Prince Jones, a friend of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “exhibited the whole of his given name.” Coates says, “He was handsome. He was tall and brown, built thin and powerful like a wide receiver. He was the son of a prominent doctor. He was born again, a state I did not share, but respected. He was kind. Generosity radiated off him, and he seemed to have a facility with everyone and everything….There are people whom we do not fully know, yet they live in a warm place within us, and when they are plundered, when they lose their bodies and the dark energy disperses, that place becomes a wound.”
The plundering of Prince Jones becomes the principal thread out of which Coates weaves the story that is his book, Between the World and Me, and leaves a wound that won’t heal. Coates is still licking that wound one hundred pages later, when his book ends. Coates’ book is a philosophical memoir addressed to his fifteen-year-old son, a beautiful, shocking, deeply painful essay on the black body and on its having been plundered by “those who call themselves white.”
Prince Jones was killed by the police of Prince George’s County, Maryland, when he was driving to see his girlfriend. The car he was driving, a jeep, had been given him by his mother, and the cops claimed Prince had tried to run them over with the jeep. Of course it wasn’t true, but, as Coates says, there were no other witnesses.
In Coates’ book he drills down into his subject, beginning on the first page, “my body,” although he never speaks personally about his body. He addresses the black body, what has happened to it in American history, and the fear that comes from living in this country with people who call themselves white. He explores the idea of “body” and “fear,” the idea of race, and shows that “race” is no way to distinguish humans from one another. Differences of what he calls “hue and hair” have been with us forever, but that those qualities can correctly organize society has never been proved. And yet that’s what we have. He examines what happens when the black body is plundered by “those who call themselves white.” Those who call themselves white live out a “Dream” (perfect houses with nice lawns) and another name for them is “Dreamers.” Coates says, “The Dream persists by warring with the known world,” and, of course, the Dreamers have all the known power. When Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks to his fifteen-year-old son, he says, “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.” And the goal of Coates’ book is to “answer the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream.”
Coates writes of violence. “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,” and his youth is a period of finding out what to keep close and what to reject. How do I keep from being plundered? He discovered Malcolm. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their facade of morality, unlike the streets and their bravado, unlike the world of dreamers. I loved him because he made it plain, never mystical or esoteric, because his science was not rooted in the actions of spooks and mystery gods but in the works of the physical world.”
Then Howard. He was the youngest member of a family whose members graduated from Howard University—his grandfather worked there, his uncles worked there after graduation. He met his future wife there, and his sisters-in-law and brother-in-law graduated from Howard. The Mecca—the whole intellectual and philosophical community around Howard—“crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body.” It was “the vastness of black people across space-time,” and it nurtured him and was where he met Prince Jones. In the Mecca, he learned that the “power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.” He said of this period of his life, “The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books,” and “the physical beauty of the black body was all our beauty, historical and cultural, incarnate.” And, in the Mecca, as for people in their early twenties everywhere, his researches into the way of the world turned finally on himself. “I am black, and have been plundered and have lost my body. But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder, maybe I would take another human’s body to confirm myself in a community. Perhaps I already had.”
This is a courageous book—in refusing to coat what he is discovering with sugar and in being willing to go as far as his researches take him, into the cruelty that men and women do to others. He says, “The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine….You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”
When Prince is killed by the Prince George’s County police, Coates goes to the memorial service at Howard University. Listening to the grieving rituals of his people, he says he 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.”
Living in New York, and helped by family members—siblings of Coates’ wife—and feeling grateful, he says, “I always had people.”
Between the World and Me closes with two extraordinarily powerful stories. The first one takes place on a theatre staircase in New York City, an encounter between the author and a number of people who call themselves white, and the second takes place in a small, gated community just outside Philadelphia between the author and Prince Jones’ mother. Both left me breathless with anxiety and with pain, which are the feelings Coates means to leave the reader with at the end of his beautiful book.
This book has been out a little over a month. There were reviews of it everywhere, and I saw Coates interviewed on MSNBC. I resisted it because it is such a painful subject. Then I couldn’t avoid it. It is not, I acknowledge, as painful a subject for me as for Coates. So, when a good friend wanted to give me a copy, I accepted a digital edition, and I read it. At first, it was difficult. He doesn’t write in a linear fashion, making one point after another, proceeding logically, which is disturbing at first. But he does proceed roughly chronologically—childhood, youth, young adulthood, adulthood—as in the manner of memoirs. And he does proceed roughly logically. He proposes his subject and then investigates. I write about these matters because the subject of Coates’ book is so difficult to read and to understand, because he writes about painful things. He’s written a masterpiece, and that is cause for celebration.