Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, is as beautiful as it is sobering. A letter from father to son about the visceral experience of being Black in America, the book is neither a call to action nor a plea for hope, but instead is a detailed cartography of the ways American racism has robbed, claimed, and destroyed Black people in this country. It is not a story of potential or redemption but a deeply rooted narrative of the ways hatred and entitlement have molded and shattered the Black body in America.
The book made me think of my own father, a man who is also trying to parent Black children in a world hell-bent on their destruction. Not so long ago I was 15, and my father was telling me similar things, truths about the world I did not believe but have now confirmed.
Unlike Coates, my father raised Black daughters. However, in a strange turn of events he has recently gained a surrogate son. Patrick and I became friends in eighth grade and managed to stay close even as the chasm between us widened: I left home for college and he cycled through arrests, rehabs, and court dates; I was starting law school when he was sentenced to prison. I was studying in the library when he called from jail to say he was getting out, and did I know of anyone who would pick him up? My dad agreed to give him a ride, which turned into giving him a place to stay for a few days, which, four years later, has turned into becoming a surrogate parent for him.
I thought I knew my father as a parent. He raised me, after all, and between my sister and me we had surely pushed him to his limits. I was confident I had seen the whole spectrum of his pride, hope, disappointment.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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But I was wrong. He is parenting a Black man now, and that means something different.
My dad is king of the worst-case scenario. He is always warning us of something as we walk out the door or hang up the phone, warning us of what lurks just beyond the nearest run to the grocery store or a casual dinner date with friends.
When Patrick grabs the keys to go out my father fears for his body. He warns him of the police, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And when I’m the one walking out, he tells me to be careful too. He is less worried about the police and more concerned about the potential destruction of my body in other equally sinister ways.
Between the World and Me is an important book—perhaps the most important in a generation—on how race in this country functions. It peels back the cleanly scrubbed picture of race in America to show the ugly, the flesh, the raw sores that persist. Still, I found myself searching for the Black woman experience in the pages. Surely, the Black experience is rife with threads that tie all Black people together, but there are also critical differences. Coates’ description of violence to the Black body does not do justice to the violence to which Black women are and have historically been subject. That violence looks different. It feels different.
Coates is relentless in his description of the trauma and violence inflicted on the Black body, whether it is in the name of capitalism, safety, or the street.
“[R]acism is a visceral experience,” he writes. “[I]t dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, break teeth.” Later he tells his son, “In America it is traditional to destroy the Black body—it is heritage.”
It is violence that brings to the forefront the fear that exists for me every time my partner leaves the house, or my father travels for work, or a male friend of mine leaves a party late at night. It is the fear of infinite possibility—there are countless scenarios that could result in the destruction of Black men I know and love. An angry racist at a gas station, a power-hungry cop at a traffic stop. Sure, my father is 60, but what does that matter? He is a few bullets away from being Walter Scott.
This trauma and fear is undoubtedly real. And yet—there is a still a disconnect for me in how Coates formulates the racist destruction of the individual. Yes, I recognize such physical destruction. I see remnants of it on the faces of the Black men around me; I hear it in their throats. I deeply understand the violence Coates identifies, but it does not quite fit in my personal paradigm. It is not that I am not susceptible to racial violence; it is not that I do not fear it. But my violence is of a different hue. My fear exists, but not in the exact ways Coates describes.
That, of course, is because Coates is not writing about me. Not really. His story of the Black individual is, likely subconsciously, almost entirely a story about the Black male individual. In a BuzzFeed article, Shani Hilton noted that this is a tradition that has persisted in many of the greatest Black writers, including James Baldwin, the writer to which Coates is most often compared. Hilton laments adroitly that “the black male experience is still used as a stand in for the black experience.” Black women are still missing from the Black male story, serving as supernumeraries instead of co-stars.
