The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates

“When people who are not black are interested in what I do, frankly, I’m always surprised. I don’t know if it’s my low expectations for white people or what.” Photo: Lyle Ashton Harris
The Hard
Truths of
After the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. and the hopes of Barack Obama.
Photographs by Lyle Ashton Harris

Late this spring, the publisher Spiegel & Grau sent out advance copies of a new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a slim volume of 176 pages called Between the World and Me. “Here is what I would like for you to know,” Coates writes in the book, addressed to his 14-year-old son. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” 

The only endorsement he had wanted was the novelist Toni Morrison’s. Neither he nor his editor, Christopher Jackson, knew Morrison, but they managed to get the galleys into her hands. Weeks later, Morrison’s assistant sent Jackson an email with her reaction: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died,” Morrison had written. “Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Baldwin died 28 years ago. Jackson forwarded the note to Coates, who sent back a one-word email: “Man.”

Morrison’s words were an anointing. They were also a weight. On the subject of black America, Baldwin had once been a compass — “Jimmy’s spirit,” the poet Amiri Baraka had said, eulogizing him, “is the only truth which keeps us sane.” On the last Friday in June, the day after Morrison’s endorsement was made public and then washed over Twitter, Coates sat down with me at a Morningside Heights bar and after some consideration ordered an IPA. At six-foot-four, he towers over nearly everyone he meets, and to close the physical distance he tends to turtle his neck down, making himself smaller: “A public persona but not a public person,” explained his father, Paul Coates. Ta-Nehisi said he thought ­Morrison’s praise was essentially literary, about the echo of Baldwin’s direct and exhortative prose in his own. The week before, The New ­Yorker’s David Remnick had called the forthcoming book “extraordinary,” and A. O. Scott of the New York Times would soon go further, calling it “essential, like water or air.” The figure of the lonely radical writer is a common one. A writer who radicalizes the Establishment is more rare. “When people who are not black are interested in what I do, frankly, I’m always surprised,” Coates said. “I don’t know if it’s my low expectations for white people or what.”

It had been nine days since the young white supremacist Dylann Roof had massacred nine black churchgoers in Charleston, and Coates, whose great theme is the intractability of racial history, had helped to orient the debate, to concentrate attention on the campaign against the Confederate flag: Even casual tweets he sent out were retweeted hundreds of times. The television behind the bar was tuned to President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, which was just about to start. The broadcast was muted, but Coates noticed the tableau: “There’s a sister over here to the left, she’s natural, no perm, and a very black dude, and then an African-American president.” Coates imagined how this would appear to a 4-year-old white boy: “That’s the world as he knows it,” Coates said. “So all these people saying that symbols don’t mean anything — that’s bullshit. They mean a lot.” Coates has often been a critic of the president from the left — of his instinct to submerge race in talk of class, of his moralizing to black audiences. “I’m going to make a prediction,” he said. “He’s going to say something incredible.”

When Obama began his first campaign for the presidency, Coates was all but anonymous, a journalist in his early 30s who had worked mostly at alt-weeklies and mostly for short stints. But in 2008, he was hired by The Atlantic — to write longer pieces, then to blog — and eventually his commentary formed a counterpoint to the White House line. Against the optimism of the Obama ascendancy, Coates offered a bleaker view: that no postracial era was imminent, that white supremacy has been a condition of the United States since its inception and that it might always be. “ ‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies,” Coates writes to his son. While the president talked about the velocity of our escape from history, Coates insisted that the country was still stuck in its vise. Last year, he wrote an Atlantic cover story titled “The Case for Reparations,” probably the most discussed magazine piece of the Obama era, which detailed the persistence of structural racism — racism by government policy — into the present day. When Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and then Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Walter Scott in South Carolina, it was Coates who seemed to most adeptly digest the central paradox of the time: how, within an increasingly progressive era, a country led by a black president could still act with such racial brutality. In late December, when Funny or Die published a fake text-message chain between the president and his daughters, it had its fictional, radicalized Malia Obama coolly insisting, “I wish Ta-Nehisi Coates was my dad.”

The sudden shift after the massacre, in which southern politicians turned against the Confederate flag, filled Coates with both awe and perplexity. “I mean, I tweeted this out, but I didn’t expect it to happen: ‘You talk about how this makes you feel. Then take down the damn flag,’ ” Coates said. “And hell, they did it! It turns out that was actually what was in motion.” He shook his head. “Shit!”

