Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World and Me
This book has been described as a form of love letter, but it sits in the gut more heavily than one of those halcyon glimpses into someone else’s adoration. There is reverence in Coates’ words, but there is also much controlled, lyrical rage throughout Between The World and Me that fizzes, lingers and grips you. Watching the news and reading about police brutality affecting the black population in America, or being a regular visitor to America will not even vaguely prepare for you this book. An article on tap dance (honestly) in the New Yorker ran through my head while trying to write this (and indeed debating whether I should even try): “This tangle of emotions – who wants to take it on”. Coates would not describe it as a question of desire. Reading his work raises questions of compulsion – or obligation – placed upon you by a writer who has described “the machinery of racism” as “the privilege of being oblivious to questions”.
The novel reads slightly like a padded out essay; unsurprising given that long form journalism is how Coates made his living for years in ‘The Atlantic’, many of his articles are quoted below. The framing device for the book’s structure was his 15-year-old son Samori’s reaction to Michael Brown’s killer being acquitted: “you were young and still believed. You stayed up until 11pm that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying…I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay”. He wants to tell his son that he must find a way “to live within the all of it”, that still no one bears responsibility for the continual degradation of black lives, and that is the reality, despite progress in equal rights. Despite this fatalistic resignation, he repeatedly expresses his desire to “unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape”.
Coates acknowledged this progress in ‘The Atlantic’ in June 2014, in “The case for Reparations”: “The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of WHITES ONLY signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows – the gap between black and white teen pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere”. He goes on to cite the income gap, the disparity in overall household income and higher education disparities between whites and blacks in America today. Between the World and Me is indeed a love letter to his son – this gleams from the pages – but also to education, specifically to reading. Although “Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them” – Obama has described black shame against educational achievement: “I don’t know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs was something white”. Coates’ natural curiosity and encouragement by his family to reject second hand answers gave him the means to escape. He claims not to have been a good student at Howard University (his ‘Mecca’), but read as though he wanted to drink the libraries dry.
Coates distinguishes between race and racism: “we can see the formation of “race” in American law and policy, and also see how formations differ across time and space. So what is “black” in the United States is not “black” in Brazil”. He explores examples of these policies include redlining (“Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport”), Jim Crow and GI bills. He defines racism as hierarchical “false naming”. The argument itself “is corrupt at its root, and must be confronted there”. Encountering James Baldwin in the Mecca was a Damascene moment for Coates, in “On Being White…and Other Lies”, Baldwin outlines the mistake white people made, in “this debasement and definition of black people, they have debased and defined themselves. And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they dare not confront the ravage and life of their history”. So, the key is confronting this head on, cutting out the corruption at the root and asking where did this come from.
The term racism being inherently flawed, Coates turns to what can be done: “What is needed is a healing of the American psych and the banishment of white guilt”. He sees white supremacy (a term preferable to racism as it is a super structure rather than a series of personal acts of opinions) as a central organising force in ‘congenitally racist’ American life. He outlined the “progressive approach to policy which directly addressed the effects of white supremacy is simple – talk about class and hope no one notices”. He does not touch on white guilt for long, except to say that “white supremacy is not an invention of white people; white people are an invention of white supremacy”.
He admits in the book to not knowing any white people growing up; everyone in his neighbourhood was afraid: “as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs”. The only incident featuring a white person in the book is one pushing his son in a cinema. He admits to overreacting, partly because a white man springs to the woman’s defence. Did it matter that she was white? Was it more significant that they were in ‘her’ part of town? It seems that her actions towards a child who happened to black were the crux, or it may have been that she was simply rude. In Coates’ definition of the word, she seems to have been Dreaming, and so never had to learn what it is to be afraid.
The concept of what black and white are is in itself much of the problem: “we should not seek a world where the black race and the white race live in harmony, but a world in which the terms black and white have no real political meaning”. Many people who think they are white are not, and the question of what black is is a huge one. Coates wishes to emphasise that those who are mistaken are part of the ‘Dreamers’ – those who do not and will not know the truth of life in America today, and anyone who has bought in the rotten lie is therefore not fully awake and living in the present reality. Coates does not want this Dream projected onto him. Perhaps the most quoted passage of his novel is his pitiless 9/11 passage: “They were not human to me. Black, white or whatever, they were the menaces of nature”. The Dream is innocent, and too much has happened to allow that in Coates’s eyes: he wants the nation to mature and open its eyes (“You must never look away from this”), to acknowledge its collective heritage and to reset the road map in order to truly consider how to live freely.
The nebulous racial lines – if indeed, any can still be drawn – become clearer when it comes to the question of who fears for their personal safety. When it comes to the matter of the black body being hurt, Coates describes the use of his father’s belt used almost prophylactically so that it is he with his hands on his son, rather than a policeman as a matter of course, almost. This is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and therefore of Medea – albeit at a different point on the scale of violence – where a mother would rather take her children’s lives than allow them to be taken into slavery. It is a way of appropriating that fear, of diverting the cycle of violence (“Either I can beat him, or the police”) rather than breaking it. Racism “as we know it, is basically a product of the slave trade, which is to say the seizure of power”.
Reviewing Between The World And Me in the LRB, Thomas Chatterton Williams asks the question “At what point might an oppressed group contribute – perhaps decisively – to its own plight?” However, Coates does acknowledge that no people have ever liberated themselves through their own efforts. It must be a collective exercise.
What is less clear is what he wants his analysis in this case to achieve – what does he hope for beyond the liberation of his son from fear for his body’s safety? Does he now live in Paris as he believes life as a black American is irredeemable, in his lifetime? He writes that it is because he wants Samori to grow “apart from fear”, though he admits “Home would find us in any language”. On his first trip to Paris, he describes sitting in a public garden for the first time in his life: “I had not even known it to be something I’d want to do”.
Coates has created a song that must be listened to, if only to continue to ask questions. He certainly will.