Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Between the World and Me’ Is as Important and Necessary as Everyone Says It Is
One of America's sharpest cultural commentators delivers a rich, abrasive meditation on the existential quandaries of modern American negro life.
One night last week I was driving to my mother's home in the central Cincinnati neighborhood of Bond Hill. I had the windows of her bright orange Volkswagen Beetle down, and was stopped on Bond Hill's main drag, Reading Road, where the pockmarks of shuttered storefronts and crumbling housing are evident from every vantage point. On many a night, seemingly aimless, unemployed negro boys sit and carp near a Richie's Chicken restaurant, across the street from a long-closed Nation of Islam diner. Although I grew up a few neighborhoods away in slightly leafier and more integrated Kennedy Heights I can remember when the neighborhood wasn't quite like this, before the streets became so hopelessly violent and economically unsalvageable that my father, who'd lived in the heart of the same neighborhood with his most recent wife, decided to get the fuck out. "I'm tired of niggers," he'd said, his processed hair straightened just so, the green eyes we share darting away from each other. It must be tiring to be tired of yourself.
While stopped at the intersection, I glimpsed out of my eye a tall negro dressed in a white tank top, his skin high yellow like my own, crossing the street in what seemed like a beeline toward my car. He was coming from a corner where much wasteful bravado and boisterous ennui takes place, and I felt it immediately, that familiar sensation, the need to secure my body against potential predators. I was driving an orange car with plastic orange flowers on the dash, the same car I had been driving when held up at gunpoint not far from that corner two summers before.
The man sauntered behind my car, and I locked the door. Hearing this, the electronic click of the door locks snapping into place, he looked back at me and we met eyes as I swiveled my head to watch him. We didn't stop looking at each other the whole time he crossed to the other side of the street. The light turned green, and he said, "I ain't trying to roll up on you, bruh."
"It's all good," I replied, but really, it wasn't. You see, for the past 50 years or so, Bond Hill has become predominately African-American, and for the last 25 years or so, moribund and blighted. This is a direct result of redlining, blockbusting, and deindustrialization, of racist federal policy and cynical opportunism on the part of white developers—of America not having a clue how to treat its black citizens fairly.
My best friend's father, a white man and an intellectual property lawyer, grew up in Bond Hill in the 50s. His white family fled with the rest of them, likely told of the coming negro hordes and the imperative to save themselves from declining property values by huckster slumlords. When I met and befriended his son at a prep school for the city's truly wealthy, and a few coloreds who were nigger-rich like us, his family lived in the tony and almost exclusively white district of Hyde Park. Bond Hill is now only 7 percent white and just as segregated as it was a half century ago, when blacks first started to seek refuge and opportunity there.
My foot hit the gas, and the encounter ended. As I drove home, back to the rings of suburban simulacrum on the outskirts of the neighborhood just a mile away—a suburbia my mother helped build with other negroes—I couldn't shake the anger and shame. Why should I have to be afraid of my fellow yellow brother, or any brother for that matter, in the fucking first place? My mother has spent a generation and a half of her life locking her door, owning a gun instead of employing an alarm system in fear of the type of niggers (yes, the very word we use) negroes fear most. At the "Villages at Daybreak," not far from a golf course and a decaying sports arena that hosted the NBA during the Kennedy administration, my mother is trapped in a cycle of fear white folks of her station in life mostly don't know.
The bleakest takeaways from Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, as rich and abrasive a meditation on the existential quandaries of modern American negro life as any I've come across, include the notion that negroes will always be afraid of each other in these ways described above. Regardless of class, regardless of whether they've succeeded at the bankrupt doctrine of "twice as good" (the necessary effort/skill level needed to succeed in a white man's rigged world, so the saying goes)—in Coates's vision, justice simply isn't in their hands. And the reason for this traces back to white supremacy.
