From the very first page, “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a commentary on the current state of affairs with regards to the treatment of black bodies. The body is a recurring theme in Coates’ book, and in no context is it more powerful than when he describes the consequences of having a black body on the s
treets of America. Coates struggles with the systematic oppression and aggression shown towards black people, and particularly when these concepts are applied to how he is raising his son. Written as an open letter to his child, “Between the World and Me” expresses a father’s fear and frustration that the safety of his family is always under threat from those who should be protecting it.
In Part II of the book, Coates dives straight into his experiences with police brutality in the late 1990s – early 2000s. Most poignantly, he describes the death of his Howard University acquaintance, Prince Jones. Jones was killed in what was revealed to be a convoluted wild goose chase by an officer known to be unstable. He was “murdered by the men who should have been his security guards.” This story is all too familiar to the news-watching public of the past five years. An innocent person in possession of a black body is falsely accused of inciting violence towards a police officer, who shoots, tases, or strangles without hesitation – it’s almost formulaic. “Between the World and Me” is a message to Coates’ son, a teenager in today’s world. He references the victims of police brutality in recent years; Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray, just to name a few. The almost endless examples of those taken by police aggression illustrates the deep-seated problems explored in the text.
Coates says that the death of an innocent black person at the hands of the police is not about the individual officer, but rather the social climate of the country. America quietly sanctions the actions of the trigger-happy. This parallels another reflection, in which he described the trap that children with black bodies are forced into: street vs. school “if the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later.” “Those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society would say ‘he should have stayed in school,’ and then wash its hands of him.” Coates goes on to say that the intentions of any individual educator do not matter, however noble they may be, as long as the institution remains slanted. This statement is a macabre comparison to his statement that forgiving a single officer for his heinous deeds is irrelevant because the system cannot be forgiven. “The officer carries with him the power of the American state, and the weight of American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.” The disturbing connection between the education system and the justice system in America, seemingly set against those in possession of black bodies, paints a picture of constant discrimination from the moment a black child is entered into the system.
Coates expresses his frustration that from day one, his son has to grow up “perfect.” That is to say, that if he makes any single error, that error can be interpreted as a death warrant, just like “Eric Garner’s anger… Trayvon Martin’s mythical words… Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd…” He speaks of the difficulty that his son, just 15 years old at the time the book was written, has with the news about Michael Brown’s killer being acquitted. He says that there is no way to comfort a young person, who still has hope in the world for justice, when something so unjust takes place. Coates’ own father could not comfort his son either, beating him for putting himself at risk and repeating the mantra “either I can beat him, or the police.” Although approached differently, we see a multi-generational struggle to cope with the long-standing reality of police brutality in America.
Trying to understand the trend of police brutality against black people is a daunting task. While Coates grapples with it on an emotional level, it can also be powerful to approach the issue from the perspective of raw data. In fact, a deeper reading of the emotional struggle can be attained by knowing the facts. Websites such as mappingpoliceviolence.org share a wealth of data concerning the killing of black people in the United States by police. Not only does this site provide the statistics of this nationwide issue, but it also contains the names, photos, and stories of victims, turning the numbers back into real people.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 90.
 Ibid, 24.
 Ibid, 33.
 Ibid, 79.
 Ibid, 103.
 Ibid, 96.
 Ibid, 82.
Featured image via nvcopblock.org