From the book review archives
This 2015 homage to James Baldwin identified racism at the heart of the American dream.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates. | Review first published Aug. 17, 2015
For the past several years, I’ve greeted Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essays and blog posts for The Atlantic with nothing short of gratitude. As an African American, he makes me proud. There is no other way to put it. I do not always agree with him, but it hardly matters. In a media world populated with pundits, so-called experts and public intellectuals driven by ego and familiar agendas, Coates’s voice stands nearly alone — a black man raised in the streets of Baltimore who narrowly escaped the violence that lurked around every corner and dodged the clutches of the prisons and jails that were built for him, and who now speaks unpopular, unconventional and sometimes even radical truths in his own voice, unfiltered. He is invariably humble, yet subtly defiant. And people listen.
So when I heard that Coates had been inspired, after rereading James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” to write his own version for the current era, I was overjoyed. As a civil rights lawyer, activist, legal scholar and mother of three black children, I could not wait to read what Coates had to say to black young people at this moment in our history, a time when many are struggling to make sense of how frequently black lives can be destroyed legally through incessant police violence and mass incarceration. I imagined that Coates’s new book would make plain for young people what is truly at stake in the struggle and disabuse them of the prevailing myths that breed complacency, defeatism or inaction.
I had to read “Between the World and Me” twice before I was able to decide whether Coates actually did what I expected and hoped he would. He did not. Maybe that’s a good thing.
“The Fire Next Time” was first published in 1963, a time when the prevailing racial order was being challenged by young activists on a scale and with a fervor not seen since the Civil War. The first several pages of the book are styled in the form of a letter to Baldwin’s 15-year-old nephew, offering advice about how to navigate the world he has been born into with black skin. Baldwin implores his nephew to awaken to his own dignity, humanity and power, and accept his responsibility to help “make America what it must become.”
“Between the World and Me” carries a very different message, though it is also written in the form of a letter to a black teenage boy. The boy is Coates’s 15-year-old son, who — like Baldwin’s nephew — is trying to make sense of blatant racial injustice and come to grips with his place in a world that refuses to guarantee for him the freedoms that so many others take for granted.
Want to keep up with the latest and greatest in books? This is a good place to start.
“I write you in your 15th year,” Coates states in the early pages. “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. … I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”
One of the great virtues of both books is that they are not addressed to white people. The usual hedging and filtering and softening and overall distortion that seems to happen automatically — even unconsciously — when black people attempt to speak about race to white people in public is absent.
But here we reach a fork in the road. Baldwin, in writing to his nephew, does not deny the pain and horror of American notions of justice — far from it — but he repeatedly emphasizes the young man’s power and potential and urges him to believe that revolutionary change is possible.
Coates’s letter to his son seems to be written on the opposite side of the same coin. Rather than urging his son to awaken to his own power, Coates emphasizes over and over the apparent permanence of racial injustice in America, the foolishness of believing that one person can make a change. In what will almost certainly be the most widely quoted passage, Coates tells his son: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”
Little hope is offered that freedom or equality will ever be a reality for black people in America. “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.”
The biggest question for Coates is rooted in the hidden connection between the American Dream as lived in the suburbs and the violence that ruled his daily life growing up in Baltimore.
I will confess that after the first reading of “Between the World and Me” I was disappointed. Initially I was enthralled by Coates’s characteristic brilliance and insight, as well as the poetic manner in which he addresses his son. I found myself highlighting so much of the text it seemed the whole book was gleaming yellow. But by the end, I was exasperated. When in the history of the world have the privileged and powerful voluntarily relinquished their status or abandoned the tactics that secured their advantage, without being challenged, fought, confronted or inspired to do so? As Frederick Douglass observed long ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.”
On the second reading, my frustration diminished. I came to believe that the problem, to the extent there is one, is that Coates’s book is unfinished. He raises numerous critically important questions that are left unanswered.
The biggest question for Coates is rooted in the hidden connection between the American Dream as lived in the suburbs and the violence that ruled his daily life growing up in Baltimore. “Fear ruled everything around me, and 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. But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day. And I was such a curious boy.”
Reading the book the second time, I held no expectation that the big questions would be answered. I knew they wouldn’t be. It seemed that Coates was doing for his son what his own father had done for him: demand that he wrestle with the questions himself. The second time around I could see that maybe, just maybe, this is what is most needed right now — a book that offers no answers but instead challenges us to wrestle with the questions on our own.
And yet I cannot pretend to be entirely satisfied. Like Baldwin, I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral; we must believe it is possible. Those who believe we are likely or destined to fail — because the Dreamers hold all the power and our liberation is up to them — can easily tell themselves they are “in the struggle” when they show up at a rally with a sign, or go on Twitter or Facebook to rant about the police, then do no more. But those who are in it to win it, and who believe in their own power and understand their responsibility to use it wisely, cannot so easily lie to themselves about the utility of random or halfhearted gestures. Greater precision of thought and action is required.
Coates clearly knows the importance of avoiding vagueness or generalization about critical aspects of black experience. In one of the most moving passages of the book he reminds his son: “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. …”
Perhaps Coates hasn’t yet discovered for himself the answers to the questions he poses in “Between the World and Me.” But I suspect that he is holding out on us. Everything he has ever written leads me to believe he has more to say. He may imagine that we are better off figuring out for ourselves the true nature of the Dream and what it means to be engaged in meaningful struggle. But I believe we could only benefit from hearing what answers Coates may have fashioned for himself. Whether you agree or disagree, one of the great joys of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is being challenged in ways you didn’t expect or imagine.
Whether you want biographies, novels or essay collections, we can help you find your next book to read. Here are 57 titles to get you started.
From the book review archives