Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist,
and nothing about his world is meant to be. — Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between the World and Me
Spiegel and Grau, July 2o15
176 pages, $24.00
Ihave been pulled over by police twice, and during neither occasion was I afraid for my own safety. This minute fact of naïve privilege alone marks me as a person who thinks he or she is white—boilerplate borrowed by Ta-Nehisi Coates to describe those who plunder, or at least pursue the Dream, or at the very least do not have to waste costly energy on worrying about the physical sanctity of their body because of its skin color.
The celebrated Atlantic National Correspondent’s recent book Between the World and Me is an epistolary pseudo-memoir that strikes chords faster than they have time to reverberate. It is pamphlet-like in size and scope, poetic and lyrical at times, while delivering a series of theses to his teenage son Samori on how to grow into consciousness as an American black man.
Coates is wary of and disgusted by me, as well as anyone who thinks s/he is white, and also anyone who thinks slavery is merely an unfortunate legacy of a country’s rich history. Of those who are aware that the history of the United States is steeped in bloody injustice, many will write this fact off as analogous to any other empire’s national narrative. Ironically given the mythology, Coates makes the case that America really is exceptional—in how dependent was its nation-building on the backs of black bodies. Where Coates’ mesmerizing treatise strikes deepest is in his reminder that still today we live the legacy of slavery, that we build financial centers on unmarked black graves. Coates would no doubt agree that even the public embrace of his pseudo-memoir carries strands of paternalism. But he wrote this book anyway, no doubt aware of how it would be received. History rolls on—or pretends to; even as I write this I am exploiting Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Rather obviously, many reviewers have focused on Coates’ assertions that racism still exists today. When not in the crosshairs of police officers’ guns, young black men serve as cogs in the prison industrial complex But to stop there is to have read superficially in both senses of the word. Coates delivers here a powerful book about race, but also a treatment of the universal challenges of growing up and raising a child.
His polemical memoir, brief but expansive, consists of three parts, embedding miniature essays within anecdotal scenes. Part I is the most didactic, offering at least four major arguments:
Thesis 1: “Your life is so very different from my own. The grandness of the world, the real world, the whole world, is a known thing for you.”
A very real generation gap exists between today’s young African-Americans and their forebears—Coates’ son can almost, occasionally, forget for a second his racial identity. His grandparents and parents could not:
“When I was about your age, each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not. […] I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things. […] I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.”
Thesis 2: “You still believe the injustice was Michael Brown. You have not yet grappled with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder everywhere around us.”
The generation gap is connected to the fact racism has become even more insidious, and schools are complicit in this. The schools vilify Malcolm X and praise nonviolent Freedom Riders, white folks whose consciences comfort those who feel the score has been settled.
One of the highlights of Between the World and Me is the provocative treatment of the U.S. public education system. It is impossible for a teacher or administrator to read Coates’ account and not feel something—ashamed, indignant, inspired, depressed.
One question I ask my students is which they think came first, race or racism. Sadly, much of the struggle for consciousness Coates describes is lost or nearly lost before children have reached the age at which they can distinguish between history and propaganda. “Race is the child of racism, not the father,” he states. This should no longer be controversial, yet it will ring hollow to so many who believe racism a mere wrong turn in the road of racial history.
All good educators should likely acknowledge the force of Coates’ incisive assessments of weak schools, and the powerlessness of earnest teachers: “It does not matter that the ‘intentions’ of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Learn to play defense—ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. […] The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”
Part of the problem, Coates explains, is of course social—teaching French to a 7th grader is pointless if that student is worried about hunger. But Coates’ educators never bothered to present school as an intellectual experience, making it instead another test the like of which he encountered in the streets:
“Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later […] I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. I loved a few of my teachers. But I cannot say that I truly believed any of them. […] Why—for us and only us—is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies? This is not a hyperbolic concern. When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”
Thesis 3: Privilege reeks no matter the color—the growth of the black middle class engenders a risk of poor blacks being forgotten. Samori’s generation must fight harder than ever to combat the mythologizing of slavery as a necessary evil in America’s history:
“The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. […] You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”
Thesis 4: This third argument segues fluidly into a somewhat existentialist, somewhat Marxist section that employs universal language of exploitation, alienation, and struggle.
“What matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable. […] Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”
Despite the obvious connection between Coates’ language and Jean-Paul Sartre and Karl Marx, his primary influences are the thoughts and poetry of Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, W.E.B Dubois—who knew a thing or two about consciousness. And these writers come through not only in the politics but in the style of this book. Coates’ writing has a searing, poetic quality:
“I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. ‘Slavery’ is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved.”
