Vessels of Flesh And Bones

Policing and Racial (Dis)Identifications in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me

  • Eva Puyuelo Ureña
Keywords: Ta-Nehisi Coates, racism, policing, phenomenology, empathy


The year when Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015) was published has gone down as the deadliest year for black youth at the hands of policemen, with no less than 1,134 murders recorded. As he states in many interviews, this is one of the reasons that led Coates to pen down his work —to publicly lament so many losses; to confront the difficulties to mourn such violent and untimely deaths; and to shed light on the murderous racist practices that black individuals deal with on a daily basis. To do so, Coates embarks on a journey through history in which he memorializes many black individuals who, until now, have lost their lives in racist violent attacks —from his friend Prince Jones and other several well-known individuals murdered in the last decades, such as Michael Brown or Sean Bell, to, as Toni Morrison puts it, “the disremembered and unaccounted for” (2010, 323). Far from only providing Coates and his son with crucial information about the sociality of blackness, witnessing the death of so many also instils in both a feeling of belonging. Coates’s attempt at developing communal bonds through his narration riffs on the concept of “bottomline blackness”, which Elizabeth Alexandercoined in her analysis of the public responses to Rodney King’s beating, which she regards as an incident that ended up “consolidat[ing] group affiliations” (78) and forging a “traumatized collective historical memory” (79). Drawing on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s celebrated memoir, and bearing into consideration Coates’s telling his son that “there is no real distance between you and Trayvon Martin” (2015, 25), this paper engages in the ongoing discussion about whether literary representations of racist bigotries can foster empathic relations or, on the contrary, disavow easy identification from readers.