RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When writer Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down in our New York studio a few days ago, he became a little emotional.
TA-NEHISI COATES: I'm trying not to cry (laughter).
MONTAGNE: He held his new book for the first time. "Between The World And Me" is written as a letter to his teenage son, Somari. In it, we glimpse the hard West Baltimore streets where Coates grew up and his curiosity at work on the Howard University campus as he struggles to become a journalist. Today, he's a staff writer at The Atlantic. Throughout the book, he brings to bear his fears that his life and the lives of his loved ones might end unnaturally. Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke with NPR special correspondent Michele Norris.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: So it's an extended letter written for your son, or is this really something that you were writing to yourself? Are you writing to a young Ta-Nehisi at age 15?
COATES: It is to my son in the sense that everything in this book is things that I've said to my son. This is what our conversation actually looks like. I think, you know, more than anything I was trying to answer that question of what it felt like to live under plunder. You know, living in, say, the 18th century, you know, in the colonies or in, you know, later in the United States. Folks who really - if they look back, you know, through their ancestry in the past here in the United States would have seen nothing but enslaved black folks. If they look forward another century or so would have seen nothing but enslaved black folks, and yet these folks had to find some way to live.
NORRIS: You talk about the black body. You refer to it again and again, not as an assault on the mind or on a person, but you talk about the black body and maintaining the safety of the black body because of laws and injustices and assaults...
NORRIS: Either physical and psychological and also institutional.
COATES: Right. Right.
NORRIS: Tell me about this term and why you used it.
COATES: When we think about, you know, the myriad evils that spring from racism, that spring from white supremacy, one of the realizations I had while writing this was that ultimately they all are things that endanger the body. And so this has physical impact. And so growing up in my neighborhood in West Baltimore, for instance, it was a neighborhood that, you know - which had been subject to housing discrimination, right? And so you got a group of people who physically could not move, who did not have the same sort of choices that other people did. You had a group of people who did not have the same sort of opportunities that other people did in terms of, you know, jobs and education. And so the neighborhood, you know, tended to be a little violent than other neighborhoods, you know, of the same, you know, sort of economic description.
NORRIS: So, Ta-Nehisi, the assault on the black body and the fear that comes from that begins with enslavement.
COATES: Yeah, I mean, you know - there can be no more physical process than somebody literally, you know, taking your body and, you know, putting it to whatever their selfish usage is. You know, unfortunately it doesn't there. You know, it proceeds right through Jim Crow, you know? And for all of the laws, the horrible laws, passed during Jim Crow, the, you know, inability to work where you wanted, the inability to vote, the lack of mobility throughout the South. Ultimately, these laws were enforced through violence.
NORRIS: Are you trying to get people to think of - people of color of not in the abstract, but in a very personal way within a body?
NORRIS: Yes, yes, yes, yes, that's exactly it. I, you know, can remember for the first time in my life a few years back, I lived in a neighborhood that was not majority black. It was not, you know, considered a, quote, unquote, "ghetto" - quickly moved back which is where I live now. But I think about how I would walk down the street and how my need to, you know, constantly be on guard, to watch everything, was suddenly removed and I can remember physically feeling different. My body felt different. I felt more at ease than I had, you know, in any neighborhood that I lived in in my life. And that was a physical experience.
NORRIS: So did you decide to raise your son then in a neighborhood that you felt more comfortable in? Or did I hear you say that you went back to a majority?
COATES: We went back. We lived in that neighborhood for three years so...
NORRIS: Then why'd you leave?
COATES: (Laughter) I left, you know, I have no other way to say this. I left 'cause I love black people (laughter). I love living around black people. Home is home. It's a - how do I put this? It's an unsafety that I am deeply familiar with. But other things come from that. And, you know, that was the other theme in the book. We suffer under racism. We have, you know, physical deprivations that come to us. But beneath that we form cultures and traditions that are beautiful.
NORRIS: You also talk about, within the wonderful - you know, the joy in these communities, the laughter, the sometimes laughing to keep from crying, the beautiful traditions - you also talk about the fear.
COATES: God, it was everywhere. And it was even in - you know, and I couldn't see this at the time - it was even manifested in shows of strength, when people were, you know, trying to act like they weren't afraid. For instance - and I think we get this so wrong, you know - we look at young black kids. And we see them, you know, with this scowl on their face, you know, walking a certain way down the block, you know, with their sweatpants, you know, dangling, you know, or however, with their hoodies on. And folks think that this is, like, a show of power, a show of force or a show of violence. But I know because I've been among those kids that it ultimately is fear. You know, the very need to exhibit your power in that sort of way is really to ward off other people because you're afraid of what could actually happen to you.
NORRIS: Ta-Nehisi Coates, I'd like you to read a portion of the book that speaks to exactly what we've been talking about. It's about halfway through. And you talk about holding your son at night and acknowledging a fear as a parent but a fear that goes back many generations. Could you read that for us?
COATES: Sure. (Reading) Now, at night I held you, and a great fear wide as all our American generations took me. Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra, either I can beat him or the police. I understood it all, the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have. And you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed in the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.
NORRIS: You well know that your critics may take your anger and disdain at the system as a kind of hatred of America or a particular disdain for white America or for police.
COATES: You know, I love America the way I love my family. I was born into it. You know, and there's no escape out of it. But no definition of family that I've ever, you know, encountered or dealt with involves never having cross words with people, never having debate, never speaking directly to people. On the contrary, that's the very definition, in my house and in the house that I grew up in, of what family was. And so folks that can't, you know, tolerate that sort of conversation, OK. OK, there's nothing too much I can do about that.
NORRIS: Ta-Nehisi Coates, it's been good to talk to you. Thank you.
COATES: Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: His book is called "Between The World And Me."
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