Both will be published on Tuesday, July 14, 2015:
What Baldwin diagnoses as white America’s pitiful need for innocence, Coates refers to repeatedly as “the Dream”: “The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts,” he writes early on. “The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake… The Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” Whereas Baldwin warns his nephew, “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto… You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity… that you were a worthless human being,” Coates’s brilliant innovation is not to articulate but to embody the point, drawing on his hemmed-in childhood in 1980s and ’90s West Baltimore. He sketches with an axiomatic precision what such a terrible assertion means in stark human terms.
What “Between the World and Me” does better than any other recent book I can think of is relentlessly drive home the point that “racism is a visceral experience.” As Coates so compellingly explains, “It dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” To be black in the ghetto of his youth “was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” Throughout this book, he describes being in an at times feverish, at times numb-inducing fear for the safety of his own body. Here he is as a schoolboy in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, suddenly aware that a slightly older black boy with a pistol holds his life in the crook of his finger; here he is on the eve of fatherhood, stopped by a Prince George’s County police officer and terrified that one mistake — or less than that — could render Samori fatherless before he is born. Crucially, both of these threats for Coates amount to exactly the same thing; both flow from the same poisoned wellspring of white supremacy that irrigated a country with the categorical disrespect for black life.
In “Mockingbird,” Atticus was a role model for his children, Scout and Jem — their North Star, their hero, the most potent moral force in their lives. In “Watchman,” he becomes the source of grievous pain and disillusionment for the 26-year-old Scout (or Jean Louise, as she’s now known).
While written in the third person, “Watchman” reflects a grown-up Scout’s point of view: The novel is the story of how she returns home to Maycomb, Ala., for a visit — from New York City, where she has been living — and tries to grapple with her dismaying realization that Atticus and her longtime boyfriend, Henry Clinton, both have abhorrent views on race and segregation.