Ta-Nehisi Coates and the History Our Kids Need to Contemplate

Toni Morrison rightly compares Ta-Nehisi Coates to James Baldwin. I hope all high school students read Coates' Between the World and Me, "The Case for Reparations," and/or his other journalism. I have my doubts that enough students are reading Coates in class, so I'll offer some of his insights that should be worked into schools' standards of instruction.

Coates shares a letter to his teenage son with us. Teachers should share his writing with our students. Coates is pleased that his son will be able to know about the whole world, but even as he expresses the "cosmopolitan wish," Coates recalls "the old power of ancestry ..." He wants his son "to know the world in its entirety," and that it can't be found "in the schools, alone, nor on the streets, alone." Referring to the famous insult by Saul Bellow, he wants "'Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus' to immediately be obvious to you."

Coates tells his son that there is strength in the hood and wisdom in those streets, and that he must respect the common struggle. When doing so, Coates reminds his son "that wisdom is not unique to our people," but "I think it has special meaning to those of us born out of mass rape."

I hope history teachers already introduce students to the complex story of the concept of "race," and how it comes from history, economics and power relationships, not biology. I doubt many of us convey that lesson as concisely as Coates, who explains that "naming 'the people' has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy." In other words, "race is the child of racism, not the father."

Coates realizes that white Americans also are a "new people." They were Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite and Jewish before they were white. White people are "like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning, divorced from the machinery of power." Coates finally concludes, "They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people."

From an early age, Coates was politically conscious. Although he did not feel comfortable in school, he was home in the library. He "was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people's interests." And, Coates teaches his son the lesson that all teachers should pass on to their students, that "questions matter as much, perhaps more than the answers." In fact, it was this quest that informs Coates's journey of "searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me."

The young Coates believed "the key to all life lay in articulating the precise difference between 'the Black Aesthetic' and 'Negritude." In college, he becomes justifiably upset about Saul Bellow's question of who is the Zulu Tolstoy. The way he tells the story indicates that Coates's anger was so intense that at first he did not seem outraged by the behavior of the Central African Queen Nzinga. She responded to an imperialist by ordering one of her advisors to get on all fours and become a human chair.

Fortunately, Coates's professors at Howard University had seen "Malcomites" like him before. They saw it as "their duty to disabuse me of my weaponized history." The professors helped Coates understand that Tolstoy is everyone's Tolstoy.

Coates is well-known for his research on the case for reparations for African-Americans to compensate for some of the harm of slavery, Jim Crow and more subtle discrimination, such as that which was incorporated into the GI Bill. High school teachers should draw upon his explanation why we need to teach civil rights breakthroughs as parts of the seamless web of history. While we must celebrate victories, we must see them in their full complexity. We can't disconnect emancipation in the Northern colonies from the Revolutionary War and Southern emancipation from "the charnel house of the Civil War." To understand black people's emancipation from Jim Crow, we must study World War II.

I suspect that Coates acknowledges the good that was done by the New Deal, the post-WWII Fair Deal and the GI Bill, but I'm not sure that enough history teachers understand the truth that today's ghettos are "as planned as any subdivision." Regardless of whether we all agree, Coates's description of post-war housing policy as "an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies" is bound to stimulate a class discussion.

Once high school students are thinking anew about ways of connecting the dots of economic and political history with the history of racism and discrimination, they will be better prepared for coming to grips with the deaths of Michael Brown, Travon Martin, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Kajieme Powell and Jordan Davis, Sean Bell, and so many other blacks killed by police. Before tackling those contemporary issues, however, Coates sets the stage for wrestling with those issues with his personal story about the death of his fellow Howard student, Prince Jones.

Coates places the police shooting of Jones in Prince Georges County which he describes as a "great enclave of black people who seemed, as much as anyone, to have seized control of their bodies." Coates explained that black people in PG County "were comfortable and had 'a certain impatience' with crime." He could understand why blacks seeking their share of the American Dream would crave order because he remembered his fearful childhood, "What I would have not given, back in Baltimore, for a line of officers, agents of my country and my community, patrolling my route to school!"

But, Coates concludes, "Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all of the fears that marked it from birth." Moreover, even black PG County cops "only view us with the same contempt as the society that sent them." Such a statement is guaranteed to spark an exciting class debate; I'm curious how many times students engaging in such an exchange will argue for or against Coates's use of the word "only." Regardless, students will inevitably become contemplative when grappling with his conclusion, "The Dream of acting white, of talking white, of being white, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in Chicago ..."

Finally, Between the World and Me raises the implicit Standard of Instruction: Struggle. We must struggle "not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life." Students must keep up the struggle to ask questions and understand the full complexity of the world to "preserve the sanctity of your mind."