The Baltimore-born author Ta-Nehisi Coates came to Baltimore on Wednesday night to launch his second book — about the roots of violence against black Americans — three months after Freddie Gray suffered a fatal injury while riding in a police van.
Coates, who was in town for the national launch of "Between the World and Me," made just a brief allusion to Gray's death when he addressed the crowd of 600 who filled Union Baptist Church.
But he talked at length about Kalief Browder, the New York man who was held for three years in prison — including nearly two years in solitary confinement — on suspicion of having stolen a backpack.
Coates had finished his book before Browder, 22, committed suicide last month.*
"Between You and Me" also was completed before the massacre of nine people last month in a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C., by a white gunman who said he hoped to start a race war.
"Unfortunately, if I'd known about these incidents, it wouldn't have made any difference in how I wrote the book," Coates said. "The point that I make in the book is that if you're black, your body has no worth at all except as a piece of meat."
The book takes the form of an impassioned letter that Coates wrote to his 15-year-old son, Samori.
"I wrote this book because when people talk about the African-American community, what they never talk about is fear," he said.
"They never talk about how afraid we are for our bodies, how afraid we are for our children and how afraid we are for our loved ones on a daily basis."
Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, made waves last year with his article, "The Case for Reparations," which argued that systematic policy decisions have resulted in the gap in income and education between African-Americans and their white counterparts.
Upon reading "Between the World and Me," the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison declared Coates the intellectual successor to James Baldwin and concluded: "This is required reading."
Justin Sanders, 32, said he attended the reading because he is a longtime fan of the author's.
"What he and [writer] D. Watkins have in common is that they come from West Baltimore," Sanders said. "Not a lot of people know what it's like to be a black man growing up in that environment."
In response to a question from the audience, Coates also took issue with remarks in which President Barack Obama has called upon black Americans to assume more personal responsibility for their lives.
Coates said that he wouldn't object if a pastor or parent made similar remarks. But the same message takes on a different tenor, he said, when made by the president of a nation founded on slave labor.
"You can say that to your kid," Coates told his audience. "But the president of the United States, carrying all that legacy, cannot say that."
The audience broke into applause.
* An earlier version of this story was worded imprecisely. Ta-Nehisi Coates' book was finished before Kalief Browder committed suicide last month. But the previous events in Browder's life helped to inform the author's point of view.