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Coates' latest book brilliant, but with a glaring omission

For The Baltimore Sun
Ta-Nehisi Coates' latest is brilliant, yet handicapped by a narrow, gendered view

Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, "Between the World and Me," is not a Pollyanna, coming-of-age memoir about how idyllic life was growing up in America. It is raw. It is searing.

It is — in the same vein as the writings of James Baldwin (to whom Coates, who grew up in West Baltimore, has been compared), Eldridge Cleaver and Richard Wright — a story about what it means to occupy black and male realities in this country, all at once. It is not meant to make you feel better. Like the work of the aforementioned writers, the book, though brilliant, is handicapped by its narrow retro-gendered view of the world.

Written as an extended letter to his son, it poetically describes the everyday battles that come along with living in a country where "the elevation of the belief in being white" was achieved through "the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land," "the rape of mothers," and "the sale of children."

His book comes on the heels of a three-year period when accounts of the dehumanization of the black male body have been front-page news and at the top of myriad best-seller lists. From "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" to "I Can't Breathe," most of the demonstrations, conversations and taglines (much like Coates' memoir) have focused on black men and boys.

We are now stuck in a mind-warping news cycle where the daily assault on black males is simply accepted as normal. We may get angry. We may be disgusted. But we are not shocked. We have come to accept this as a part of the reality of what it means to be black and male in America.

So we attempt to explain our pain through our speeches, our writing, our music; we try to mask our hurt and ignore the ways in which our persistence and endurance are used as entertainment for those who view us through the narrow lens of race. It is as American as apple pie to believe, as Coates notes, "in the reality of 'race' as a defined, indubitable feature of the world."

It is the deconstruction of this notion — the American invention of race — that is at the heart of Coates' book. He has spent a large portion of his life trying to answer, understand, explain and, in same cases, I would argue, defend, what it means to be black in America and what it means to be a black man in America. "Race," he writes, is "the child of racism, not the father."

To be clear, in Coates' book, the deconstruction and examination of the race's fate is limited to the stories and realities of the black male body. This is not a new perspective — but there has always been push-back to the decades-old assumption that the black male experience automatically includes black women. Like the civil rights movement that privileged black male leaders, the #BlackLivesMatter movement seems to inform a black man's view of the world and in much the same way, Coates' memoir continues to keep the Gaussian beam of focus squarely and predictably on black men. This oversight drew me back, time and time again, to Zora Neale Hurston's observation about black women being the mules of the world.

Perhaps my desire to want to see the perspective of black women lifted up and included obfuscates what Coates intended to do with his letter. It is for his son and, by extension, for all black fathers and their boys. It is an affirmation, an explanation of Coates' struggle to learn how to "live within a black body," and his discovery that the pursuit of these larger questions (of who he is and what that means) is the answer.

But this is not some Zen-like tome drowning the reader in a sea of philosophical questions that cannot be answered. Instead, it is a road map that charts Coates' conscious moments of survival and perhaps his realization, through trial and error, that the 1968 Kerner Commission got it right when its members concluded that America was becoming two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal. Coates describes how the black male body is not safe in either of them and because of this, a black boy learns fear early on while simultaneously learning ways to mask it.

"To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world," Coates writes, "before all of the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease" — words that could easily be written to describe the Baltimore of today.

It is this fear that grips Coates in the middle of the night, and this type of insight, like the admission that some black men (at times) would rather kill their boys themselves before seeing them "killed by the streets that America made," that makes this memoir more than just a coming-of-age story. These are liner notes where Coates artfully and masterfully strums the reality of the black male experience with his fingers and sings their life stories with his words.

Despite what (or who) is missing, "Between the World and Me" is a book that should be read and shared by everyone, as it is a story that painfully and honestly explores the age-old question of what it means to grow up black and male in America.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland and the author of the new book, "Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America." She can be reached at kewhitehead@loyola.edu.

About the book

"Between the World and Me" was published Tuesday by Spiegel & Grau. 152 pages.

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