That Sunday, the Times would give Coates a small role in focusing attention on the flag. More essential, the paper reported, were the public gestures of forgiveness that family members of the victims had offered to Roof. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” the daughter of a slain 70-year-old woman told her mother’s murderer at his hearing. These gestures had moved conservative Christians in a very religious state. Coates believes in the power of social structures, not in the politics of emotion. The consensus account — in which Strom Thurmond’s son State Senator Paul Thurmond looked into the eyes of black fellow citizens at a church service after the massacre and decided that he could no longer defend the flag — reeked of myth. Even the public forgiving, so soon after the slaughter, seemed unreal. “Is that real?” Coates said, watching the service. “I question the realness of that.”

Coates is not a Christian. The heavy force in Between the World and Me — what makes it both unique and bleak — is his atheism. It gives Coates’s writing urgency. To consider the African-American experience without the language of souls and destiny is to strip it of euphemism, and to make the security of African-American bodies even more crucial. It also isolates him from the main black political tradition. “There’s a kind of optimism specifically within Christianity about the world — about whose side God is on,” he said. “Well, I didn’t have any of that in my background. I had physicality and chaos.”

Coates was still wondering about the Charleston family members, Christians forgiving. He splayed his fingers over his brow and covered his eyes, so that as he talked he could not see. “Is it aspirational?” he wondered. “Like, I say, ‘I forgive you’ because I think I’m supposed to?”

On the mute television, something was happening. The ministers were standing up and smiling. To their left, the first African-American president of the United States had lifted his head. He was singing “Amazing Grace.”

Coates with his father on their Park Heights stoop. Photo: Courtesy of Ta-Nehisi Coates

The first time Coates met the president, at an off-the-record White House conversation with liberal opinion writers in 2013, he left disappointed in himself. “Everyone was too deferential, and I was too deferential, too,” he said. The second time, a few months later, he was determined to do better. Coates had been reading Baldwin’s 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, and as he left his home in Harlem for the train station, his wife, Kenyatta Matthews, said to him, “What would Baldwin do?” On the train to D.C., Coates thought about the off-the-record 1963 meeting that Baldwin had brokered between Robert Kennedy and leading black activists, at which Kennedy felt the full force of black anger. (“They seemed possessed,” Kennedy would later say.) Coates arrived at the White House late and, because he had not prepared for rain, wet. He was not wearing a suit but a blazer and jeans. The president was going around the room answering questions on a wide range of topics, handling each expertly, in Coates’s view.

“And the race aspect is not gone from this,” Coates said. “To see a black dude in a room of the smartest white people and just be the smartest dude in the room — it just puts into context all the stuff about ‘Let me see his grades.’ ”

Occupying Coates’s mind were the racial dimensions of universal health care. It had become apparent, as reporters dug through Census data, that as Republican governors opted out of the federal government’s expansion of Medicaid, blacks and Hispanics would be disproportionately left out because of where they lived. Coates wanted the president to take more targeted action to counter this — to make the policy acknowledge race and not just class. Obama said that progressives were doing the best they could. At a certain moment, Coates became self-conscious. “This dispute happens, and all the other journalists are saying, ‘Oh my God, the two black dudes are fighting.’ ”

As the meeting ended, Obama pulled Coates aside. On his blog, the writer had criticized the president for suggesting, during a speech on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, that many African-Americans had “lost our way” and calling for more personal responsibility. The president told Coates he had been unfair. As he was walking away, Obama turned back and said, “Don’t despair.”

Coates took the long walk back to Union Station and found himself thinking about Baldwin. The warm optimism of the early civil-rights movement (the insistence that the universe has a moral arc, the sense of destiny in the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome”) echoed in Obama, but Baldwin had not shared “all of this sentiment and melodrama; he was just so cold,” said Coates. “Baldwin was saying, ‘You should be aware that failure is a distinct possibility.’ That was so freeing.” Coates called Christopher Jackson and asked him why no one wrote like Baldwin anymore, and the editor suggested that he try. The book Coates eventually wrote wasn’t exactly that, though it borrowed its form from The Fire Next Time, part of which is addressed to his nephew. But it argued that what the president had called despair was actually the product of experience.

