Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Text 2015)
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for the US magazine The Atlantic. He’s a very engaging blogger, and his writing about racism in the USA is revelatory. Between the World and Me is an extraordinarily generous book on that subject, framed as a letter to his fourteen year old son in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
When it was announced that no one would be indicted for that killing, the teenager said,’I’ve got to go,’ went to his room, and could be heard sobbing. The book is his father’s attempt to reach out to him, to spell out ‘the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country that is lost in the Dream’. (‘The Dream’ in this book is the version of the USA that ignores ugly realities like racism, and which allows the Dreamers to perpetuate those ugly realities.) Coates describes this as the question of his life. So the book is something of an apologia pro vita sua – and like John Henry Newman’s contribution to the genre it transcends its immediate stimulus.
The title is from a Richard Wright 1935 poem. In that poem, what comes between the world and the speaker is the charred remains of a man who has been lynched. In the book, the construct of race and racism rises up in a similar way, a threat to the integrity of his body and his son’s body.
I was having trouble thinking what to say about this book apart from READ IT, IT’S GREAT, when I came across a ‘review’ on the Internet, which gave something to argue with:
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a diatribe against white people by a paranoiac black writer. I don’t even think it is well written.
Well, maybe not argue with so much as repudiate.
1. It’s not a diatribe
It’s not even a polemic. Instead, there’s a substantial memoir that gives us an insider’s view of Baltimore as fictionalised in The Wire, where street and school were the poles between which a young black life had to be negotiated, and where harsh discipline accompanied the safety of home; that takes us to what Coates calls his Mecca, Howard University in Washington DC, a campus where he experienced the diversity of African and African-heritage people; and that shows us his growing understanding of racial politics in the US, from his youthful disdain for what he saw as the passivity of the Civil Rights marchers, through his embracing of Malcolm X, to an understanding that African-American experience in the USA is deeply complex.
There’s also some beautiful, richly suggestive thinking. I love this:
Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition …
But race is the child of racism, not the father … [T]he belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organise a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.
Many subjects are touched on that could sustain whole books of their own. For example, at the very end he draws a line between the habits of mind that led to slavery and those that are now threatening the environment (‘It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age.’).
2. It’s not against white people
I don’t see how any careful reader could think this book was against white people. Even if you dismissed as mere rhetoric Coates’s argument that there are no such beings – that there are only people who believe they are white – it remains true that the problem isn’t white people, but deeply embedded institutionalised racism. And facing up to it, he recognises, is a massive challenge:
The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practised habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered versions of your country as it has always declared itself and turning towards something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.
Those last two sentences, it’s worth pointing out, are addressed to his son. That they are all the more true for white readers, and not only those who live in the US, is not a point he labours.
3. It’s not paranoiac
To read this book as paranoiac would take extraordinary mental nimbleness. True, Coates describes mid-teenage years in which
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 – all of which is to say that I practised the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.
And he describes other moments when he felt the threat from racist institutions with terrifying immediacy. Racism is felt viscerally, he says. But still, surely what he is describing are social realities. (Come to think of it, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric would make a great companion book.)
4. It is well written
The book is a very fine example of an extended lyric essay. I want to quote passage after passage. Here’s just one, more or less random:
‘Make the race proud,’ the elders used to say. But by then I knew that I wasn’t so much bound to a biological ‘race’ as to a group of people, and these people were not black because of any uniform colour or any uniform physical feature. They were bound because they suffered under the Dream, and they were bound by all the beautiful things, all the language and mannerisms, all the food and music, all the literature and philosophy, all the common language that they fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream. Not long ago I was standing in the airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young black man and said, ‘My bad.’ Without even looking up he said, ‘You straight.’ And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world.
Indulge me if I quote a little more from this passage:
And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds – the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us. I had read too much by then. And my eyes – my beautiful eyes – were growing stronger each day. And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.
Do seek out this book. As Toni Morrison says on the front cover, ‘It’s required reading.’ Jeff Sparrow’s review in the Sydney Review of Books is also worth a read.