I’ve enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ columns for some time, although mostly because it sometimes feels wholesome to be afflicted in your comfort. Between the World and Me was something much more devastating than that, though, and its themes will haunt me for a long time. The book is ostensibly a letter to Coates’ son, Samori, and the reader is immediately impressed with the rich heritage that child gets to have. Well, its something. The possibly interesting tension between the (modestly?) bourgeois status Coates has attained, and his strong identification with an underclass remains at the periphery of this book, though.
Related is the tension between a call to activism, Malcolm X style, and a resignation that “white” people will have to sort this out for themselves. There is little that others can do to consciously push the change forward. We feel this conflict in the juxtaposition of the dreamlike visions at Howard University, where the world of ideas opens up in unfolding layers, and the utter helplessness when faced with the physical destruction of one black body after another, culminating in the police murder of Prince Jones, a Howard student. Coates’ unrelenting drive to raise the consciousness of his son, not to a history of these events, but to a system that necessarily generates these events, is the rationale of the book, and gratefully many more readers get to come along for the ride. Of course, in focusing on consciousness, I am reminded that the socialist history of this concept has found it to be notoriously unreliable.
The central thesis is that the systematic destruction of the black body is a feature, not a bug, of American civilization, and that the entire edifice is built on pursuing this workmanlike genocide. The main support for this idea is introduced early in the book, but is itself the weakest part. It is the idea that “white” identity is defined entirely in the negative with respect to the black other, and depends on the constant oppression of those deemed to be black in order to pursue its own Dream. (After all, in prior generations, Irish, Poles, Italians and Germans all identified under those labels, so where did this “white” come from really?) If the identification of whiteness is solely dependent on there being a particularly black underclass, then I’m not sure I follow. I think that native Americans were mentioned in here somewhere, and there was the frontier, the melting pot, conscious mythologizing of the American founding, common wars against nations having little to do with racial construct, and just so much going on that there must be other factors that determine whiteness, too. But this book isn’t interested in those things.
The constant physicality, though, wore at me in the intended way. Black bodies are broken in every way possible, and each time, the system acts as though it is simply working as designed. And when they are not broken, black bodies are intimidated with the potential of being broken, and shamed in advance for it. Realism informs us that blaming “black on black” crime is mistaking a symptom for the disease. The fact that Prince Jones’ killer was a black police officer becomes an almost irrelevant detail when the whole system comes into view, and the fact that the individual actors are almost unwitting participants. But here is the problem of consciousness again.
The most satisfying bits for Coates, I imagine, must come toward the end, when his criticism really hits home of those who, as a coping mechanism perhaps, reflexively condemn blacks for their own plight (not sure if I should say “those who think themselves black” or if its not supposed to work that way around). I don’t recall if his name was mentioned, but one can imagine Bill Cosby, or others more sophisticated. And you can find the predicable backlash from this crowd out there. The crucial component of this thinking is a standard teaching that is apparently handed down to black children: they must be twice as good. They must be once as good because they will have all of the same foibles, youthful indiscretions and mishaps as their “white” equivalents will have, and once again as good because the system automatically discounts their very humanity. This is the book at its most humanistic and devastating.
There are scenes where Coates travels to Paris for the first time. He lets his own naivety show through here, which authenticates his bewilderment at discovering a place where, although oppression continues to exist, it does so in a very different form. You can sense that he almost found true liberation there.
The frustration with how exactly to guide his son forward in a system dedicated to his dehumanization is relatable in its own right without any of the other context. It seems that Coates wants a number of tools to be available to Samori, while acknowledging that none of them is a magic bullet. In some ways, the dire circumstances of being black in America is not a necessary condition to making this understandable to any parent.
The book was a quick, but powerful read.