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The Complicated Vision of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Laid Bare

How one of America’s greatest writers uses his words visually to break down body in Between the World and Me.

July 17, 2015

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Writing is, in its way, a visual art, although we don’t categorize it as such. There are no pencils or paints, no images aside from strung-together characters agreed upon by each culture to convey meaning. Yet even beyond the simple fact that the vast majority of readers read by scanning their eyes across a page or screen, writing depends on visualization. What the writer describes, the reader must envision (from the Latin “vis,” meaning “see”). The writer’s work only becomes effective once readers play their part, conjuring up their own versions of the scenes the author depicts (from the Latin “dēpictus,” past participle of “pingere,” meaning “to paint”). Even in explicating language, we are dependent on words rooted in seeing, in sight.

And all writers see differently. Much of that is personal. Our collection of experiences, our skin color, our gender, our economic status — all these dramatically affect the ways in which we think about, and consequently write about, the world we inhabit. Some of it, too, is related to form and genre. Poets and journalists both rely on their powers of observation, but each looks in a different way, and for different things. A journalist looks around; a poet looks through.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a black man who grew up in West Baltimore, who studied at Howard University, where he wrote poetry, and who is now widely considered one of America’s best journalists and premier public intellectuals — and, as the New York Observer has put it, the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States. This background is important in understanding how potent his perspective (from the Latin “perspectiva,” meaning “the science of optics”) truly is.

Let me get some things out of the way now. I’m a white man. I’m a white man in his 20s with a job in the publishing industry — which has struggled quite publicly of late with issues of diversity — and a liberal arts education from a leftward-leaning and generally well-regarded private institution. I have training as both a poet and a journalist. I use words like “intersectionality” in casual conversation. I am decidedly not the audience Coates — who, it must be noted, writes for The Atlantic, a publication that tends to cater to my own demographic — deliberately seeks. “When people who are not black are interested in what I do, frankly, I’m always surprised,” he recently told New York Magazine. I am, however, a part of a (mostly white, mostly elite) media that hangs on his every word.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son, Samori.
Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son, Samori.

And what words. Coates has an omnivorous, ravenous pen, and it shows. His language lopes, loops, and leaps. His new book, Between the World and Me, is his second, and in it he covers everything from the Civil War to contemporary redlining and public housing, from Saul Bellow’s racism to hip hop’s influence on white culture. He picks apart the concept of race. He takes on the American dream. And he does so, this poet-turned-journalist, in an open letter to his fifteen-year-old son — a son named after a West African commander who founded an Islamic state in defiance of French rule; a son who bore witness to the fates of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown — modeled after James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. James Baldwin, one of black America’s most profound and venerated voices, and known primarily as a novelist and social critic.

Poetry and journalism, fiction and criticism and history. Coates has taken a winding path, and it has paid off. On the book’s jacket is a single blurb, from Toni Morrison, in my mind the greatest living American writer: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates…. [His] examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory.” And there it is. “Black male life.” The omission that set the Internet ablaze.

Coates’ book has some problems. Don’t all books? As a poet, I flinched a little at his overwrought assessment of that form: “Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.” And I too noticed that for a book fixated on the black body and how it has been plundered and destroyed — a search function in the Google Books ebook preview alone turned up 48 mentions of the word “body” — the particular danger of living in the body of a black woman was skimmed over. “To his credit, he does not presume to be an expert on black women’s experiences,” writes Brit Bennett for the New Yorker, “but his reluctance to interrogate them further feels odd for a narrator who is otherwise insatiably curious. ‘The women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know,’ he writes to his son, and the lesson stops there. The dangers of living in a black female body are mysterious, forever unknowable.”

And here we come back to seeing, and what Coates is able to see. He certainly engages primarily with the tradition of black American male intellectualism — the form he adopts from Baldwin, the title and epigram from Richard Wright — and in a way this limits him. But it also allows him to meditate on how he has been forced to think about his own body and its place in America. This is a work of cultural criticism by a public intellectual, and yet it’s deeply personal: a letter from a father to his son, exposed deliberately to the reading public, so that they might see as the writer sees. It’s an appropriate form for a work obsessed with the constant exposure, and resultant fragility, of the black male body.

A few months ago, when I left the movie theater after seeing Birdman, I was rattled. Through clever shooting and cleverer editing, the film felt as if it were done in one long take, shakily and doggedly following the actors as they went about their work. When I left the theater, I saw myself standing up and leaving the room from the third person, as if I were on camera. I felt viscerally aware of my own presence. Between the World and Me — a supposedly non-visual work of art — had a similar effect, but it raised the stakes: It instilled a new awareness of the actual physical impression made, every day, by my body.

After I finished the book on the G Train, I stepped off and walked back to my white, liberal twentysomething girlfriend’s apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically black Brooklyn neighborhood now thoroughly in the throes of gentrification. I paid attention to the different ways my shoulders and neck shifted, without a conscious thought, upon passing a black man or a white woman, and to how those other shoulders and necks responded in kind. I watched young black boys, shirtless, shooting hoops in the park across the street. And I realized I would never look at such a scene again without thinking of the significance of their bodies, and of my own.


 

A slightly edited version of this piece was also published by our friends at Bookreporter.com.

Join the Discussion (3)

Join the Discussion 3 comments

  • Greg Thomas

    Hi John,

    I appreciate your reflections on the way “Between the World and Me” hit you viscerally and intellectually.

    One quick note: I’d disagree that James Baldwin is primarily known as a fiction writer. Of course he did write fiction, but a widespread opinion among the black literati I know is that Baldwin was a better essayist than novelist. His biggest mark, however, may be as a prophetic voice and witness to the destructive power of race and racism, may be as a spokesman for black folks and to the consciences of those who identify as white Americans.

    Take care.

    Greg Thomas
    gregthomas.pressfolios.com

    • Eric Vilas-Boas

      Thanks for the note, Greg! This is worth remembering about Baldwin, given that Coates enjoys a similar status, thanks to his influence on platforms like Twitter and his typically excellent Atlantic blog. My personal favorite quote of Baldwin’s—from neither an essay nor a novel, but from an interview—follows. The full piece is here and well worth the read: http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/interviews/a23960/james-baldwin-cool-it/

      __
      Q: “How can we get the black people to cool it?”

      James Baldwin: “It is not for us to cool it.”

      Q: “But aren’t you the ones who are getting hurt the most?”

      James Baldwin: “No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.”

    • John Maher

      Thanks for your feedback, Greg! I’ve amended the piece to include this point. I’ll admit I made a selective omission of detailing the sheer scope of Baldwin’s literary and sociopolitical contributions for the sake of rhetorical simplicity, but your keen eye proves that this was clearly unnecessary.

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