The dangerous streets, Howard University and its eye-opening library, the immense cauldron of New York City, the attack on the Twin Towers, and a visit to Paris all feature in Coates’ evolving education. In France, Coates momentarily believes himself rid of his American burden. Of course, though, he realizes his experience of injustice is replicated elsewhere, across the globe. This last he connects to how the Dreamers’ plunder has contributed to global warming—which could not be more salient in a letter to the next generation.
And we never forget that this brief but broad book is also a letter to a son. Particularly touching are Coates’ descriptions of the women who furthered his self-education. He writes of a young Howard undergrad: “I grew up in a house drawn between love and fear. There was no room for softness. But this girl with the long dreads revealed something else—that love could be soft and understanding; that, soft or hard, love was an act of heroism.”
Part 2 and Part 3 flesh out the ideas and imagery of Part 1. Focusing more on police violence and the deadly shooting of Prince Jones, Coates connects the legacy of slavery to today’s dysfunctional body politic, one in which white and black bodies are not equal except in some (not all!) legal texts. Samori witnesses the horrific acquittal of Michael Brown’s killer, just as his father did the killer of Jones.
Coates’ deft image patterning helps structure the letter beyond his life’s chronology. Plunder and the Dream are the two most prominent. Plunder appears a dozen times, loaded with references to slavery and to capitalism. The Dream appears as a confluence of the classic “American Dream” and the dream/illusion/fantasy of those who “think they are white” (originally Baldwin’s phrase). Coates describes white suburbia, which some readers will confuse as purely an image of whiteness—it is actually an image of wealth, which rests on the backs of whiteness and blackness: “I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” Coates uses the image of a “galaxy” to illustrate the distance, the chasm between the Dreamers and himself. With the shooting of Prince Jones he ties in the plunder, the Dream, and the policies that keep ghettos and the legacy of slavery alive even today:
There were children born into these same caged neighborhoods on the Westside, these ghettos, each of which was as planned as any subdivision. They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are, all again, plundered of our dignity, of our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. And there is no difference between the killing of Prince Jones and and the murders attending these killing fields because both are rooted in the assumed inhumanity of black people. A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and traditions, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. “Black-on-black crime” is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.
Earlier I bemoaned those whose reading of this as a “race relations” book is superficial. But the scariest thing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ masterful Between the World and Me is the patronizing response from some reviewers, a frankly frightening response—that Coates is too mad, too unforgiving, and that he is somehow in the wrong when he paints all whites, all cops, all Dreamers, with the same brush. For crying out loud, the whole point of the book is that many cops, many Dreamers, continue to this day, subconsciously or not, to paint black bodies with the same brush.
These responses veer dangerously close to the implication that the reviewers see Coates as an “angry black man” whom the establishment will patronizingly compliment for his articulateness. Others write that Coates does not sufficiently acknowledge how far the country has come. They scold him for not proposing policy solutions. The book is full of and is itself a solution—a rejection of gerrymandering, of stop and frisk, of stereotyping disenfranchised black youth as somehow more dangerous than a white man with a gun. These reviewers reek of liberal white guilt being challenged. Deeply embedded in their critique is either a lack of understanding about how history works; an ignorance about how U.S. policies continue to ghettoize, threaten, and rob undereducated people of color; or a lack of self-awareness and racial consciousness.
By the end of the letter, Samori has changed slightly, from Coates’ son to his brother—from pupil to fellow combatant. Those who misunderstand or underestimate this powerful book should reread passages like the one in which the author redefines the struggle:
“We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.”
“Do not speak to me of martyrdom,
of men who die to be remembered
on some parish day.
I don’t believe in dying
though, I too shall die.
And violets like castanets
will echo me.
—Sonia Sanchez, quoted in Coates’ epigraph to Part 1
In a rare move, Random House pushed up the book’s publication from September to July after the June 17 shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, SC, allegedly by a young white idiot. I could not take my mind off the Charleston massacre even as we learned of the carnage meted out on Paris’ nighttime revelers this Friday, allegedly by young non-white idiots.
I was born in Suresnes, France and work at a French-American school. I have friends and family in Paris—my uncle works not too far from the Stade de France. Colleagues and students at the school I work for are mourning. As the profile pictures of my Internet friends turned blue, white, and red, I thought of Coates, Charleston, and Paris, and felt ashamed of such symbolism. The Internet giant’s employee who dreamed that one up will probably cash in a wonderful bonus. The plunderers’ flag flies on.
Of course I weep for France, but that is separate and private. What I weep for publicly is the blatant exploitation of ignorance, sentimentality, and/or privilege. Trying to make sense of human violence and suffering is probably pointless, but as I went to bed Friday night, I looked to Coates’ book and wondered what colors would have adorned the flag of those massacred in Charleston. There are no colors, no flags, to protect the world from itself.
Tom Faure received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Waxwing Literary Journal, Zocalo Public Square, and Splash of Red. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.