Why Does Ta-Nehisi Coates Say Less Than He Knows?

When people sometimes ask me whether I consider myself black, I have to tell them that I am, and I remind them that the possibility of the question is itself the answer. To be black in the United States can involve existing in a kind of special interrogative mode, which is like standing in the long shadow of a question mark. This point is not merely an abstract analogy. The “blackness” of skin means what it does in the United States not because of melanin, but rather because of the long shadow of the slave ship and Jim Crow. It is, to borrow James Baldwin’s words, “not a human or a personal reality” but “a political reality,” defined by the decisions and actions that have formed the history of the country we live in. Conversely, when white folks stammer that “white privilege” cannot possibly apply to them, I suggest that their very insistence is one small manifestation of that privilege, namely of not having to question or be questioned, of being able to choose to lead an unexamined life in this country.

There is a deep strain of thought running through the black intellectual tradition in the United States that treats the long shadow of the question mark as foundational to self-understanding and to the struggle to claim one’s rightful place in a society long wedded to its denial. “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question” is how W.E.B. Du Bois begins The Souls of Black Folk (1903), then famously adding that this question really boils down to another: “How does it feel to be a problem?” The title of Between the World and Me (Random House; $24), the runaway bestselling memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates, invokes Du Bois’s question by way of a poem by Richard Wright, published in Partisan Review in 1935. In the poem, Wright describes discovering the evidence of a lynching: “And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing, / Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by the scaly oaks and elms / And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me.” Then, in graphic detail, he imagines his own death at the hands of a white mob: “They had me, stripped me, battering my teeth into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.” Dating to a time when Wright was a Popular Front militant, the poem is at once a work of political protest, a cry of indignation, and a contribution to the long-running anti-lynching campaigns first organized and led by the suffragist and journalist Ida B. Wells in the early 1890s. But Wright’s allusion to Du Bois is hardly incidental; it expresses another important dimension of the poem, which is Wright’s growing sense of intellectual independence, and also of belonging to a tradition of black radical criticism that has never ceased to challenge and denounce the hypocrisies of the American Republic.

Ta-Nehisi Coates aims to carry on that tradition in our own time. By writing under the double sign of Du Bois and Wright, he places his book in the company of the moral and philosophical inquiries of The Souls of Black Folkand the lyrical autobiography of Wright’s Black Boy (1945). Composed as an open letter to his teenage son, Between the World and Me also invokes the beautiful prefatory letter from James Baldwin to his nephew in The Fire Next Time (1963), Baldwin’s searing book about race and religion in the United States. Coates acknowledges not only the ongoing vitality and urgency of a tradition, but also that the enduring paradoxes and pitfalls these writers confronted are his as well: How do you become a black writer in a country structured by the legacy of white supremacy? How do you communicate across audiences, especially when so many of the largest one in your country have a vested interest in failing to recognize your humanity? How do you navigate the points of reference of a black audience and a largely white liberal one, with some of the latter inevitably looking to you to embody the dreadful role of “spokesperson” for black America?

The relationship between black intellectuals and the liberal establishment has always been fraught. Liberals tend to endorse claims of injustice only if those making them acknowledge that progress has been achieved, and that, explicitly or implicitly, liberals should be thanked for having facilitated it. Coates rightly refuses to flatter or encourage this liberal good feeling. He has often said in interviews that he simply doesn’t accept the view—one favored by President Obama—summed up in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words, adapted from those of the abolitionist Theodore Parker, that “the arc of the moral universe…bends toward justice.” Look at history, Coates urges, and you’ll see that it can just as easily bend the other way; the direction depends on circumstance, not Providence. This cutting rebuke to liberal good feeling and Obama’s optimism is one reason why Coates’s new book has attracted attention nationwide.

There’s another traditional buttress of the black intellectual that Coates knocks aside. Like Wright, he has an equivocal and sometimes hostile attitude toward black religious traditions, a legacy from which he takes absolutely no solace, even though he knows it has shaped his writing. Coates’s iconoclasm puts him in a vulnerable but intellectually exciting place, leaving the reader wondering how extensive and relentless his self-examination will be. It’s not surprising, then, that early criticism of his book has singled out passages in which Coates’s self-examination seems to fall short. Some reviewers have taken umbrage at his sentimental treatment of women and pressed him to pay more attention to the stories of women who have criticized the racial injustice of American society. This criticism itself is a positive reflection of the ways in which the influence of women in public discussions of race can no longer be treated as secondary or marginal. But it is also a reminder that too many marginalized women continue to be “structurally denied the ability to tell our stories,” as the writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah recently remarked.

