BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Spiegel & Grau, 156 pp., $24.
Ta-Nehisi Coates' urgent new book, "Between the World and Me," takes up the dilemma many parents are pondering anxiously: how to prepare their black children for the various forms of violence inevitably awaiting them in American life. In six sections of personal essay and cultural criticism, Coates illuminates his quandary with scenes of black subjection from his own times in West Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and ones such as this from Richard Wright's poem, "Between the World and Me," the source for his book's title and epigraph: "And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing, / Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms / And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me. . . ."
The "thing" central to the poem is the lynched, mutilated and charred body of a black man. "In America," Coates writes, "it is traditional to destroy the black body -- it is heritage."
Black parents harden their children psychologically in order to withstand the vagaries of racism, violence and injustice -- their American inheritance. In his childhood, Coates -- now a correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and author of the 2008 memoir, "The Beautiful Struggle" -- heard that impulse in his mother's loving admonishments. "I remember her clutching my small hand tightly as we crossed the street," he writes. "She would tell me that if I ever let go and were killed by an onrushing car, she would beat me back to life." He heard it in his father's loud directive: "Either I can beat him, or the police."
Coates' parents engineered home environments founded on real-world dangers. Ours was "a hard house, a loving house," Coates writes, "because to love someone was to be hard with them, was to demand things of them, to challenge them, to prepare them for the world that would greet them with plunder. (It was) a fearful house, and there was no room for softness."
"Between the World and Me" is a letter to Coates' son and only child, Samori. In these pages we hear him instructing the teenager on how to be in the world. It mimics "My Dungeon Shook," the opening section of James Baldwin's 1963 classic, "The Fire Next Time." Baldwin's essay, addressed to his namesake nephew on the occasion of his 15th birthday and the Emancipation Proclamation's 100th anniversary, confronted the same concerns Coates wrestles with here.
Like Baldwin with his nephew, Coates wants to strengthen Samori without hardening him. He implores his son, for instance, to reject "The Dream," Coates' name for a kind of advertisement-quality American placidity that "thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing." It's also sinister because it thrives on plundering black bodies: "The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, were created by the policy of Dreamers, but their weight, their shame, rests solely upon those who are dying in them."
Coates presents Samori a route toward self-awareness. It begins with rejecting "race" as a concept; racial thinking is "just a restatement and retrenchment" of The Dream. Coates pushes Samori toward "The Mecca" -- historically black Howard University -- charging him to revel in the beauty of black ethnic experience and the gift of research. Coates promotes international travel so that Samori can experience the self-affirming loneliness of living "far outside of someone else's dream."
Coates knows these powerful directives cannot ensure physical or psychological safety. When Samori learns that police officer Darren Wilson will not be indicted in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, he retreats to his room, sobbing. Coates finds that he can only offer the minor solace his parents gave him: "that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it."
Five decades after Baldwin's prophecy, Baltimore burned. And Coates' remarkable essay, arriving alongside the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, suggests that we're still waging those battles, still entangled in The Dream. Recently, as part of PBS's "Brief but Spectacular" interview series, Coates explained that he doesn't write in order to help the "average white reader" understand his perspective; here, as elsewhere, he writes for all readers desiring forceful, honest prose about our national life. Rife with love, sadness, anger and struggle, "Between the World and Me" charts a path through the American gauntlet for both the black child who will inevitably walk the world alone and for the black parent who must let that child walk away.