(This column was published in the Raleigh News and Observer and Charlotte Observer on January 17th, 2016)
I count on audios to calm me. That wasn’t the case with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reading of his memoir, Between the World and Me (Random House Audio, 3 hours 35 minutes). Within two months this fall, Coates won a MacArthur “genius grant” and the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Within two minutes, I felt angry, then hopeful, and soon, tearful. My emotions continued to roller coaster throughout this listening journey.
I was stunned by the power of Coates’ poetry, the intensity of the ironies he captures with eloquent conciseness. Certainly the rhythm of his writing reveals itself on paper, but when he reads, I was swept up by his words. I landed on a distant shore trying to manage my feelings as I heard his attempts to explain the world’s disparities to his son.
Coates constructs this memoir as a letter to his 15-year-old in “the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes, because you know now that Ranisha Macbride was shot for seeking help. … And you know now if you did not before that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.”
The last phrase repeats throughout the book as Coates reminds his son (and listeners) that having your body destroyed “is old to black people, all of this is common to black people.” Coates’ voice and words grow fierce as he describes how “racism is a visceral experience. That it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” He punctuates this horrific list with a short, strong, sorrowful command, “You must never look away from this.”
That’s when I cried for the first time, but it wasn’t the last. He describes his son crying after the results of the Michael Brown trial. Coates doesn’t have the luxury of comforting his son. “I didn’t hug you and I didn’t comfort you … or tell you that it would be okay because I have never believed it would be okay.” He has to prepare his child for the realities of his country, world and body and “you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
The audio is a mix of Coates’ truth and poetry, his personal anger and sadness at the world’s wrongness, his relentlessness in asking difficult questions of himself and his country. In large part, Ta-Nehisi Coates is seeking his own answers as he sifts through his past – the way he was raised in Baltimore by a father whose harshness was meant to protect him, his understanding of poetry as “a confrontation of my own innocence, my own rationalization,” the murder of an admired college friend, and being changed by his son’s birth because “before you I had my questions, but nothing beyond my own skin in the game and that was really nothing at all.” Coates raises more questions than he answers in an audio that demands a second listen because of the beauty of its words and power of its images, its compelling and layered writing, and, most importantly, contemplating all the author voices.