Coates’s reply thus far has been that he can’t be expected to write from a perspective other than his own. That’s true: Readers shouldn’t presume that a writer must write the book we would wish them to write. On the other hand, it’s appropriate to hold a writer to account for bringing important questions to light but failing to bring his own work into focus. The stories Coates knits together in Between the World and Me urgently invite a closer examination of class relations, the use of race as a tool of reaction in electoral politics, and changes in the structure of the economy and their impact on the propagation of stereotypes and just-so stories about race. In short, they invite a critical engagement from a black perspective that the nation desperately needs, but that Coates, in a surprising departure from his journalism, largely eschews in his book.

This is not done out of carelessness or neglect. Coates has given us a testimony, a letter to his son that combines the private force of witness and survival with an austere philippic against the American state, the likes of which we have not seen in a generation. It’s a work of vital importance, a writer’s intervention in a particularly turbulent time. It is also highly personal, a painful journey of coming into consciousness that relates the gradations and markers of a shift in a man’s sense of himself and the world. This interweaving of the private and the public makes assessing his book challenging. There is no sense in disputing the truth of someone’s experience. But Coates is not only a witness with a story; he is a celebrated essayist, polemicist, and commentator on public affairs. His words are read as part of a greater debate about the state of black politics and social life. It is therefore appropriate, I think, to engage his writing in those broader terms. I certainly believe his work deserves it.

Coates is a journalist by trade and cut his teeth at the Washington City Paperunder the editorship of David Carr, who later became the media critic at The New York Times, and whose mentorship Coates movingly acknowledged when Carr died earlier this year. Coates has been writing for The Atlanticsince 2008, and last year he became a household name when that magazine published his cover story, “The Case for Reparations.” In an essay blending history and reportage, Coates argued that the systemic depredations visited upon black citizens by the state were reason enough to reexamine the case for a congressional bill proposing to study slavery, its lingering effects, and remedies for them like material reparations. The controversy over such a bill, he argued, would force a reckoning with seldom-acknowledged aspects of racial dispossession, like redlining in housing policy. Coates is also a formidable duelist, always razor-sharp in argument. Last year, in a running exchange in the pages of The Atlantic and New York magazine, those talents were on display as he attacked Jonathan Chait for confusing the “culture of poverty” with “black culture.” But in his autobiographical writings, Coates has deliberately veered away from his public voice; there is a strong sense of a shift, not just in voice but in audience. If his journalistic writing is professional, battle-hardened, and generally directed at what he may rightly assume to be largely a white audience, his autobiographical work goes in the opposite direction: It feels loose, intimate, and addressed primarily to a black readership.

Born in 1975, Coates grew up at the height of the crack epidemic on Baltimore’s Westside. He wrote memorably about the neighborhood’s turbulence in his previous memoir, The Beautiful Struggle (2008), which delves more deeply than his new book into his childhood—particularly his relationship with his brother, but also with friends and extended family, a large cast only glimpsed in Between the World and Me. Composed in an ironic, jaunty, and playful vernacular style, The Beautiful Struggle juxtaposes the familiar pains of coming of age with the tribulations of having to do so in a violent and impoverished neighborhood. By contrast, the tone of Between the World and Me is dead sober, earnest, and unmistakably elegiac. Coates’s is the voice of a father who has accepted the terrible truth that he will not be able to protect his own child from the world. His description of the ethics of living in the ghetto is one of unsparing, forceful clarity, and he writes about the immediacy of lived experience with a hard-won, stoic composure. “When I was your age,” he tells his son, “the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.” After someone pulls a gun on him in the sixth grade, he rides the subway home alone, “amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon.” He sees the terrible command of fear over everyday life, how it can explode into violence and distort and devastate entire neighborhoods like a plague. “The violence,” he writes, “rose from the fear like smoke from a fire.”

