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 Folk and 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?