White folks are "Dreamers" in Coates's parlance, and that "Dream" is one undergirded by Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, and racism. These beliefs, even unconscious, provide a special kind of innocence for "Dreamers," an innocence where the sins of slavery and genocide and plunder will not be visited upon the children, where the poisoned seeds of history don't bear strange and dangerous fruit. Coates observes that, for most people who think themselves white, the prosperity of cloistered suburbs with the accoutrements of well-to-do modern American life from the 50s onward has no correlation to the crime-ridden streets, underfunded schools, and urban housing tracts purposely fashioned by city planners such as Robert Moses to foster status anxiety, claustrophobia, and dislocation among people of color. They don't see the connection. It is this plunder of the contemporary sort—housing wealth, not slavery—that Coates focused on in "The Case for Reparations," his groundbreaking essay for the Atlantic, where he has become recognized as one of the sharpest cultural commentators on the internet. In the award-winning piece, Coates hints at the billions of dollars of post-war housing wealth blacks were forbidden from accruing due to restrictive covenants, loan discrimination, and outright white terrorism. This is the American Dream in action, Coates is saying. Take it at face value, but do so at your own peril. Especially if you're a young negro man.
The question of whether Coates is Baldwin's equal seems rather beside the point to me, as it surely will to his son, or any young negro child, or any and every American with the intelligence and the humanity to read it and grasp its terrible truths.
Coates's book is somewhat self-consciously indebted to James Baldwin's 1963 classic The Fire Next Time. Addressed to a young black man coming of age in a time of great racial upheaval just as Baldwin's book was, Between the World and Me uses its author's experience as a guide of sorts to the intractable legacies of white supremacy in much the same way. Baldwin has been a flashpoint in early discussions of the book, with Toni Morrison providing the blurb of a lifetime on the back: "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." A few days after the book's publication, Cornel West dismissed Morrison's comparison in a somewhat tone-deaf, surely less than charitable Facebook post ("Coates is a clever wordsmith with journalistic talent who avoids any critique of the Black president in power"). The question of whether Coates is Baldwin's equal seems rather beside the point to me, as it surely will to his son, or any young negro child, or any and every American with the intelligence and the humanity to read it and grasp its terrible truths.
The respectability politics of John McWhorter, whose Losing the Race once set conservative hearts afire with his condemnation of black anti-intellectualism and complacence in the late Clinton years, and the moralism of now-disgraced comedian Bill Cosby, whom Coates inadequately profiled in his first assignment for the Atlantic back in 2005, find no purchase here. Coates also shuns the argument put forth a dozen years ago by Debra Dickerson in The End of Blackness that "no one can stop the American, black or blind, who is determined to succeed" and that blacks are mostly to blame for holding themselves back from reaping America's fruits. Scholarship in the ensuing years, from people like Coates, Michelle Alexander ( The New Jim Crow) and Isabel Wilkerson (the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns), has rendered these arguments suspect. The ghetto, in Coates's telling, is the result not of black pathology or irresponsibility, but of government policy and "a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies"—otherwise known as White America.
Fashioned as a six-part letter to his teenage son Samori, Coates's vision of the future awaiting his boy is less than sanguine. This too, has little to do with either of them. The powerlessness the book evokes, of blacks not being able to protect their own bodies and property, is a feat of courage amidst the sea of generally disingenuous positivity concerning racial matters in this country. Coates's atheism informs this surely: He is outside of the tradition of mainstream African-American thought, even as he embodies the feelings of helplessness and anger that so many blacks, despite their God, feel daily. Whether you are one of Cornel West's "black nihilists," ruining the streets of urban America two decades ago, or performing black pain for your own benefit and self-aggrandizement with a "mask of piety" on, as Hilton Als would have it, Coates is here to tell you that you're one of the victims of white supremacy and you can do little about it but "struggle."
Clocking in at a slender 152 pages, Coates's book achieves a grave rigor and thunderous momentum that few authors can muster. Tracing his own miseducation on the dangerous streets of mid-80s Baltimore to Hollande's France, where we are not "their niggers," Coates experiences a lightness and sense of freedom, tinged with skepticism, that he has never found as an African-American in his own country. From this point on, late in the book, Coates's painful insights prove unrelenting. While intellectual curiosity finally finds him at Howard University, where his independent Africana librarian father once worked and the Coateses are something of a dynasty, Coates sees struggle, not hope, as the normal tenor of things. Although he finds a "Mecca" at Howard amongst a lively and truly diverse universe of the African diaspora's best and the brightest—the talented tenth if you will—no arena is safe from plunder for American blacks, in Coates's telling. Not when negroes will always be afraid of the intentions of caucasians, especially ones who wield nightsticks and guns and the authority of the law, although those controlling banks, potential job interviews and community associations can prove just as scary.
