Perhaps when writer Ta-Nehisi Coates named his son Samori, after Samori Touré, a warrior who resisted French colonizers in West Africa and later died in captivity, he had a faint idea that 14 years later Coates would write that son a letter exposing the epidemic slaughter of the black body and the construction of the American dream on its very corpse.
In "Between the World and Me," his second, riveting book (written as a letter to his son), Coates delivers a fiery soliloquy dissecting the tradition of the erasure of African-Americans beginning with the deeply personal — his childhood memories of fear in West Baltimore ("Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns") and his son's devastation upon learning about the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
This intimate epistle dually serves as a eulogy for Coates' former classmate at Howard University, Prince Carmen Jones, who, though unarmed, was pursued by a black police officer dressed like an undercover drug dealer, shot and killed. The inexplicable death, which occurred when Coates' son was 1 month old, inspires the author to delve deeper into his writing. "The entire episode took me from fear to rage that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days."
Coates' epiphanies are not rooted in religious belief or prayer, but in the relentless interrogation of the truth — a philosophy he inherited from his parents. His message is apocalyptic, and his language, urgent and poetic, recalls Claudia Rankine's "Citizen":
"The robbery of time is not measured in life spans but in moments. It is the last bottle of wine you have just uncorked but do not have time to drink. It is the kiss that you do not have time to share, before she walks out of your life. It is the raft of the second chances for them, and twenty-three-hour days for us."
Samori will already understand the bulk of these harrowing truths, but his father's revelations are not meant only for him. They are directed to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who have the luxury of raising children whose skin color does not mark them as prey.
"But you are a black boy," Coates writes, "and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know."
Anjali Enjeti's reviews and essays have appeared in the Guardian, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kirkus and elsewhere.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME
By: Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau, 176 pages, $24.