The smoke clouded the home of his childhood. Coates is unflinching but also nonjudgmental when explaining the beatings he routinely endured at the hands of his father, Paul Coates. His recollection of his father’s justification for the beatings (“I would hear it in Dad’s voice—‘Either I can beat him, or the police’”) itself recalls Ralph Ellison’s comment on the parental beatings in Jim Crow Mississippi described by Wright in Black Boy: “One of the Southern Negro family’s methods of protecting the child is the severe beating—a homeopathic dose of the violence generated by black-white relationships.” These are tangent and even congruent expressions of the internalized effects of white supremacy, and that they represent experiences 70 years apart should give us pause. How might one protect one’s body, Coates asks, when that body is marked as susceptible to potentially lethal violence at any time? “The culture of the streets [is] a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.… When I was about your age,” he tells his son, “each day fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled….” The pressure and pain of these conditions led Coates to question their origins.

As so often in the black autobiographical tradition, the search for knowledge and the steady rise to self-consciousness is the book’s emotional and narrative core. Coates was fortunate in having a family that rejected all dogmas and encouraged its members to seek out books for themselves, to ask questions and find their own answers. It was his mother who motivated him to write, Coates says, by asking him to explain himself whenever he got into trouble at school. This ritual of “constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty,” is the credo of Coates’s work, and the legacy of earlier generations. As Coates recounts, the seeds planted in the 1960s made it possible for him to buy Malcolm X tapes at a neighborhood bookstore and listen to them on his Walkman in the early 1990s. There was also his father’s personal library of eclectic and Afrocentric literature to peruse.

Paul Coates had been a member of the local chapter of the Black Panther Party in the 1970s; having survived the party’s dis­integration, he became a librarian at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s account of his own time at Howard is one of the most affecting and powerful sections of Between the World and Me. “My only Mecca was, is, and shall always be Howard University,” he writes. Part of the promise was “the Yard,” the “communal green space in the center of campus,” where Coates discovered a panorama of worldly blackness and an intellectual milieu richer and more complex than he had expected. “I did not find a coherent tradition,” he writes of his first heady forays into Moorland’s treasure trove of materials. Where he had hoped to find authorities who would endorse a black ideology to counter white supremacy, he had instead discovered rich streams of dissent erupting from debates within the intellectual tradition: “Hurston battled Hughes, Du Bois warred with Garvey, Harold Cruse fought everyone.” Similarly, among the students gathered in the Yard, Coates sensed the intimacy of an unexpected diversity of black experience. The example of James Baldwin feels particularly close in the alloy of moral epigram and personal epiphany that bonds certain passages: “Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, or being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe. But my tribe was shattering and reforming around me.”

The joy and emancipation promised by the Yard are scarred by the murder of Prince Jones, a fellow student whose death at the hands of a Prince George’s County police officer haunts these pages. For Coates, the tragedy of Jones’s slaying is much more than an indictment of a notoriously racist and corrupt police force. It also stands as a firm rebuke to the blacks (and whites) who advocate a “politics of respectability,” clinging to the notion that what deters black achievement is a failure to follow the standards and codes to which “successful” middle-class people adhere. Unlike Coates, Jones was raised by affluent parents in the suburbs and given every opportunity and amenity of bourgeois life. He was, by all accounts, an excellent and upstanding student who could have applied to Ivy League schools but chose to attend Howard instead, a person respected and respectable. But on the night of his murder—by a black plainclothes officer—Jones was targeted despite the fact that his height, build, and hair didn’t match the description of the suspect being sought by police. All that mattered in that crucial moment was the color of his skin.

Coates’s anger over the murder of Jones clouds much of the book’s second half, which strains at times from the compression of a great amount of material into relatively few pages. We follow Coates to New York City, where he makes his way as a freelance writer and black husband and father in a city of vertiginous white privilege and wealth, and later to France and his discovery of the play of cultural difference there; we follow him to Gettysburg, where he teaches his son about the importance of the Civil War, and finally back to Howard for an ecstatic experience of homecoming but also a last interview with Mable Jones, mother of the murdered Prince. After their conversation, the book concludes with Coates driving out past “beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing” into “a rain coming down in sheets,” an image that cannot escape the weight of biblical portent.