Coates was born in 1975 and grew up in Northwest Baltimore, in a sprawling family infused with black political consciousness. Paul Coates, who had briefly been a Black Panther and became a radical librarian and independent publisher, had seven children with four different women. Ta-Nehisi’s mother, Cheryl, a schoolteacher, was the last. Northwest Baltimore was sharply segregated — it basically still is — and so though Coates did not grow up poor, he did grow up in proximity to violence. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world,” Coates writes in Between the World and Me. “The nakedness is not an error, nor the import of deviant culture. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of ­policy.” Coates’s first book, The Beautiful Struggle, published in 2008, was a memoir of growing up in this environment as a spacey, conscious kid, head deep in comic books, Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech on his Walkman. The book did not register widely, but the crime novelist Walter Mosley called Coates “the young James Joyce of the hip-hop generation.”

In one way, at least, Coates earned that praise: He could express very deeply the dimensions of fear. He writes of the kids gathered around Mondawmin Mall, across the street from his house, in puffy ’80s Starter jackets: “I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers.” In this environment, the Black History Month ­invocations of Martin Luther King Jr. and the early civil-rights leaders seemed especially discordant: Nonviolence seemed like an impossible standard. Violence was a product of fear; it was also a tool against it. “My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that was exactly what was happening all around us.”

Coates arrived at Howard University in 1993, when he was 17 years old, as Afrocentrism was just beginning to lose strength as an intellectual force, a shift that complicated Coates’s own nationalism, in particular his veneration for Malcolm X. Coates was writing poetry then, and the effort pushed him into a circle of older black writers. They often told him how much more he had to learn. One mentor, the poet Joel Dias-Porter, quit his job and moved into a homeless shelter for two years so that he could spend each day at the Library of Congress, working through an impossibly long list of books he felt compelled to read. Coates developed a similar ritual — sitting down each morning at the Howard University library and requesting three books at a time, battling with the histories of nationalism and integration in his mind.

The happiest sections of Coates’s new book are set at Howard: It is where he met his wife and where he found a “base, even in these modern times, a port in the storm.” In the book he calls Howard “Mecca.” Eventually he dropped out to work as a journalist, first at the Washington City Paper and then at some other alt-weeklies, where he usually was assigned to the race beat, to write about black experience, and though this was in some ways diminishing it also gave him an angle on the world. When Coates was 24, he and Matthews had a son, Samori — whom they named after a West African military leader who routed the French colonists — and moved to Brooklyn. Coates’s personality, built for West Baltimore, was at times an ungainly fit in his new world: He writes of feeling himself swelling toward physical fights, of being conscious of his race, of not feeling comfortable. They did not have much money. For a while, Coates mainly stayed home with Samori. An essay of his from the period is titled “Confessions of a Black Mr. Mom.”

The fear that gives life to Between the World and Me is the fear of a parent for his child. Though the book went through many revisions, Coates said he was always sure that he would end it by describing his meeting with a woman named Mabel Jones, whose son, Prince, had been a friend of his at Howard and who was later killed by a police officer who tracked him from Maryland to Virginia in a case of mistaken identity — he had committed no crime. Mabel Jones was a sharecropper’s daughter who worked to become a radiologist, then sent her children to private schools and made sure to give them things like “jaunts off to Europe.” For Coates, Mabel Jones became not just an emblem of dignity, of “all of the odd poise and direction that the great American injury demands of you,” but also a signal of the impossibility of escaping the tragedies of race, even for well-off blacks. Her son was killed, and the police officer who shot him, a black man himself, was allowed to return to the force. Jones’s death so alienated Coates that when he watched 9/11, slightly stoned, on the roof of his Brooklyn building, he recalls that he felt nothing at all. “You must always remember,” Coates writes to Samori, “that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

Coates with his son, Samori, in the summer of 2001. Photo: Courtesy of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates has borrowed this language from feminist writing. For him, it contained a basic truth, that indignity is always physical. The vulnerability of African-American bodies has become a main theme of the racial protests over the past year under slogans like “I Can’t Breathe.” “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed,” Coates writes. “Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”

Coates’s first piece for The Atlantic was an essay criticizing Bill Cosby, who was then still an icon, for tearing into black audiences about values and responsibility. Soon, the magazine gave him his own blog. The form (intimate, open-ended, inquiring) suited him, and eventually he took up the personal project that had lapsed once he’d left Howard, a study of history. Reading new books, trading notes with his commenters, Coates sharpened his sense of the historical weight of white supremacy: The Civil War was fought over slavery and nothing else; the American Dream could not be separated from slavery because “slavery was the dream.” At the time, most young journalists were leaning on social science for authority — history had a human warmth. Coates noticed the good people on the wrong side of history, suggesting that individual virtue was a weak counter­weight to the pathologies of states. Had he been alive and had means, he tweeted, “I would have owned slaves too.”

