The specter of segregation lay over my adolescence like so many white sheets. Rocky Mount, NC, a place for which my love is only rivaled by my antipathy, a country enclave of temporal stillness, a place still racked by the death throes of the Confederacy, the place where I learned both what it meant to both love my Blackness and fear because of it. And the place where I learned the fullness of the two literary traditions that shape the discussion about that Blackness today.
In eighth grade I was introduced to the Spartan goodness of a Mr. Atticus Finch, a figure transformed from fiction to some semblance of real by Gregory Peck’s booming baritone and bookish, horn-rimmed glasses. There was also the rambunctious Scout and the constellation of White characters flitting in and out to form the story interstitium between the two. On the absolutely periphery was the curiosity of the anguish of Tom Robinson, a character for whom “busting up a chiffarobe” is the only dialogue I have ever remembered.
That same eighth grade year, one day my father, freshly victorious over his doctoral dissertation in African-American history at Howard University, took me to the book store. It was a joy we shared from my earliest memories. Whenever I wanted a book, he took me to buy it, although I suspect that by the size of his current library that he was the main exploiter of that dynamic. For every fiction work I read from a White author, his rule was that I always select a matching nonfiction title or a work by a Black author. On this particular day I chose Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, perhaps under the guise of fooling my father and believing it had some connection to the Wells story of the same name.
By day I read and absorbed–in a classroom in which I was one of two students of color–To Kill a Mockingbird, a story of the war between the vicious fury of violent supremacy and the deafening sound of white pity in the South. Atticus Finch may have represented a great many things, and I believe I did admire him once, but never did he represent that most critical and democratic thing–agency. In fact, as a lawyer acting as the figurative and literary mouthpiece for an oppressed person he represented the exact opposite.
By night I read and absorbed Invisible Man once, twice, three times in the same span. I researched all of the referenced and tried to emulate all of its coolness. I devoured it. My life was lightbulbs and paint cans and jazz. From there it was not too much of a jump to Baldwin and Wright and Hansberry. In particular, I dug into The Fire Next Time with gusto, and it stoked within me the beginnings of my righteous rage and echoed my own burgeoning struggle with my faith. These books, this canon, represented the exact opposite of what To Kill a Mockingbird meant. They were freedom. They were agency. They were encouragements to find my voice and use it.
Words weren’t easy for me as a kid. As a dyslexic, they ran away from me, rearranging themselves into gibberish at whim and playing hopscotch whenever I looked away from the page. I didn’t speak until most other children were toddling about, and to this day, insecurity about my handwriting and organization plagues me. But the Newkirks are nothing if not hard-headed, and I chose to meet the challenge of dyslexia by daring to do the one thing I was told I could not, would not, should not do. I did what I saw my father doing every night in his office behind mountain ranges of pieces of white and yellow paper and musty books. I wrote.
Like my father, the people in my life who taught me to overcome my fear and try to use my voice were all Black writers. There was an autograph he received from Maya Angelou, which I hung up in my room beside comic covers and photos of sports stars. There were the works from Ellison, Baldwin, Morrison, Hansberry, Wright, Angelou, Butler, and Delaney that I bought on those book trips or “borrowed” from my father. As I yearned more towards academia there were King and Mays and DuBois and West and Dyson and Cose. And there was always my father, one stolen yellow manuscript page at a time.
These experiences form a rather long preamble for the events of the week: the release of Harper Lee’s follow-up, Go Set a Watchman and of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a Baldwinesque address to a teenage son by a man identified as the heir apparent to Baldwin by one Toni Morrison. In devouring these releases without sleep as quickly as I could possibly consume them, I awakened that deep sense of conflict and hunger that first disturbed me in the eighth grade.
