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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Congratulations to Ta-Nehisi Coates. His meditation on race in America has hit No. 1 in its first week on the New York Times‘ bestseller list. Race relations may still be a mess, as his book suggests, but at least people are interested in reading about it.

Good timing helps. In the age of smartphone cameras, police dashcams, and Twitter activism, the nation is abuzz with talk of minor encounters between police and black Americans that suddenly escalated into fatalities. Locations are as varied as Staten Island, New York; North Charleston, South Carolina; Waller County, Texas, and most recently, Cincinnati.

In those places, video has validated much of what black communities have been complaining about for decades. Video has become what Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law School and a former prosecutor, has called “the C-SPAN of the streets.”

Amid this heightened conversation, Coates, a national editor at The Atlantic, offers a brief but elegantly provocative 152-page book, Between the World and Me. It could just as easily been titled The Talk. That’s what many of us black parents call the chat that we have with our children about how to behave on the streets — between the perils of armed gangbangers on one side and touchy police officers on the other.

Coates offers his searing reflections on race in the form of an open letter to his 14-year-old son, Samori. His approach, inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 classic, The Fire Next Time, and titled with a line from a Richard Wright poem, puts us inside the world of black parents and their children trying to navigate the world that, as Coates describes it, poses pervasive threats to the black body.

He describes the fear he felt growing up. Police, he cautions his son, “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body,” and commit “friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.”

Street gangs — “young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage” — might also break your body or “shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies.”

The “need to be always on guard” can be exhausting, Coates writes, but death might “billow up like fog” on any ordinary afternoon.

I’ve been a fan of Coates’ work for years as a fresh voice in social commentary and he offers many valuable observations here. Yet I also was disappointed by the pervasive sense of pessimism in regard to America’s ability to redeem itself from past sins and provide opportunities for more progress — if we all work at it.

I heard in his impatience the voice of my own son, who tends to be far more eager to gripe about how far we have to go as a nation than to express appreciation for how far we have come. That’s OK, I have reasoned. It is the job of each new generation to express impatience with the present. It is up to us older folks who remember how bad things were in the days of Jim Crow segregation, for example, to tell the youngsters not to abandon hope.

To test my theory, I called Coates’ father, W. Paul Coates, a former Black Panther in Baltimore who now is founder and director of Black Classics Press. He was predictably proud of his son’s success with a book that was not expected to make him rich but mainly to “let what was inside of him out.”

But, unlike me, the elder Coates refused to acknowledge any daylight at all between his son’s outlook and his own. We may have moments of progress, including the election of an African-American president, Coates said he told his son, but “we must continue to struggle,” he said.

“Much of what he’s writing sounds like what I told him,” he said, “only less eloquently and with a lot more repetition. I don’t believe the arc of justice bends our way. I think we have to go out and bend it our way.”

With that, the father raises a good point. His son offers an eloquent diagnosis of what ails us about race and racism these days. But it mostly leaves prescriptions for the rest of us to find and to fill.

(Email Clarence Page at [email protected])

Photo: Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking, January 21, 2015 (Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan via Flickr)

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