A community grew in his comments section, but it was a community of a particular type: liberal, wide-eyed, pining for moral authority — and redemption. “Coates’s creepshow commenters asking him to forgive their sins,” the left-wing critic Fredrik deBoer sardonically described it. Last week on Twitter, a woman asked Coates about the pronunciation of his first name: “I’m really curious what the etymology is that makes the ‘hi’ a ‘hah’ sound?” Coates replied, “It’s an ancient, arcane dialect which we like to call ‘hood.’ ” One irony of Coates’s war on white innocence is that he has arrayed against it an army of white innocents.

In the fall of 2012, Coates told his editor at The Atlantic, Scott Stossel, that he wanted to make a case for racial reparations in the magazine. The case was formless then, but over the following months it took shape as an account of the experience of housing discrimination in Chicago and the way government policy deliberately fenced blacks into particular neighborhoods and denied them the benefits that went to whites nearby.

Coates’s hero was a 91-year-old man named Clyde Ross, who had left the segregated Mississippi Delta, where his family had been unable to keep white people from simply taking their possessions, and come north, only to be trapped by redlining and predatory banking into a home loan that he had no hope of repaying. Ross became an activist, but in Coates’s alchemy, he became a symbol of the presence of history, a physical reminder that these crimes did not happen so long ago. The great theme of the piece is plunder (the word appears 14 times) — of what was taken from African-Americans specifically because they were black and not because they were poor, and specifically because of government policy, and recently. Reparations were morally necessary, Coates argued, because the harm was so tangible. He wrote, “Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient.” The essay had a moral consequence too, to refocus the idea of reparations. Coates’s reparations weren’t about the country cleansing itself of original sin. They were restitution to be paid for property that continues to be taken. 

That article appeared two months before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. Coates’s view of the world was growing starker. “It’s only in the last 18 months that he’s said he’s a nonbeliever,” said Jelani Cobb, a close friend of Coates’s since Howard and a historian at the University of Connecticut. If you did not believe in the soul, then police killings took on especially high stakes because the body was all you had. Coates said he would not have written Between the World and Me in 2008. His view was less bleak then, less concretized by history. “I have become radicalized,” he said.

Coates’s quarrel isn’t really with Obama, in the end, or with civil-rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. It is instead with the metaphors through which they made a compromise with the country — Obama as the embodiment of hope and King the embodiment of dreams. These formulations gave white liberals a pass. Coates plays with both these words in his book, reconsidering them, twisting them around. In the very first scene, he disdains white Americans’ “reveling in a specious hope”; later, he urges his son to accept “the preferences of the universe itself,” among them the preference for “struggle over hope.” The Dream became a controlling metaphor for white innocence. “That what your ancestors did doesn’t matter,” Coates explained. “That you went out to the suburbs, and the houses grew from nothing and it’s not contaminated by anything. The idea that you’re entitled to it, and people who don’t have it are either pathological or lower than you. That nothing’s wrong.”

Part of what distinguishes Coates is that he is not interested in uplift. Obama’s insight into his own biography was that it revealed American progress. Coates saw far more stasis running in the background of his own life. When he spoke in Charleston, Obama took his metaphor from “Amazing Grace.” Through God’s grace, the president said, Americans could now see the legacy of brutality that the Confederate flag embodied clearly. Coates’s writing takes an almost opposite position: that religion is blindness, and that if you strip away the talk of hope and dreams and faith and progress, what you see are enduring structures of white supremacy and no great reason to conclude that the future will be better than the past.

“That’s the thing that linked Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Coates said. “People say Malcolm was a pessimist. He was a pessimist about America. But he was actually very optimistic. Malcolm very much believed in the dream of nationalism. He believed we could do it. And Martin believed in the dream of integration. He believed that black people could be successful if they did x, y, and z.” Coates did not share that optimism: African-Americans are a minority in America, and he sees limits to what they can control. “I suspect they were both wrong. I suspect that it’s not up to us.”