Days after finishing the book I am still grappling with a door that Coates left ajar, for which I am most grateful. Early in the book he says, “[R]ace is the child of racism, not the father.” White people are “a modern invention,” he says, and “their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power.” I had not yet arrived at the realization that racism was constructed before race. Such a structure clarifies my perspective of not only the past and the present but the bleakness of the future. That this country has invented categories from our hatred, rather than derived hatred from already invented categories, is a reminder that humans will develop whatever caste systems necessary to oppress and violate.
Yet, the physical violation that I have been threatened with or subject to is only partly due to the invention of racism and race. I believe in my core that racial violence has been a persistent cancer on this nation, and yet I know intimately that race is not my only physical liability. Perhaps it is not even my biggest one.
That I am Black only tells part of the story. I am a Black woman. And while my race has “never been a matter of…physiognomy,” as Coates puts it, my sex and gender have. These two words are different and nuanced and spectrumized and complicated. But they are both real. And while race may be a modern invention, gender is not. The plunder and pillage of women’s bodies has existed for longer than my brain can comprehend. The persistence of patriarchy means that the subjugation of women is not only societal, but statutory. Across the nation, state legislatures have codified laws preventing me from making decisions about my own body. They tell me again that my body is not mine.
The history of my body as up for public debate or consumption is not just an American tradition, but a tradition of our species. Like racism, I expect it will exist forever.
I do not mean to imply that the effects of American racism on the Black woman are worse than they are on the Black man. I only mean to say that they are different in crucial ways. I wish Coates—one of the most amazing thinkers of our generation—had explored that more.
Here’s a story I almost never tell: Nearly ten years ago, right before I left for college, I was sexually assaulted. Some local college men celebrated the beginning of the school year by helping themselves to my body. I was at a party I should not have been at with people I barely knew. One of the boys sneered at me, said, “You think you’re too good, don’t you?” Too good for him or the party or what I never understood. One moment I was pleading with an acquaintance to leave with me, the next I was struggling in vain to grab hold of more than a fleeting second of consciousness. I wasn’t drinking that night so I must have been drugged. I came to alone and naked. It was light outside. Somehow I managed to get clothes that didn’t belong to me and find my car. I drove home to finish packing for college and I sat in my room and cried as I folded clothes. I was ashamed and terrified. It was a long time before I was angry.
I did not tell anyone for many, many years. I did not tell my best friend or my parents. I did not even tell my sister. I can’t explain why, exactly, other than to say those men wanted me to know that I was powerless, and somehow if I told the story out loud it would make this true.
At this point in my life, the fact that these boys were white holds more significance than it did at the time. The fact that they chose me is, I’m sure, directly related to the fact that my race made me less human to them. And of course it was my sex that was critical to my bodily destruction that night. Being a Black woman requires a unique wariness.
I am not alone in this experience—of my close female friends, few if any have escaped the flagrant and often violent violation of their physical boundaries. I remain constantly aware that my body may be pillaged and plundered again.
So many Black women have a story like this, or other stories that I can’t imagine but demand be told. But in the 152 pages Coates writes about the Black body, he barely acknowledges the unique ways that Black women’s bodies are destroyed.
Is this book for all of us? Yes. It is a deeply important work that everyone—and I mean everyone—should be forced to read and read again. Coates has fit so many experiences into fewer than 200 pages. I thought it was wonderful.
But, this book is not about all of us. It does not include all of our stories.
Perhaps that is too much to ask. Coates is a man writing a letter to his son. This is a man-to-man talk: a conversation about race and also about the way Black men are forced to navigate this world without ending up dead, jailed, or silenced. This is undoubtedly an important conversation. But, as Hilton noted, “The problem is that [t]his book about black male life is one that many readers will use to define blackness.”
Would Coates write this book to his daughter? Would he feel like he had the right to that—to address her experience as a man? And if he did, what would it say? Would he map racial destruction of the body with the same confidence?
It does not matter which of the three of us is walking out the door, my father reminds us to be safe. His fear is equally palpable with each of us, yet he is concerned about different things. A Black woman, after all, faces different villains.