When writer Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down at NPR’s New York studios a few days ago, he got a little emotional.
It was the first time that Coates, who writes for The Atlantic, had held a copy of his latest book, Between the World and Me.
This book is personal, written as a letter to his teenage son Somari. In it, we see glimpses of the hard West Baltimore streets where Coates grew up, his curiosity at work on the campus of Howard University and his early struggles as a journalist.
Coates also reflects on what it meant, and what it means, to inhabit a black body in America. He gets at the physical consequences of slavery and racial discrimination, and he brings to bear his big fear that his life and the lives of his loved ones might end unnaturally.
“When we think about the myriad evils that spring from racism, that spring from white supremacy,” he tells NPR’s Michele Norris, “one of the realizations I had while writing this book was that ultimately, these all are things that endanger the body.”
On the West Baltimore neighborhood where Coates grew up
It was a neighborhood which had been subjected to housing discrimination, right? So you had a group of people who physically could not move, who did not have the same sort of choices that other people did. You had a group of people who did not have the same sort of opportunities that other people did in terms of jobs and educations.
So the neighborhood tended to be a little more violent than other neighborhoods of the same economic description.
On the physical repercussions of racism
There can be no more physical process than somebody literally taking your body and putting it to whatever their selfish usages might be. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. it proceeds right through Jim Crow. And all the laws, the horrible laws, passed during Jim Crow — the inability to work where you wanted, the inability to vote, the lack of mobility throughout the South — ultimately these laws were enforced though violence.
On moving to a safer neighborhood, and then back
I can remember for the first time in my life, a few years back, I lived in a neighborhood that was not majority black, that was not considered a “ghetto.” I quickly moved back.
But I think about how I would walk down the street, and how my need to constantly be on guard, to watch everything, was suddenly removed. I remember physically feeling different. My body felt different. I felt more at ease than I had in any other neighborhood that I had lived in, in my life.
We lived in that neighborhood for three years.
I left because I love black people. I love living around black people. Home is home. We suffer under racism and the physical deprivations that come with that, but beneath that we form cultures and traditions that are beautiful.
It was everywhere. It was even manifested in shows of strength, when people were trying to act like they weren’t afraid.
We look at young black kids with a scowl on their face, walking a certain way down the block with their sweatpants dangling, however, with their hoodies on. And folks think that this is a show of power or a show of force.
But I know, because I’ve been among those kids, it ultimately is fear. The very need to exhibit your power in that sort of way is really to ward off other people because you’re afraid of what could actually happen to you.
On what it means to love America
I love America the way I love my family — I was born into it. And there’s no escape out of it. But no definition of family that I’ve ever encountered or dealt with involves never having cross words with people, never having debate , never speaking directly. On the contrary, that’s the very definition in my house, and the house that I grew up in, of what family is.