Between The World and Me is an exquisite book, overflowing with insights about the embodied state of blackness and the logic of white supremacy. Coates’s prose is capable of challenging our understanding of the United States even as it captures our hearts. I plan to teach the book for two of my courses this academic year.
But for all of the beauty and power of the book, it is also profoundly troubling. The wound of racism is too fresh; the sharpness of the pain captures Coates’s senses and arrests his imagination. The worry is that if we follow along, we, too, shall be captured.
The book initially seems like it will reveal the illusion of the Dream and then open up the possibility for imagining the United States anew. But Coates does not move in that direction. He rejects the American mythos but also embraces the certainty of white supremacy and its inescapable constraints. For him, white supremacy is not merely a historically emergent feature of the United States; it is an ontology. White supremacy, in other words, does not structure reality; it is reality.
There’s a danger there. When one conceptualizes white supremacy at the level of ontology, there is little room for one’s imagination to soar, and one’s sense of agency is inescapably constrained. Action is tied fundamentally to what we imagine is possible for us, but there can be no affirmative politics when race functions as a wounded attachment.
What about all those young men and women in the streets of Ferguson, Chicago, New York, and Charleston—how should we read their efforts? Coates’s answer seems to appear in one of the pivotal and tragic moments of the book—the murder of a college friend, Prince Jones, at the hands of the police:
[N]o one would be brought to account for this destruction... The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.
But if we are all just helpless agents of physical laws, the question again emerges: What does one do? Coates recommends interrogation and struggle. His love for books and his journey to Howard University—“Mecca,” as he calls it—serve to question the world around him. But interrogation and struggle to what end?
“It is truly horrible,” Coates writes in one of the most disturbing sentences of the book, “to understand yourself as the essential below of your country.” Herein lies the danger: Forget telling his son it will be okay; Coates cannot even tell him it may be okay. “The struggle is really all I have for you,” he tells his son, “because it is the only portion of this world under your control.” What a strange form of control. Black folks may control their place in the battle, but never with the possibility that they, and in turn their country, may win.
Releasing the book at this moment—given all that is going on with black lives under public assault—seems the oddest thing to do. For all of the channeling of James Baldwin, Coates seems to have forgotten that black folks “can’t afford despair”:
The reason why you can’t say there isn’t hope is not because you are living in a dream or selling a fantasy, but because there can be no certain knowledge of the future. Humility, borne of our ignorance of the future, justifies hope.
Much has been made of the comparison between Baldwin and Coates, owing to how the book is structured and because of Toni Morrison’s endorsement. But what this connection means escapes many commentators. In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin reflects on the wounds that white supremacy left on his father:
When he died, I had been away from home for a little over a year. In that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father's bitter warnings, had discovered the secret of his proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage: I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.
Similar to Coates, Baldwin’s father was wounded and so was Baldwin. Yet Baldwin knew that wounded attachment would destroy not the plunderers of black life but the ones who were plundered. “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” Baldwin’s father, as he understood him, was destroyed by hatred.
So Coates is less like Baldwin in this respect and, perhaps, more like Baldwin’s father. “I am wounded,” writes Coates. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” The chains reach out to imprison not only his son, but you and me as well.
Lastly, given the power of the book and its blockbuster success, Coates seems unable to linger on the conditions that gave life to the Ta-Nehisi Coates who now occupies the public stage. His own engagement with the world—his very agency—received social support. Throughout his book he recounts the rich diversity of black beauty and empowerment, especially at Howard. His father, William Paul Coates, is the founder of Black Classic Press, which focuses on the richness of black life. His mother, Cheryl Waters, financially support the family and provided young Coates with direction, especially with writing at an early age. And yet the adult Coates seems to stand at a distance from the condition of possibility suggested by those examples.
Black life in America is at once informed by, but not reducible to, the pain exacted on our bodies by this country. This eludes Coates. The wound is so intense he cannot direct his senses beyond the pain.