Ta-Nehisi Coates, hailed by many as today’s James Baldwin, won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night for “Between the World and Me,” a personal account of his black male experience in the United States. Last month, during a reading at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Coates invited book readers into his world– a poetic, philosophical place that interrogates “the struggle” in and of itself.
Sonia Sanchez, one of the leaders of the 60s and 70s Black Arts Movement, opened that Friday evening with an arousing poem. The room felt like a black and white congregation–mostly middle-aged white Americans, faithfully waiting for this revered atheist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to steer the uncomfortable roller coaster ride of “plunder,” “the body,” and white public policy.
The concept of freedom, for the white audience (the theme of the evening), was the act of freeing oneself from the social construct of whiteness–and for the sprinkle of black Americans in the room, it was about freeing oneself from the white gaze. Coates uncompromising take on hope, which, for him, wasn’t his job as a writer to entertain, made the crowd focus, primarily, on his unapologetic reportage of the black human condition in America. He explored it with his beautiful writing, which often reads like a prose poem.
And together, the very respectful, attentive crowd navigated systemic racism and structural inequality through a barrage of Ta-Nehisi’s historical facts and numbers–his anecdotal stories added much needed context for how he reconciles with the white denial that permeates society in the face of obvious pain and plunder, and the acknowledgement of black beauty in the unsettling landscape of brutalized bodies. He even embodied comedy in the way he explained his own vulnerabilities and imperfections.
During a reading of one passage, a gorgeous description of the The Yard at Howard University, his alma matter, he stopped the crowd to help him pronounce “scions,” explaining how the writing process is too much of a silent endeavor. The gorgeous description of The Yard brought to light the essence of well-developed black characters who occupied that particular free space:
“There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were the high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses. It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of ‘Redemption Song,’ each in a different color and key.”
For Coates, individual stories drive the American narrative of pain and plunder. He dedicated the National Book Award to his friend Prince Jones, who’s death in the hands of an undercover police officer, is essentially at the core of his book. But the book was written to his son Samori, which immediately brings up comparisons to “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin’s letter to his own nephew.
Vinson Cunningham, writer for New York Magazine, says their writing “deploy opposing styles,” but Cunningham also acknowledged the main similarity:
“There’s much beyond this brand of public relations to link Between the World and Me and The Fire Next Time, wrote Cunningham. “After all, the books share a perennially important theme: the abiding problem of the color line, and the cost of that problem to black and white Americans alike.”
For Americans who are often struggling with perpetual black/white binary paradigm, Ta-Nehsis Coates placed everything into a worldly perspective. It’s perhaps his only way to present the subjective idea of hope. It’s up the readers to make those connections and place more emphasis on systemic issues than interpersonal issues.