In these later sections, Jones’s murder acts like the imagined lynching in Wright’s poem. “Prince Jones was the superlative of all my fears,” Coates writes. He becomes a figure for a whole history of violence against black bodies, past and present, kin and stranger, distilled into a single frame. This fusion is at once symbolic and emotional. Prince Jones’s death affects Coates first and foremost as a father who is thinking about what he has to offer his own son. No matter how much personal advantage Coates accumulates, no matter how well he raises his son, the boy will be vulnerable to a lethal force beyond reason and beyond control.

Behind Coates’s struggle to live freely in a black body lies another vexing question: What is heritage? What does it mean to pass on belonging to or being excluded from something as vast as a culture, or a race? To pass on a body of knowledge about bodies inscribed in the flesh? At the most intimate level, the quotidian one where we are most vulnerable, nothing is more true, more immediately relevant, than how others see our bodies. Nothing appears more powerful than the signs all around us that inform us of our bodies’ worth, or lack thereof; that determine whether that body exists within a circle of acceptance or is seen as belonging to a world beyond the reach of care, empathy, or even the law. In this light, the history of American violence directed at the black body assumes the shape and aura of a law. One of Coates’s most memorable lines is his declaration that “in America it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” This is an important statement, a bone that ought to stick in the throats of those Americans, conservatives and liberals alike, who try to airbrush history to suit a more uplifting vision.

The worst aspects of racism are visited in violence upon the body and depend on color and little else. Try to imagine a white police officer, sworn to protect the public, dragging a 14-year-old white girl to the ground by her hair and kneeling on her back for disturbing a pool party. It’s an unthinkable scenario. But it happened this past summer to a 14-year-old black girl in Mc­Kinney, Texas, at the hands of an officer who then drew his gun on her friends as they protested her treatment. This kind of random racist behavior occurs all the time, capable of escalating to mortal danger seemingly out of nowhere, and only occasionally captured by witnesses. How could one not conclude that we are indeed hostages, “captured” and “surrounded,” as Coates puts it, “here, in our only home”?

And yet the version of his life story that Coates passes along to his son promotes the power of the mind and self-examination, and stresses the role that one’s sense of self and of the world plays in determining one’s fate. After all, despite the forces arrayed against his body, Coates has been able to achieve an important intellectual and personal emancipation. The strongest parts of his book are suffused with the palpable force of intellectual discovery, the new vistas that come with seeing the world in historical procession, with an awareness of the role of social force, the richness and complexity of cultural creation. For Coates, this freedom remains tragic. The mind, however cunning, is bound to the body and can still be crushed by one racist act. Perhaps one discomfiting lesson of Coates’s book is that the work of living with a free mind has to be undertaken whether or not one can ever truly live in a free body. The possibilities for a black child in this world are constrained by the ability to forge a sense of dignity in it. Whatever the price, that struggle is worth it. That struggle is also our inheritance, passed down through generations held in bondage.

These passages, in which Coates addresses his son clearly and directly, are for me the book’s most haunting moments. They remind me of the poet Robert Hayden’s beautiful homage to his father, “Those Winter Sundays,” with its memorable closing line about “love’s austere and lonely offices.” Coates tells his son: “What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness. I resolved to hide nothing from you.” The task he sets before him is both ambiguous and monumental. “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels,” he declaims, while also warning him to “remember that this consciousness can never ultimately be racial; it must be cosmic.” This is admirable, though asking a 15-year-old to walk like Malcolm after Mecca does seems a bit severe. Still, I think it’s bold and beautiful for Coates to try.

But throughout Coates’s book, such austere and lonely intimacy is intermittent and unevenly expressed. More generally, his tone falters when discussing historical and social subjects that are less personal and require nuance. Much of this stems from the constraints imposed by the convention of writing a letter to one’s son. This raises the question of why Coates chose to adopt this convention in the first place. Obviously, there’s the inspirational example of Baldwin. There is also an attractive directness of address, an almost confessional weight that the form permits. But another important reason is that it creates a sentimental bridge between two divergent audiences that Coates is trying to address simultaneously. This is a daring gambit, though probably impossible to pull off. The result is that Coates sometimes resorts to rhetoric that feels stilted and hyperbolic.

