You look in the mirror and you see a black body, your black body. You dissect yourself with your eyes, slicing your body in half revealing your interior, revealing your soul. Your soul is covered in a bunch of tiny dark faces, words, stereotypes, laws, and facts. Your soul does not appear to be your soul, for it is impersonal and universal to every black body. You realize you possess your external body, and you walk around in it living your life. But you never realized you alone do not possess your internal body. Your internal body, your soul, is that of every African-American’s. And, your soul reeks of the haunted history of the black bodies from past generations and the generations to come. In the poem “Between the World and Me”, by Richard Wright, and the book Between the World and Me, by Coates, the idea of an omnipresent black soul is present. Both of the pieces of literature use distinct techniques and formats, but come to a common conclusion, that all African-Americans are harassed and conformed by black history, and that all African-Americans must live with this.
The poem “Between the World and Me” was written by Richard Wright in . The poem is imagery-filled and eerie to produce a theme of living, but living with the history. In the poem there is a person, and the person is battling between two aspects of nature. The narrator describes the scene by saying “And through the morning air the sun poured yellow surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull…. And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity for the life that was gone.” (1). There are skulls and bones on the ground, then there is the beautiful, yellow sun smiling down at him. These two images represent life and death, or history and the present. The sun is the optimism of the poem, the optimism for this man’s existence. The sun is shouting at him to keep living. There is nothing he can do about his ancestral history, he just has to accept it and live with it. The skull has a different cry than the sun though. The skulls and bones are a reminder of torture this African-American narrator’s ancestors endured. Together, the two pieces of nature represent blacks standing between death and optimism.
Critic Jelani Cobb says Wright’s poem is about “the way in which history is an animate force, and how we are witnesses to the past, even to that portion of it that transpired before we were born.” (2). What this quote is saying that with this poem Wright is exemplifying how history is part of us. It may have happened 200 years ago, or 20 years ago, but it is a part of us because of who we are. Because of who it happened to, it is a part of us and our identity. The narrator of the poem may not have experienced lynching, but his ancestors did. He did not know the identity being the bones that lay lifeless on the ground, but he knows the soul. He shares the soul with this stranger because they are both black people who are vulnerable to racism and hate. The only difference between him and those bones is that he is living. Besides that, the narrator knows they share the same experiences, life, and fate. Because of that, he has to carry the stranger’s bones with him in his body as he lives on following the sun. This ultimately serves to remind black people to live their live and be optimistic, for they are living, but to remember their people’s history by keeping their guard up and carrying the scars with them, for they are a lesson and reminder of the past of their people.
Decades later, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote his letter to his son using the same title for his book. Aside from the title, Coates’s letter mimics the theme of Wright’s poem. It also gives off the scent of a shared soul. Many elements of Coates’s book create the theme of a universal soul. One passage from his letter is: “The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are… They made us a race, we made ourselves into a people.” (63). The point of view makes this a universal passage. Although the letter is to his teenage son, he decides to publish it for the world to read. If it was personally sent to his son, the “you” would make sense. However, since it is for the audience to read, writing to “you” absorbs the reader into the letter. It also is talking to more than just his son. The letter and the experiences that comprise it fit the lives of all black boys and men, even black girls and women. Black society shares lives with one another.
The murders also shape his and his son’s life. It also shapes all black males lives. When the author was a teenager, there was the death of Prince Jones. Now that the author has a teenage son of his own, he still sees the racially-motivated murder. There was the killing of Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Critic of the autobiography, Darryl Pinckney, says Coates is “sure his son understands that there is no difference between him and Trayvon Martin as a youth at risk because he is black in America. His body is not his own; it is not secure. He can be destroyed by American society.” (3). These murders signify the one face that many faces share. Like all of the slain black men, he is also a black man and so is his son. And, because they are all black men, they share this chance of being the next unjustified murder. Because of this possibility, they must carry Treyvon, Michael, Prince, and Eric with them to remind them of what could happen to their life. These men are all carried in black America’s souls, molding their every move in their fight for survival. But, their beating hearts are a reminder to not just carry the burden, but to keep living.
