic. One of ten children, Coates grew up in a close family who encouraged his budding journalistic endeavours by fostering his love for reading and writing when the public school system failed to do so.

“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”

He attended Howard University when he was 17, where his father was a research librarian, but he left after five years to pursue a career in journalism.

Young Ta-Nehisi with his father, Paul Coates in their neighborhood in Park Heights.
School-age Ta-Nehisi

At Howard, Coates majored in History and was exposed to the inspiring world of academia. He explains how the University is driven by The Mecca:

"The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body. The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University, which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent … The history, the location, the alumni combined to create The Mecca—the crossroads of the black diaspora."
The infamous "Yard" at Howard University in Washington, D.C. where Coates experienced the crossroads of The Black Diaspora" and was influenced by the African American literary cannon.
Coates is best known for his work at "The Atlantic" where he is a national correspondent. His writings on race and politics contribute to the important national dialogue concerning these matters.

The Book is written as an open letter to Coates' fifteen year old son Samori in a particularly heated political climate. Between The World And Me utilizes the Public Sphere as a vehicle for the deconstruction of race. It opens up conversations aimed at young black bodies regarding the exploitation, history, and psychological implications of their race. It constructs the message through different modes of emplotment, including perspective and current events. It essentially is an antidote to hate via the reclamation of banalized American history that is marked by a transparency that allows anyone, regardless of their race, to look on.

In the wake of the brutal deaths of Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and Renisha Mcbride, Coates is trying to explain how police have the authority to terrorize the black body.

Victims of Police Brutality
“It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.”
“I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died,” wrote Morrison after reading Between The World and Me. “Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

How might this endorsement from such an influential Black writer pave the way for this potentially controversial book's public reception and critical acclaim?

Genre

Here, Coates discusses the literary technique of writing this book in the form of an open letter. After writing the article "The Case for Reparations" for The Atlantic, Coates deliberately altered the form of the work.

How does presenting an autobiographical narrative in a letter form effect the ways in which the audience interprets the message? Does approaching hot topics that cast potential (white) readers in a critical light from a parental point of view help make this book more accessible? Does the story about Mabel Jones, the mother of a man named Prince who died in a case of mistaken identity. Does Mabel serve as an example of overcoming unbearable tragedy or the impossibility of escaping unprescedented violence?

James Baldwin's Influence: The book bears a striking resemblance to Baldwin's "Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" which appears in his book The Fire Next Time.

In this open letter, Baldwin lays out the condition of being black in America. He writes, "For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become" (10). This ending is far more optimistic than Coates, whose writing is characterized with what could be called a pessimistic optimism. Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes, "Against the optimism of the Obama ascendancy, Coates offered a bleaker view: that no postracial era was imminent, that white supremacy has been a condition of the United States since its inception and that it might always be." “ ‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies,” Coates writes to his son.

Questions:

1. "Have you ever taken a hard look at those pictures from the sit-ins in the ’60s, a hard, serious look? Have you ever looked at the faces? The faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. They betray almost no emotion. They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe." Here, we see a sharp contrast from traditional African American literary traditions that rely heavily on religious imagery and references. Assuming the majority of the intended readership are religious, does the inclusion of Coates' atheism take away from his message?

2. Coates seems to believe that white people are, as Baldwin wrote, "still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it (8). Do you think that Coates' arguement that racism invented race is the first step in beginning to understand this misunderstood history?

3. Coates chose the name Samori for his son inspired by Samori Touré, the Guinean Muslim cleric who fought French colonizers in the 19th century. What does this reflection have to say about slavery and the extent to which the "history of persecution is bound up in every moment of black people’s lives, including the joyous occasion of birth"?

4. While Coates writes the letter to his son, the intended audience is, perhaps, much more complex. How does the quotation, “But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.” complicate this idea?

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