Consider, for example, his use of “the Dream” or “Dreamers” as shorthand for the white suburban pastoral of “perfect houses with nice lawns.” For Coates, “the Dream” is an ideal maintained at the expense of black lives, insofar as those who live in it refuse to acknowledge the institutional racism that has been instrumental in the creation of such ideals and the maintenance of their exclusiv­ity. It’s easy to understand what Coates means by “the Dream,” especially since for a long time it has been transmitted, as he acknowledges, through daytime television. But why indulge this fiction in the first place? The neoliberal financialization of the economy that began with the Reagan Revolution, and that has devastated black neighborhoods and gutted the organized working class across the nation, certainly didn’t spare people of other races and cultures. Why not admit that there are vast stretches of entrenched white poverty (representing nearly 40 percent of all welfare “handouts,” incidentally)? Why not remind people that the dark side of “the Dream” is the ongoing heroin epidemic ravaging predominantly white middle-class families, or the spread of meth across rural lower-class white communities, where lives are being destroyed as well? Why not attack outright the myth of an ideal white community—­which exists nowhere—­instead of using it as a rhetorical crutch?

Another crutch is Coates’s evocation of environmental disaster toward the end of the book: “It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.” Using an image of lynching to describe something as abstract as climate change strikes me as contrived, if not inappropriate (and I share Coates’s opinion about the environment and the car). It’s hard to believe this language is addressed to his son; perhaps it’s meant to appeal to readers familiar with Elizabeth Kolbert’s writings on climate change and human extinction. At times, hyperbole leads Coates to throw down bolts that sting where they should, but elsewhere it results in an exhaustion of metaphor.

What gets obscured by Coates’s metaphoric handles is class; yet there’s no story about race in America that can afford to ignore the realities of class interest. Voting blacks, many of them staunchly middle class, supported Clinton’s “tough on crime” measures in the 1990s. Maryland’s Prince George’s County—which, as Coates points out, has a reputation for police corruption and brutality—is also one of the richest majority-black counties in the nation. That doesn’t make racism a less important factor in the killing of Prince Jones. But is the larger pattern attributed to the PG County police force also in each case a matter of black-on-black racism—or is there a class bias at work as well, with the county’s well-to-do inhabitants sending a message that certain blacks don’t belong in the enclave they’ve carved out for themselves? Coates tells his son that some “theories” of law and order came up “even in the mouths of black people,” but he drops the matter without further explanation. It’s a false choice to pit color against class in determining racial inequality; both are essential to understanding social relations. But by skating over the realities of class politics instead of endeavoring to explain their complexity, one can end up undermining the case for structural racism instead of demonstrating it.

One of the frustrations of Between the World and Me is that Coates says less than he knows. In his reparations essay, incisive prose demolishes myths and displays the material and moral consequences of political crimes that are hiding in plain sight. I simply do not believe that his readers, black or white, require the cloudy metaphor of “the Dreamers” to grasp his argument, or can’t confront head-on the realities of class antagonism or the pernicious violence of colorism and sexism. If people really are “dreaming,” the way to wake them up can’t be to feed them clichés and narratives in which they have no agency, in which history is largely a catastrophe that has already happened, and all they can do now is watch the ship go down.

I also take issue with Coates’s repeated suggestion that black folks are at the mercy of forces they will never be able to shape. “The fact of history is that black people have not—probably no people have ever—liberated themselves strictly through their own efforts,” he writes. There’s no question that historical forces are compacted and impossible to disentangle, but this statement is surely uncharitable to Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution; to the Jamaican Maroons; to the Quilombos in Brazil; to the ANC in South Africa; to Amílcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau; to Madison Washington’s commandeering of the Creole; to Harriet Tubman, who freed herself and her family and went back for countless others; and to all the individuals and organizations, secular, religious, and militant, that banded together and broke Jim Crow in the American South. But despite this air of dismissal, Coates isn’t a quietist; he’s a pessimist. He believes in struggle while maintaining a paradoxical skepticism about its effectiveness. He tells his son, Samori—named for a military hero who resisted French colonial expansion in West Africa—that he must struggle, “not because it assures you victory, but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” This is wonderfully put, but I would observe that most black people are already struggling. This summer, concerned parents undertook a hunger strike just to protect a local high school in Chicago. The question is how to empower that struggle, against whom to direct it, with what allies, by what means, and with what vision of society before us?