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Coates brings this to stark relief while recalling his college friend Prince Jones, the respected Christian son of a black woman, raised in Louisiana poverty, who became a star radiologist. Jones was shot dead by an undercover black cop, dressed as a criminal, who had followed him across three jurisdictions under the pretense that Jones was involved in criminal activity. The cop claimed that Jones had tried to run him over. Case closed. The dead young man hovers like a ghost over Coates's narrative. The names John Crawford, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown get plenty of mention too. In Between the World and Me, these deaths are but the tip of the iceberg because caucasians will always erect laws, customs, and institutions, along with justifications for these based on their fear and ignorance, designed to keep a large swath of negroes at the bottom of American society, poor and afraid of each other, powerlessly plundering those around them regardless of how many dead black bodies lay at the feet of the police.
Whether those that call themselves white do so unwittingly or with maliciousness is of no consequence to Coates. Whiteness was erected, constructed, formulated, and expanded in order to justify this barbarism. And ultimately, such conditions are out of the hands of African-Americans to change, Coates suggests, whether Black America produces a Marcus Garvey or a Barack Obama, a Nat Turner or a Martin Luther King, whether "black-on-black" crime subsides or "personal responsibility" reigns, whether pants are pulled up or bandannas are removed. Only those that call themselves white, or climate change (likely the latter!), can change the thing.
White folks are "Dreamers" in Coates's parlance, and that "Dream" is one undergirded by Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, and racism.
Coates is currently en route to France, where he'll be spending a year with his wife and kid. Reading the book I couldn't help of but think of Chester Himes, the great and unfairly forgotten negro author, who also spent a significant amount of his adult years in Parisian exile. He once wrote that black Americans were "the most neurotic, complicated, schizophrenic, unanalyzed, anthropologically advanced specimen of mankind in the history of the world." A contemporary of Coates's idol Baldwin, who also spent a significant period of his life in Paris, Himes wrote widely about how negro men could navigate the pitfalls of whiteness in novels such as The Third Generation and Pinktoes. Unlike Coates or Baldwin, Himes's negroes weren't victims, but agents of their own fate, regardless of the chips staked against them. They used sex and guile as weaponry against whites, many of whom they fetishized. He found Baldwin and Richard Wright's more celebrated and sentimental works full of alienated negro men to be a bit boorish.
"At times," Himes wrote in his autobiography, "my soul brothers embarrassed me, bragging about their scars, their poor upbringing, and their unhappy childhood, to get some sympathy and some white pussy and money, too, if they could." Himes, who unlike Baldwin or Coates grew up middle-class, was forever fighting the sway of his scared, color-struck, high-yellow mother, whom he himself referred to as an "octoroon."
Himes wanted to know what we were supposed to do after we realized white people were crazy, and had made us crazy, too. Is "race" a handicap negroes have to "marry," as Bob Jones, the hero of Himes's debut novel If He Hollers, Let Him Go once pondered? More days than not, unlike Jones, I think it is: The folks who believe themselves white can't see past or within it (even if they claim they do), and neither can the numerous institutions they've erected.
But like Jones, I too have used my skin color for a myriad of social and economic gains in various milieus—black, white, and somewhere in between. Blackness, even in these sorry times, can have its perks too. These complexities, of what black people make of their respective colors beyond shared fear and a whole gorgeous culture we've built from the depths, are where answers to our existential quandaries might lie.
This, admittedly, is an area Coates isn't as interested in as the white man's sundry means for tearing it all down. But history isn't over. And the question of "what now?" hangs over the air as you finish Between the World and Me, like a fog one is helpless to traverse until a clearing comes.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is available from Spiegel and Grau in bookstores and online.
Brandon Harris is a contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine. His directorial debut Redlegs has played over a dozen festivals worldwide and was a New York Times Critic's Pick upon its commercial release in May of 2012. Follow him on Twitter.