Between the World and Me Book Club: More of Your Critical Thoughts

Readers continue to debate Ta-Nehisi Coates's bestseller. Will the book’s bleak outlook make people less motivated to fight injustice?

Derrick Royal waits to march over the Brooklyn Bridge on March 7, 2015, to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark protest in Selma, Alabama. (John Minchillo / AP)

The Atlantic has published five essays inspired by Between the World and Me, from Michael Eric Dyson, Emily Bernard, James Forman Jr., and two from Tressie McMillan Cottom, the latest of which addresses how women have to navigate historically black colleges differently than men. None of those essays are especially critical of the book, so we’re posting the best pushback from readers. Atlantic reader Jimmy Thomas appreciates that approach:

Much as I like commenting on the social web, I’ve gotten in the habit of avoiding comment sections in the Atlantic app. Too many times I’ve been high on your phenomenal writing only to step into a pile of shit left by some hater troll. There are good comments to be sure, but I just don’t go there anymore. Thank you for your decision to post only the best responses to the brilliant Mr. Coates.

One of the big risks of closing the comments section is that readers will get the impression we are trying to shield our work from criticism. But in fact, the purpose of filtering your comments through email is to bring out the best criticism—the smartest, most substantive arguments. We just want to keep things civil. We don’t, however, want to keep out controversial views, so here’s commenter Sisyphus on the essay from Emily Bernard:

I can’t help but note the title: “Black American Motherhood”—not “parenthood.” Perhaps part of the struggle comes from the fact that the majority of black mothers are single parents, which makes things much harder to start with. I would like to see an article on why black fathers tend to be uninvolved with their children, more so than fathers of other races/ethnicities. And I mean that genuinely; I’m curious as to the causes and reasons that so many black mothers are doing it alone.

Australopithecus counters:

Maybe soon the government will refocus funding on schools and housing instead of spending so much to imprison non-violent drug offenders. I’m sure you’d support that, since you care so much about single black mothers.

Sisyphus responds:

I’m all for non-violent offender reform. Problem is, studies show that most of the growth in prison population comes from violent offenders:

It’s true that nearly half of all federal inmates have been sentenced for drug offenses, but the federal system holds only about 14 percent of all inmates. In the state prisons, which hold the remaining 86 percent, over half of prisoners are serving time for violent crimes, and since 1990, 60 percent of the growth in state prison populations has come from locking up violent offenders. Less than a fifth of state prisoners — 17 percent — are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses.

Also, non-violent drug offenders are one thing, but even the black men NOT locked up don’t seem to be participating in fatherhood like their white, Hispanic, Asian, etc. counterparts

Commenter Zic replies, “Not being married does not equal not being involved and engaged as a father.” Ta-Nehisi can attest to that; his parents weren’t married but his father was incredibly involved in his life. He addressed the subject in a wonderful 2002 essay for The Washington Monthly:

My own father’s pedigree---seven kids by four women---looks like the rap sheet for one more deadbeat. But he was a stable and consistent presence in my home. … Many middle-class people, especially white ones, will think that my father should never have had all those kids in the first place. Likewise, to mainstream America, I am not exactly a hero for staying home to take care of my son, but irresponsible for having sired the child in the first place without finishing college, getting a good job, and securing a wedding ring. Yet if more men whose children weren't born under the most perfect of circumstances did what I did, the nation’s black children would be far better off than they are now. ...

Perhaps, instead of focusing so much on the check-writing aspect of fatherhood or trying to marry off unwilling partners for the children’s sake, it’s time for a political movement that seeks to transform “no-good niggas” into an army of Mr. Moms. Since no one has figured out how to make black men much richer, or married, for that matter, why not at least take advantage of the one asset we have in abundance: our time.

Better criticism from readers came through the inbox. Alycee Lane, a writer and Howard University grad, points to our essay from James Forman, Jr., whose outlook is very similar to Ta-Nehisi’s:

When I read lines like “The permanence of racial injustice makes the struggle for the future necessary today,” I think to myself: there lies the language of empire—permanence. Empire insists on its permanence, on the “truth” that what is, is what will always be. It is Realpolitik wielded as a weapon against our hope.