There is a real need today for writing that shatters people’s cynicism and perceived impotence, for the grain of truth that brings them back to politics, where so much ground has been ceded. The American prison archipelago is a nimble and ruthless adversary with enormous power. It is an instrument of profit, and the Corrections Corporation of America intends to keep it that way. Taser International, the company that promises to put body cameras on cops, also makes a handsome profit selling the devices to “light up” noncompliant traffic offenders. Coates says in this book that these forces “are the product of democratic will,” what he calls “majoritarian bandits.” This strikes me as implausible. They are the product of complacency and demagoguery and the hollowing out of democratic institutions and our political culture, not its malicious expression. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act was carried out through right-wing judicial activism, subverting the will of both the Senate and the House. The Ku Klux Klan, which originated in the post–Civil War struggle to overthrow the biracial governments of Reconstruction and restore white supremacy in the South, has never been an expression of democratic will, but rather a weapon for suppressing and intimidating democratic power at the ballot. The forces of white supremacy, in league with great wealth, have always feared true democracy, because they know they are outnumbered.

Coates writes at one point that “‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies.” But doesn’t this mistake the symptom for the cause? It would be more true to say that “White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect powerful oligarchic profit, and that it has always been able and eager to do so by exploiting anti-black racism to harvest the enormous benefits of a labor force stripped of human rights and dignity. If you believe that “White America” really is dedicated to white power for its own sake, that it seeks the domination of black bodies almost as a blood sport, then how can you even begin to dismantle such a massive structure of evil? If this vision is true, then Coates’s pessimism is indeed justified. But what if it is instead the case that white supremacy is merely a servant—as well as the original grease of laissez-faire capitalism, an arrangement of political economy in which everything is up for sale, including human beings, and which at the inception of the modern European world provided the mercantilists with the international market’s original “liquidity”? If you recognize this—that we are still bound to the illusion that it’s reasonable to live as if everything can be bought and sold, with the profits producing their own justification and all human and environmental costs relegated, at best, to an afterthought—then you can also identify an all-too-human structure of interest that can be actively fought and denounced for its abuses, greed, and fraudulent promises.

Two years after finishing “Between the World and Me,” Richard Wright wrote his “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” in which he famously declared that at “the moment when a people begin to realize a meaning in their suffering, the civilization that engenders that suffering is doomed.” Wright believed that black writers have a special obligation to help people discover this meaning. James Baldwin thought the same: In The Fire Next Time, he ends his letter to his nephew James by reminding him that he too has a rich inheritance to draw upon:

It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton, dammed rivers, built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”

When Baldwin tells his nephew that the black folk whose survival and endurance have brought him forth are poets, he has in mind not the narrow sense of writers of verse, but the largest sense of the word in its Greek root poieses: the will to make, to create, to transform. His invocation of the spiritual “My Dungeon Shook” is meant to serve as a reminder that the moment of fiercest despair can also be the catalyst for piercing clarity, for action and self-liberation. One day, the American state will be forced to acknowledge that all black lives matter, and on that day they will. Coates is deeply skeptical of this ever happening, and understandably so. But like all those who have taken up the pen to strike at America’s racial injustice, he is also the inheritor of a proud tradition that has relentlessly and defiantly believed that we have it in our means to break the spell of oppression, and that speaking truth to power is not an act of despair, but one of candescence.

When Baldwin tells his nephew that the black folk whose survival and endurance have brought him forth are poets, he has in mind not the narrow sense of writers of verse, but the largest sense of the word in its Greek root poieses: the will to make, to create, to transform. His invocation of the spiritual “My Dungeon Shook” is meant to serve as a reminder that the moment of fiercest despair can also be the catalyst for piercing clarity, for action and self-liberation. One day, the American state will be forced to acknowledge that all black lives matter, and on that day they will. Coates is deeply skeptical of this ever happening, and understandably so. But like all those who have taken up the pen to strike at America’s racial injustice, he is also the inheritor of a proud tradition that has relentlessly and defiantly believed that we have it in our means to break the spell of oppression, and that speaking truth to power is not an act of despair, but one of candescence.