First there was Lee’s novel. A much-questioned volume, it details a perceived reversal in Atticus’s character, one that puzzled Scout (now, Jean Louise) seemingly as much as it did critics. Atticus is revealed as a staunch segregationist and a legalist, a set of beliefs that somehow allow space for both his defense of Tom Robinson in the first book and his disdain for the NAACP in the second. Jean Louise acts as the audience surrogate, expressing shock and anger at his bubbling racism and culminating in her berating him from a position of power. For some, this is a confusing and illogical turn of events. For some, it is a crucial reversal on the first book’s idyllic view of race, in portraying characters who could fight for some Black characters on some grounds but still be driven by White supremacy to defend segregation. But truthfully, the book is neither.
Above all things, Go Set a Watchman is a case study in and a continuation of the very lack of Black agency and voice displayed in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Black characters exist in a nebula of silent parts, zipping in and out of a morality play in which the sole centers of gravity are Jean Louise and Atticus. Characters like Calpurnia are lost between Jean Louise’s self-righteous indignation and absent-minded journey to discover her true self and Atticus’s blooming bigotry, as Tom Robinson was lost between Atticus’s sternness and the near-comical racism of the mob in the first book. Nowhere is there space for Blackness to breathe, to grow, to voice itself. Perhaps this issue is a manifestation of the central problem of the book: that it was released under dubious conditions of agency by parties secondary to its authorship.
On the other hand and as loathe as I am to say it, lest it dampens my ambition to be the best, Coates has been the major inspiration of the past three years of my writing life and was the major reason I decided to dabble in the hectic life of an essayist. He has been both an aspiration and an unreachable horizon, an easy person to defer to and one who somehow always expressed the words that were in my heart but could never quite translate via the coursing veins of my ink pen. Between the World and Me is a summation of that course. It is not perfect, and as my colleague Josie Duffy points out, it misses a good deal of the mark with respect to the disrespect of Black women’s bodies in particular. This is a vital and salient concern, and while no work can encompass the whole of Blackness, a piece that misses something approximating half of that struggle is rightly criticized. Perhaps this is a domain in which the book’s well-noted brevity is limiting, and a key caveat to any point I make about agency and voice. However, Between the World and Me does manage to manifest much of what has percolated in the back of my (admittedly heteronormative and male) mind about the leviathan of race in America. Its format-a paternal epistolary that manages to remain compelling despite a slight tendency towards recursiveness-also brings me to all of those interactions with my own father and gives me the sight beyond sight to inhabit his fear for me and the future fear for my own.
“And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape[,]” writes Coates in the book’s gripping and elegant first act. This feeling of the need to escape has always been the primary motivation behind my desire to write, and a reason why I gravitated towards the fantastic, first emulating Butler and Delaney before I chose to try on Baldwin. It was my yearning.
The kernel at the core of Coates’s book is of that yearning to express. It is agency in book form, and in his choice to abandon many of the arguments and standards Black intellectual works are usually reduced to repeating, of the obligation to hope and assuage White guilt and of the obligation to endeavor to fix the hole at the center of White supremacy, there is freedom. There’s a reason why Coates’s work inspires so many writers of color to write; because his work represents a sort of freedom that we all yearn to inhabit. The endeavor to find the answers eventually answers itself.
These two books represent a good deal of the literary traditions surrounding Blackness in America. On the one hand, White consumers will take sides over the merits of Atticus Finch’s heel turn versus Jean Louise’s rage, again choosing between the fury of a more outwardly vicious racism and the softer sounds of privilege and paternalism. They will inhabit a world in which lawyers who took up law because of Atticus Finch will anguish, while those who took up law because of Tom Robinson will not, because they do not exist.
But a different galaxy exists, and Between the World and Me begins to open a window or portal to that galaxy, although Coates’s work is not yet gravitic or inclusive enough to sustain that connection for all of us to climb through. Perhaps no one man can create a single work that can function as such, but there is value in that endeavor, in the beautiful struggle. Between the World and Me will be that encouraging voice for many young writers to find their own and build upon it. And for that, among many other things, it is worthy.