“Contrary to what many might think,” writes South African theologian Allan Aubrey Boesak, “cynicism does not make unbelievers of us. Nor does it make independent thinkers of us. Rather, it makes us believers only of what we can see, that which can be conjured up by the powers of domination, held up [as] eternal, self-evident truths. It makes us believers in the myths on which those powers depend.” Like, for example, the myth of the permanence of racism and white supremacy.

This is hardly a recipe for “struggle.” Instead, it is a prescription for submission and despair.

Jared Loggins, another reader from a historically black college, also disagrees with TNC’s outlook:

The Greensboro Four in 1960 (Wikipedia)

I graduated from Morehouse College, the same institution that birthed MLK and SNCC. An ethos of hope abounds because the history of struggle toward some notion of freedom necessitates it. Morehouse is only a stone’s throw from Spelman College, which is a testament to black women’s struggles against patriarchy, sexism and racism in all its forms. Both institutions, much like Howard, are founded on the promise that Coates seems to foreclose in his breathtakingly tragic book Between The World and Me.

And indeed other institutions—at least historically—apply here as well. NC A&T and the Greensboro Four, for example, catalyzed a decade of fighting to integrate public spaces in the South. These things inform my understanding of the following passage from Coates:

Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never redeem this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no natural promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

This passage is deeply troubling. Our triumphs are the point. The struggle to gain social and political status is not for moral brownie points. The struggle is to correct history. That is to say, resistance and struggle are in the service of either victories we can ascertain or the imagination of a future which we do not yet know, or both. To struggle otherwise is to wallow in despair.

In the midst of brutal terror against black life, we work for a new world or risk despair as permanence; terror as inescapable; change as improbable. The Greensboro Four were sitting at those counters in which they did not belong, imagining a world in which they did not yet know. The sit-ins lasted for six months. After six months of resistance, lunch counters in North Carolina began desegregating. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the resisters, who, through the 1960s staged boycotts and protests against segregation of public facilities across the nation.  

I cannot help but wonder where Coates is on Black Lives Matter in light of his book. The movement is founded on struggle and imagination. “Black lives matter” is best understood as a normative statement: black lives should matter. Which is to say, they don’t and therefore we struggle and imagine a world in which they do. We stage protests and die-ins in Ferguson, Baltimore, Atlanta. We write beautifully about the power of black joy, love, and hope. We build intersectional movements, working toward a world in which systems that destroy black lives are no more. Struggle is all we have.

But struggle does negate hope. It foregrounds it.

Michael Anderson is on the same page:

My concern is that writers like Coates need to balance the obvious fact that historical racism is still rampant—and will always cast a long shadow—with the fact that some policies have shown improvement. This isn’t to give ourselves a pat on the back. It’s because people want to defund and take away anti-poverty programs, access to voting, criminal justice reform and educational programs. If people insist that things haven’t changed, it makes all current policies look pointless.

Maynard Love makes another sharp point:

I wonder whether Coates’ race analyses will be remembered for centering mainly on issues that the public has grown more OK ceding ground on, but precisely because those issues are so abstract as to mean nothing tangible. For example, it is easier to entertain the exercise of “a case for reparations” than a case for something more immediate—say, a case for race-conscious public job creation.

An African immigrant who prefers to remain anonymous provides a new angle:

I greatly admire Ta-Nehisi Coates, and because of this admiration, I didn’t want to write anything that might be perceived as against him. Between the World and Me demonstrates a clear case for the existence of racism as an extension of flawed policies, logic and myth. Although Mr. Coates says he does not want to convince whites, the writing belies this assertion.  As a black person, I do not need to be convinced; I know most of this knowledge.

My issue with Mr. Coates’s work is that it is severely limiting. It places the weight and burden of racism on the victim and asks them to be content to live with the secular moral high ground while pursing The Struggle. It also doesn’t appropriately speak to women (not that it could, given his sex) and it doesn’t speak to the black immigrant experience.