Coates with his son, Samori, in the summer of 2013. Photo: Courtesy of Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Monday after the president’s eulogy in Charleston, Coates flew to Colorado for the Aspen Ideas Festival. Private jets were scattered over the tarmac, each sleek and bony as a fish skeleton. Aspen is a junket to end all junkets. Tickets cost up to $9,000; there are pop-up planetariums; at sponsor dinners, Atlantic writers sometimes stand up from their tables, forks clinking against glasses, and discourse for three minutes about, say, mass incarceration. The speakers are ideologically promiscuous. The collision of real intellectuals and real money is surreal.

The Atlantic invited Coates to the festival for the first time in 2008, when he was still a freelancer. He found it disorienting. At The Atlantic’s Publisher’s Dinner, he wound up talking with a very wealthy man who had made his money in department stores, who was telling a story about lending Peter Jennings his yacht. Coates liked him. “He was talking about how that morning he had gone out and taken his dog up into the mountains and seen a moose. And I was like, ‘Damn, that’s your life?’ Not in a mad way, I just did not know that this was what people did.”

Coates is more comfortable here now. That afternoon, he was wearing a red T-shirt that said MAKE CORNBREAD NOT WAR, which everyone complimented. He still notices the wealth, but it does not especially faze him; he has a theory about the ideological profile of the attendees (split between Republicans and Democrats, but with very few real conservatives); he knows which barbecue places are actually good and which restaurants will overcharge you. It was sunny and immaculate and the crowd was diverse in a way that made you, or at least me, think warmly about America. Soon Coates would walk toward a shuttle into Aspen for dinner, shortening his steps to keep behind the penguinlike form of Bill Kristol, also waiting for a ride. Coates gestured. “It would be very easy to come here and then complain about people making me have all these dinners and lunches with sponsors and how I’d much rather be out there standing with the people on 125th and Lenox,” Coates said. “But truthfully I’m very happy to be here. It’s very nice.”

The next morning, Coates debated Mitch Landrieu, the Democratic mayor of New Orleans, on the sources of American violence. The exchange was moderated by Coates’s friend and colleague Jeffrey Goldberg. The mayor — shaven-headed, coachlike — had made crime in black neighborhoods a political focus. It was an issue on which he was accustomed to being the good guy. The search engine Bing had sponsored an app that allowed audience members to rate the speakers in real time. Landrieu said he hoped they liked him. Coates said, a little masochistically, he hoped they hated him.

Landrieu seemed mindful of all the ways a well-meaning white liberal in a situation like this might embarrass himself. He knew all the statistics about the scale of murders in African-American communities and mentioned them; he stated the problem in a way that focused on blacks as victims of violence rather than perpetrators; he told the audience that he had recently personally apologized for slavery; he said the core issue was “a pattern of behavior that has developed amongst young African-American men since 1980.” Coates asked if the change in 1980 wasn’t simply the increased prevalence of handguns. Landrieu said that was part of it. Then he talked about personal responsibility. “If you knocked me off the chair last week, that’s on you, but if you come back and I’m still on the floor this week, that’s on me.”

“It is my fault if I knocked you off the chair,” Coates said.

“I didn’t say it wasn’t,” said the mayor.

“No, it’s never not my fault that I knocked you off the chair.”

Landrieu started to talk about “black-on-black crime,” then retreated, saying he might be using the wrong words. Coates said the term didn’t offend him: “I think it’s actually inaccurate.” The plain fact, he said, was that when black people killed one another, the victims were their neighbors. They didn’t kill their neighbors because they were black. Inner-city violence, he said, had everything to do with the legacy of structural neglect in the inner city and nothing at all to do with culture. Even from the cheap seats, it was clear that Landrieu was struggling, that there was some turn in the politics of race that he had not fully comprehended, some way in which the old Clintonite phrasings were failing. In their place was a more radical language, of structuralism and supremacy. Now that language has a place in Aspen.

Coates’s book is, he said, “oddly conservative” in its sense of the futility of individuals confronting the structure of white supremacy, in its pessimism about what can be changed. Goldberg asked what he would do if he were in Landrieu’s position — surely there was something, “I don’t know what I’d do if I were mayor, but I could tell you what I’d do if I was king.” He’d let criminals out of prison, he said. “And, by the way, I include violent criminals in that.” Goldberg asked what he meant by “violent.” “Gun crime, too,” Coates said.