In an issue on the Journal of Pan African Studies, the writer argues that Coates “answers the questions of what it is like to be a Black person in the U.S. and how to find a way to live within a nation built on the idea of ‘race’ and fact of enslavement.” (1). Coates is saying that the life of every black person is the same since we are all children of the same wicked history, and of the putrid racism. He gives off a bit of an angry and pessimistic tone, but what his diction is really saying is that this racism and this history will live forever. Even though it lives does not mean we stop living. We have to continue to live until our hearts stop. And, because the racism and the history slithers around society, we must find ways to keep living. Survival is a large element of his letter. The black body can’t be killed off if we learn how to survive. We must learn to survive in society and in America. It may be hard to survive, since the nation was not built for us or in our favor, but we have to survive so the black body can live on.
Although the two writers both argue for the singularity of the black soul, they also shared distinctions in their writing. One of the most obvious distinctions between the two writers is the format they used to express their ideas. Richard Wright displayed this theme of fighting to live with the burden of history through a poem, while Ta-Nehisi Coates uses a letter. They are two incredibly unique formats. Wright was his effective, and that can be due to the fact that analyst Bartholomew Brinkman says “poems are eye-catching and, cause a level of care and contemplation.” (3). A poem is more free and creative. It is one of the most fluid formats in writing. It is apparent that Richard Wright uses the poem format to his advantage. He is able to create a thought-provoking idea and daunting scene in a small amount of lines. It is filled with images of lynching and torture, but also with nature and existence. Poems stick with you for they are short but filled with such lengthy topics. Poems leave the readers curious and concerned about the topic. This eventually leads to truly understanding the context, for readers read it over and over again and analyze all of the elements of the poem.
Coates uses a letter, which can also be a fluid format depending on the recipient. Purdue Owl says “letters create unique impressions on readers. It can create intimate community between the reader(s) and writer.” (1). Since the letter is to his son, it can be perceived as very personal and very comfortable. With the pictures he uses, certain topics of conversation, and language one may feel they cannot relate to the letter. However, all of these elements of his letter causes it to reach all readers. It is like a look into his life, a look into his relationship with his son. It is like he is revealing the true lives of African-American men while also bringing light to their suffering and falsely constructed identities created by white America. With the letter, you see a man who loves his son and cares about his well-being. He is showing not all black men are not dangerous. They simply want to live in society and be free. They don’t want to have to worry about being destroyed. The letter serves to contrast true black identity and black identity in the eyes of society. It is like he invites you into his house with this letter. Letters are impactful because they are soul-baring and invoke trust and understanding.
They also are writing to different audiences. Wright writes the poem from a first-person point of view while Coates writes from a second-person point of view. The two different points of view hold different purposes in writing. With Wright and his point of view, it causes the poem to be told to the audience. Pinckney says Wrights “‘I’ recalls that the passive scene has woken up” (2). The narrator is enduring this battle between his life and his history, and the audience is not involved, they are solely listening. It is not an experience of the audience, the audience is on the outside looking in at what this man is going through. In a way, it can be said that this poem was written for white America. It is showing white people what black people are going through, and it is showing them instead of involving them because it is something they can never experience themselves. But, it is something they need to be educated on.
Coates has a more direct approach with his point of view, for the use of the word “you” forces readers into the shoes of black people. Pinckney says the point of view was used to “warn his son… He wants his life to be different from his, and for his son to escape fear.” (2). This extends beyond his son though, the point of view makes it so that he can impact more lives than just his son with the letter. It is inclusive and in a way it is personal and impersonal at the same time. It is impersonal to his son, because it speaks to all eyes that touch the pages, and it is also personal because it is a shared life of many. It is like a speech given to a community of people who can relate to the topic. Black men and women automatically assimilate the experiences and relate to them, because it matches their own, but non-black readers also slip into the black shoes. They may not directly relate to it, but they learn to understand and sympathize with the black body by learning what it is like, and learning to understand the black body.
One can conclude that what Wright, then Coates decades later, argues is that the black soul is scarred by its history. And, no matter how the individual black body appears on the outside, all African-Americans share the same black soul. Wright argues this through a poem, and Coates brings this to attention through a letter to his son, but although the two writers possess distinct structures, the context is identical. They are very eye-opening literary pieces of their generations. Because this destruction of the black body existed then, and still exists now it is dire to have both of the writing pieces. Wright was an advocate for his time, and Coates is the wake-up call for present society. They remind you to wear the scars of your ancestors on your soul, and to use those scars to live. Even though you feel drowned by the putrid past, life is worth living. But the question left unanswered by both of these authors is, how does the black body live in a world unfit for it?