As a child of late ‘70s era immigrants, I was never encouraged to buy into a particular Dream; the focus was on improving your life past what your home country could do for you, but with no real belief in the system. Growing up, I was wary of the police but did not fear them. When I was spanked, it was because I had done something my parents deemed was wrong, not because they had to prepare me to interact safely with white institutions, as Mr. Coates suggests.

Despite immigrant status, racism affects every black person; so I was hoping for more of an optimistic takeaway from the book—a way forward through this mess.  Instead, the book is depressing and cynical. Whites are allowed to retain their optimism, hope, happiness, nationalism and God; blacks are left to be cynical, depressed atheists waiting for a secular deity (the law? the government?) to save them. It reads to me as resignation.

I would say to Mr. Coates that I can’t use an intangible ideal of The Struggle to fight another intangible ideal, The Dream. Some of us need to live beyond words in the real world. In my medical career, I need to be able to work alongside whites in the same institutions that have oppressed my race and do so without feeling the burden of constant suspicion and contempt. I need to feel good in the morning about being me and not have that feeling come from righteous victimization (albeit valid), bitterness, and the idea that The Struggle is my work and the legacy to my children.

James Shaw, on the other hand, bolsters TNC:

Thanks much for keeping this conversation going and for intervening to keep the signal-to-noise ratio favorable for all of us. Erik Vanderhoff in your previous post hit upon something that I think has been rather neglected, though not entirely overlooked:

I see in his book the kind of hope that emerges when parenthood is wedded to a firm faith in oblivion. When this life is all you have, when your children’s lives will be all they have, your very core becomes consumed with the parental obligation to wage war, precisely because your child’s future—and their children’s futures—are worth fighting for.

This, I think, is crucial to understanding TNC’s perspective, and it harks back to the months he and The Horde spent working through Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and Tony Judt’s Postwar.  Atheism necessarily means that this life is all there is; our lives now are the only lives we have.  Struggle, then, for a larger Justice or just to be becomes utterly central.  History does not really offer us much hope, but we can struggle.  And struggle saves us from utter despair.

Criticizing TNC because he proffers no solution strikes me as misguided.  Why should he be responsible for a solution?  He’s not responsible for the ugliness.  Perhaps we should read his work as an invitation to engage over a solution, but if the “Dreamers” refuse to truly engage, then TNC is left only with struggle.

Below is a quote from “The Myth of Western Civilization,” TNC’s final thoughts on Postwar.  I printed out these paragraphs two years ago and have kept the sheet at my desk to occasionally ponder them. I think they represent one of TNC’s highest points, perhaps joining George Orwell in the pantheon of crystalline clarity:

I don’t have any gospel of my own.  Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist.  (I have recently realized this.)  I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends toward justice.  I don’t even believe in an arc.  I believe in chaos.  I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely.  I don’t know that it all ends badly.  But I think if probably does.

I’m also not a cynic.  I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us.  Or perhaps not.  Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for the work.  I don’t know.  But history is a brawny refutation for that religion brings morality.  And now I feel myself more historian than journalist.

And lastly, Bryan Lutterbie looks to a famous legend:


Professor Melvin Rogers calls Ta-Nehisi Coates to task for a lack of hope, arguing: ‘Humility, borne of our ignorance of the future, justifies hope.’ Perhaps, but in this sense, hope is nothing more than the unknown and unknowable possibilities of the future, a notion that perhaps because we can’t read ahead to the end of the book it might have a happy ending. Coates sets aside hope—not out of despair, but out of deference for what is known, for what is now.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus writes, “A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.” What Coates offers to his son instead is a lucid glimpse into what is and why, an attempt to lay bare the myths and stories that underpin our “post-racial” America. Here is reality, Coates writes: “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.” It grounds this struggle in the here and now.