There is a radical-chic crowd assembling around Coates. The oddity is that there is no obvious opposing force. Conservatives have not focused on him; the old anti-structuralist wing of liberalism has faded. In Aspen, even people who actually disagreed with him seemed to want to believe they did not. A woman in a nautical top (“Ta-Nehisi, I think you’re the greatest,” she began) asked Coates whether, in addition to structural solutions, black icons ought to do more to condemn crime. She mentioned “Oprah, Jay Z, whoever the kids relate to.” Coates patiently brought up the Charleston families forgiving the man who murdered their loved ones. “There’s no lack of effort on behalf of black people,” he said. “I think black folks are doing just fine.”

Late one evening at Aspen, Coates was in a lounge with some of the conference’s other speakers. Things were a little bit boozy. Melody Barnes, formerly the president’s domestic-policy adviser, sailed by. Goldberg monologued jokes from a couch. Everyone in the room was almost exactly equally famous — just a little bit famous — but somehow the evening seemed to hinge on when NPR’s Michele Norris would arrive. A friend of Coates’s was back from a conference-sponsored tour of a marijuana-grow operation, a little high and with product in her backpack. Coates inquired with interest about how she had procured it. The friend said that Coates had it all wrong, that this was Colorado in 2015 and no evasions were required, that all you had to do was go down to the store.

Progress was in the air — days after the Confederate flag had fallen and gay marriage had been legalized across the country, here we were in a place where you could buy marijuana by walking into a store. The changes seemed to speak to the great question of the late Obama era: Would the half-century-long era of increasing prosperity and expanding human freedom prove to be an aberration or a new, permanent state? To Coates, the long arc of history was simply too strong, too rooted in human nature. From Baldwin’s writing, he had concluded that though struggle was essential, progress was not ordained. If white supremacy were ever eradicated, Coates said, he suspected it would simply be because the country had found “a new peon class,” someone else to kick around.

“Chaos is what we have,” he said. “That is what I believe. If to the end of its existence America harbors white supremacy, I don’t know how remarkable that would be. France has dealt with anti-Semitism since its inception.” America was built by humans, he said. “These things tend to have flaws.”

What a strange, dark, beguiling place America is. It killed Prince Jones. It reveres Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Coates said he would not have written Between the World and Me in 2008.“I have become radicalized.” Photo: Lyle Ashton Harris

Coates is leaving the country. In a few weeks, he’ll move to Paris with his wife and son for a year. Part of the attraction is simple pleasure. Part of it is the intellectual project of viewing state supremacy and race in another place, to discern whether America is truly exceptional or not. Part of it is the welcome exchange of one social mask for another: Because his French is not so smooth yet, he says, he is seen first as American in Paris rather than as black, and this is a relief.

Lately Coates has been putting himself through rituals of self-improvement: He has been learning to swim, and he has been learning French — conjugating verbs, aligning tenses. One Friday morning at the end of June, his instructor at the Berlitz school in Rockefeller Center asked him about the upcoming trip. In French, Coates said, “My wife tells me that when I am in France I am a different person.” Madame Danielle expressed surprise. “A different person,” he insisted. “Very extroverted. Very nice. Just different.”

Paris carries with it reminders of the black intellectuals who moved there before: Richard Wright, and especially Baldwin. “I think my exile saved my life,” Baldwin wrote in Esquire in 1961, “for it inexorably confirmed something which Americans appear to have great difficulty accepting. Which is, simply, this: a man is not a man until he’s able and willing to accept his own vision of the world, no matter how radically this vision departs from that of others.” To be clear, he added: “When I say ‘vision’ I do not mean ‘dream.’ ”

Coates’s vision is already clear. In the chapter of his book set in Paris, Coates finds himself ruminating on the old Baltimore codes that took him too long to shake. “What I wanted was to put as much distance between you and that blinding fear as possible,” Coates writes to his son, about the allure of Paris. “I wanted you to see different people living by different rules.” Travel is an ordinary, bourgeois desire for one’s children: “I want him to see more than I saw,” Coates said. It is also the instinct of a survivor, who realizes his home is fundamentally inhospitable: to keep an eye on the exits, and to map out the routes of escape.

*This article appears in the July 13, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.