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Howard Men

Prince Jones, Carlton Jones, and the evasions of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

· 57 min read
Howard Men
L–R: Prince C. Jones Jr., Ta-Nehisi Coates, Carlton B.Jones.

My only Mecca was, is, and shall always be Howard University.
~Ta-Nehisi Coates

Veritas et Utilitas (Truth and Service)
~Howard University motto

I. “A Cold-Blooded Murder”

Ta-Nehisi Coates has told the story of Prince Jones’s death on September 1st, 2000, at the hands of a Prince George’s County undercover officer, many times in various formats over the past two decades. The most notable account of this incident appears in his National Book Award-winning 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me. Sometimes “they” killed Jones, his spirited and charismatic Howard University classmate, even though the officer and Jones were the only two people present during the early-morning encounter and all 16 shots, five of which struck Jones in the back, were fired by that officer. Sometimes, Coates acknowledges that the officer, like Jones, was black. Other times, he remains silent on that point, allowing readers and listeners to assume what they will—that the officer is white, surely, and that the killing was an early harbinger of a familiar contemporary storyline evoked by the names Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Still other times, as in his memoir, Coates finesses the issue of the officer’s race until he’s midway through the story, then downplays the importance of that detail.

As stricken as Coates was by Jones’s death, as familiar as he is with the particulars of the case, as intent as he is on bearing witness to Jones’s loss in his writings, speeches, and interviews, there are two facts about the black officer who shot and killed his friend that Coates intentionally mutes. The first is the officer’s name: Carlton B. Jones. (The two Jones men are unrelated.) Coates has publicly named the officer only a handful of times: in a 2001 essay for Washington Monthly; in a brief 2008 note in the Atlantic; and in a 2012 essay for the same magazine titled, “Fear of a Black President,” later republished in We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017).

Carlton Jones remains unnamed in Between the World and Me and in the major interviews—for “Fresh Air,” “All Things Considered,” and with Charlie Rose—that Coates gave while he was promoting his book. This elision makes sense. Refusing to name the officer who killed his friend is a principled way of refusing to acknowledge the officer’s humanity. Irrespective of his race, he’s just a cog in a malevolent system that has “black bodies” in its sights: distilled to its essence, that is the argument leveled by Between the World and Me. “A cold-blooded murder” is what Coates called Prince Jones’s death in his 2001 Washington Monthly essay, but by the time he published his memoir in 2015, he had shifted his emphasis. “[I]n some inchoate form,” he wrote then, “I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.”

The second and more salient fact about the officer that Coates leaves out of the story altogether—avoiding it with what appears to be scrupulous care—is that Carlton Jones, too, was a Howard man: a fellow habitué of “the Mecca,” as Coates termed the storied dreamscape of black empowerment that was his and Prince Jones’s alma mater. Carlton, who spent a year-and-a-half on campus (1988–90) after prepping at a military college, had already left Howard by the time Prince (1992–2000) and Ta-Nehisi (1993–99) arrived. None of the three young men ended up graduating. But Carlton Jones—the supposedly rogue investigator who murdered Coates’s friend and muse—was indeed Coates’s secret sharer, if not quite his classmate, at the nation’s preeminent HBCU.

Noted in passing by the Los Angeles Times (2000) and People magazine (2001), this fact has been a matter of public record since at least August 2002, when the Washington Post included it in Craig Whitlock’s deeply reported re-examination of the case. But it has been expunged from public memory, chiefly because, although Coates has praised the Post’s coverage, he has refused to grant it quarter in the version of events he has created—a narrative shaped to the purpose of indicting the antiblack violence he locates at the heart of American whiteness.

Coates’s evasion, his thoroughgoing suppression of this uncomfortable truth, deserves more critical attention than it has received to date, which is none. What happens to Coates’s indictment of America and its “dreamers”—his term for morally unconscious whites who benefit from the black-body-devouring charnel house of a nation they inhabit—if, rather than anonymizing and silencing Carlton Jones, banishing him from Howard’s Mecca, we grant him a voice? What sort of tragedy, then, does the death of Prince Jones become?

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