Rogers asks of this struggle, “to what end?” If there is no hope, what is the point? Camus again responds best when describing his absurd hero: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Your thoughts? Is there a specific part of the book you want to address? Email and I’ll update the post with your best points or publish a follow-up. We are closing the comments section for the time being but will post the most critical, civil responses via email. Update from a reader:

I would love to see a book club segment led by an expert on African American religious history. It seems to me like atheism is such a big part of this book, and a part that some people find comfortingly familiar and some people find distressingly foreign. I’d love to hear from someone who is deeply religious but practiced at thinking seriously about people who aren’t.

Similarly, it would also be nice to hear from some philosophers. Bryan Lutterbie’s comparison to Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus struck a cord for me. It seems to me that the book is as much or more about individual happiness and meaning as it is about refereeing social injustice. It’d be nice to see someone go into more depth on that.

Is that someone you? If so, hit up  Update from Kimberly Hampton, M. Div.:

I saw that one of your readers would like to see “a book club segment led by an expert on African American religious history.” If people are interested in African American atheism (and other theological positions), I suggest they pick up a copy of Anthony Pinn’s Varieties of African American Religious Experience. It is a great introduction. (He also has a memoir, Writing God's Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist.)

If one is interested in African Americans and Christian theology: The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race" by Willie J. Jennings, the classic Is God a White Racist? by William R. Jones, and James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. If one is looking for material written by black women, there is Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores Williams and White Women’s Christ, Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response by Jacquelyn Grant. Hope this helps.

Another reader, who identifies as an “AfAm atheist and descendant of at least two ordained ministers,” quotes from Tressie’s latest piece:

[Between the World and Me] is a departure from the rhetoric of the civil-rights movement, or at least the civil-rights movement that has been sanitized and commercialized for mass consumption. Because of these departures, Coates’s hope feels stark and brutal.

This is part of why I enjoy TNC so much.  He’s clinical, precise, and refuses to comfort. Tressie picks up on his distinction between the religious roots of the CRM® for social justice (to wit, the liberation theology of the Black church) and the religious roots of the CRM for mass consumption (to wit, white people). This distinction is key, but it’s almost always misunderstood by whites.  

You can see the conflicting interpretations of Christianity reflected in the role of Public Forgiveness and its “performance” in the wake of Black death by white supremacy.  There is an expectation that Black suffering is ennobling and is to be properly endured in a stoic, dignified way that is seen by whites as King-like, or even Christ-like.  The specter of ‘60s stoicism that Coates discussed has mutated into a mythical paradigm that ignores the past and current real-life brutal reasons for the behavior: human emotion in Blacks is read as hostile and justifies swift and violent reprisal; on a “good” day it justifies apathy.  

The concepts of Hope and Forgiveness are corollaries to that stoicism.  Hope embodies would could possibly be … maybe … perhaps; it doesn’t embody who you are or what you actually do.  And what may be forgiveness is functionally tamping down actions that may be perceived to be “threatening.”  These otherwise Christian acts may save your life and free you to fight another day.  But then again, they may not (see Emanuel AME).

The necessary predicate for personal forgiveness is actual remorse, contrition and self-reflection by the transgressor.  The expectation of forgiveness is a cruel and manipulative way to demand acquiescence to systemic and physical oppression.

A reporter asked the mother of Samuel Dubose if she would forgive her son’s killer.  This is the “craven absolution” masked as hope that Tressie decries.  Ms. Dubose conditioned her forgiveness upon the killer asking for it.  The expectation to Forgive because you have Hope is the ever-present demand for performance of social etiquette by Blacks towards Whites. If Ms. DuBose had expressed unmitigated contempt for an incompetent civil servant who killed the man she gave birth to, white sympathy would be greatly diminished.  

On the issue of religion generally: Christianity IS the de facto state religion.  For enslaved West Africans centuries ago, it would have been a serious physical risk to eschew the de facto state religion in favor of polytheism or pre-slavery Islamic beliefs.  Even today, it is a serious social risk for anybody (whatever the race) to not follow the state religion.  For Blacks, this risk is especially acute.  It adds another aspect to one’s identity that is not seen as right or good.

Thus, “churchiness” is a survival mechanism that affords you membership into one dominant culture.  It is a “privilege,” if you will: the one privilege that African-Americans have.