I first read Between the World and Me in my high school English class. It’s a memoir written in 2015 by American cultural critic Ta-Nahesi Coates. Written as a letter, Coates describes his worries for his son who is growing up Black differently than he did, with far more hopes and dreams, which makes him all the more fragile. Coates laments for the loss of his son’s innocence as he grappled with the shooting death of Michael Brown, “ You knew things at 11 that I did not know when I was twenty-five…Perhaps you were crying because in that moment you understood that even your relatively privileged security can never match a sustained assault launched in the name of the dream” (130). The book opens with a quote from the 1935 poem by the same name. This poem, penned by Richard Wright, recounts the narrator stumbling into a clearing and onto the scene of a lynching:
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
This Black History Month I’ve been thinking about how, although they are written over 80 years apart, both texts take deeply intimate looks at the Black experience as the authors know it, but from largely different temporal standpoints. Holding these two in conversation lets me not only acknowledge what’s grown and changed in the Black literary canon over time, but what’s also stayed the same.
What is most interesting to me is that both texts address what I refer to as the Black Tax — or the concept that one’s suffering is experienced by many several times over– in two markedly different ways. The term is usually used in economics, but in the texts we can take it to refer to the intergenerational trauma one carries as a Black person that never stops collecting interest. In the poem, the narrator is never given characterization outside of the lynched man’s pain. The lynched man paid the ultimate price, and yet a complete stranger, who happens to stumble upon his bones, so long after his death that the bones are dry, aches with him. He burns with him. He suffers by the same hands. The poem tells the reader that as a Black person, your suffering is never truly yours alone, it is a burden that is not made lighter by sharing, but instead multiplies. Coates writes on this same concept, but in the context of fear for his son. Coates writes of the pain he feels hearing of the innocent deaths of Black youth by the hands of the police in the United States. He notes the pain his son feels at this as well, knowing that no matter how much more privileged he is than Coates was at his age, he is still not safe. He even suggests that this privilege hurts his son more, because he has seen what there is to lose; it is more painful to have freedom snatched away than to have never had it all.
Whereas Wright’s poem remains very singularly focused on the lynched man’s suffering as a moment in time, the book has the freedom to take a step outside of one point of view. Without condescension, Coates warns his son not to be blinded by the progress and tolerance he may see, “What I am saying is that it does not all belong to you, that the beauty in you is not strictly yours and is largely the result of enjoying an abnormal amount of security in your black body” (130). He puts it plainly that modern liberalism and exercises in tolerance are not a buffer for today’s youth and the far reaching effects of cross-generational inequality and racism. Between the World and Me is the literary equivalent of tough love — it may be difficult to hear, but it comes from a place of wisdom gained over time.
While Coates prioritizes lessening the burden for future generations and looking forward, in Wright’s context, the wound is still too fresh to begin moving past. The poem impresses upon the reader a prediction of the future; that this tragedy will have infinite repercussions. After he experiences the lynched man’s death, the tone shifts to a glassy, shocked state, and repeats the imagery of “yellow surprise” in the man’s decomposed skull. The same image is seen in the onset of the poem, except now the victim is the narrator. By using this cyclical format Wright maintains that no matter the brevity of the wickedness, its implications for the future, and other Black people, are long lasting, even if their exact nature cannot be determined yet. He establishes that I am you and you are me and our suffering is that of one. The horror of the image he sees before him consumes him, metaphorically and physically, “The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into my flesh”. After the narrator is retraumatized, the poem offers no hope for an improved future for tomorrow’s youth. It ends with acceptance of his fate, “now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull”.
Reading it now, I find the poem comforting. It lets me know I do not grieve in secret. In such a violent time and space for Black people, Wright stood as a figure who weathered the storm and knew the suffering of others as his own. At the same time, to me, Coates’s letter also feels intimate in his guidance as he passes down lessons he hopes to impart upon the younger generation– without them having to be learned the hard way. The works show the progression of Black cultural criticism as well as the continuation of the written tradition. Although a lot has changed with the passage of time, much of the commentaries are timeless. Separated by era, they are united by cultural experience.