Coates’ ‘Between the World And Me;’ and the Legacy of Richard Wright’s ‘Big Boy Leaves Home.’
I attended the stage adaptation of Ta’Nehisi Coates’ ‘Between the World And Me,’ at the Kennedy Center, in Washington D.C. the other night. I immediatley began thinking about Richard Wright’s short story collection, ‘Uncle Tom’s Children’ sitting there listening to the reading segments, listening to Jason Moran’s running soundtrack in the background, and looking at the clips on screen that sought to bring Coates’ thoughts to mind.
In particular, I thought of Wright’s story from the famous collection, ‘Big Boy Leaves Home.’
‘Big Boy Leaves Home’ is the story of three young black boys who swim in the wrong creek in Mississippi. Their carelessness results in the death of a white girl and then follows the death of two of the black boys. Big Boy, lone survivor of the episode, is left to try to survive, avoid the omnipresent lynch mob and Jim Crow rules of the roads, and make it out of the South, to the North, and safety.
Fundamentally, Big Boy’s story is every black boy and young man, and even, man. You soon realize that you must survive white supremacy and national oppression and that violence it brings. My friend, Ta’Nehisi Coates even tells his son, Samori that he must find a way to survive. He can’t, Coates writes, save him. He must figure that out.
Coates’ book is named after a Wright poem. Wright only wrote a small number of long form poems and ‘Between The World And Me,’ is one of them, and perhaps, his best. It is, in effect, about a black person who did not survive. It is in the famous Wright naturalist tradition.
Coates’ constantly gets linked to James Baldwin by critics and scholars and reviewers. Wright is missing from these reviews much of the time. Whereas Baldwin did not want to reduce black life to just the black struggle against Jim Crow and the tragedy that comes; Coates, in ‘Between the World…’ does a very good job of often simply stating the obvious: yes, black people, in America, most of them, are oppressed, and are almost all in the crosshairs of a violent history and system and does not value their lives, especially young black boys, like my son.
We are all, in other words, Big Boy. It is the autobiography of black life in America, on some level. Frederick Douglass, Henry ‘Box’ Brown, Nat Turner, Malcolm X, etc., all of us, want to survive and/or leave this place, on some level.
‘Uncle Tom’s Children,’ the book, begins with an essay (before the stories) called ‘The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.’ It is Wright discussing how to try to navigate the world in the South he had to navigate, with the possibility of racial violence always looming. ‘Between the World…’, on some level, captures this in the modern age; only, it is not Jim Crow life, but life under white supremacy that is manifested in these shootings of unarmed black men by police officers (usually white male officers). It is the modern world of white supremacy. Maybe not the New Jim Crow but maybe so. But Big Boy explains it all. He is hiding out, waiting for the truck. His friends are dead. He must go. He has to go. No one can save him but himself.