Between the World and Me Book Club: Your Critical Thoughts

Readers discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates's bestseller. Is it too bleak? Does it convey any hope for race relations? Is that even the point?

Sasha Obama, right, along with two of her friends, board Air Force One on July 17, 2015. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Thus far, The Atlantic has posted three essays on Between the World and Me, from Michael Eric Dyson, James Forman Jr., and Tressie McMillan Cottom, all of them uncritical. Among the reader responses so far, the strongest critique comes from Melvin Rogers, a professor of African American Studies and Political Science at U.C.L.A.  Rogers emailed an eloquent seven-page review, but below is a shorter edited version, posted with permission:

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.

A long-time commenter, Cassandra777, is more blunt:

Yes, Ta-Nehisi can write. But I miss the TNC who wrote about Jane Austen and the Cowboys and parallels between the Kulaks and Jews and Blacks, even the Civil War, before that got nutty … when his blog offered a fresh perspective, even if one disagreed with him.

Now, he appears to me stuck in a single groove. It’s a groove that has made him famous, that resonates if you have a certain outlook, but instead of something fresh and original, it’s the same message of the last thirty years. The fact that it is written in a beautiful style doesn’t change the reality that the content itself is tired and unoriginal and his focus has narrowed down to this one subject.

Sublimesl adds:

The problem with reducing all of history, and indeed individuals, into these identities, as TNC does, is you are condemning the future to be very similar to the past. And you tacitly give credence to the assumptions of the worst of the white supremacists—that everything is all about these identities, that that is your authentic self. That’s a lie; we are first and foremost individuals.

A few readers addressed the first of three reviews by McMillan Cottom, who sees Between the World and Me as “two texts masquerading as one.” Here’s Nick Hudson:

I didn’t read the book as two different books, and given that TNC has repeatedly said he wrote for a black audience, I’m not entirely sure how helpful it is to frame it as one book to whites, another to his son.

Weirdly enough, though, given this framing, it was the personal stuff he wrote to his son—how Ta-Nehisi worried so much about the vulnerability of his son and how that gave his own life additional weight and meaning—that struck me the strongest. I am childless (and have no desire to have kids), but this part moved me the most. There’s something about how your connections with others, particularly your family, make you vulnerable but at the same time give you joy and meaning. I think Coates captured that extremely well.

Commenter KCL:

I really don’t get the two texts theory. I see a book that is structured the way that all constructive conversations are supposed to be, along the lines of “This is what it feels like from my perspective … am I understanding correctly how it feels from your perspective, son?” I feel that first part about “my perspective” is also extremely relevant for a white audience, but that’s just collateral.

McMillan Cottom, unlike Rogers, finds the second part of book “inherently, irrationally hopeful.” But many readers disagree, including JohnJMac:

Telling young people that there is no hope except for the pride of resistance is, in my opinion, not healthy, especially when TNC himself represents the very hope he rejects.

Here’s long-time reader Baiskeli, an immigrant from Africa:

I can see why some people have called this work profoundly pessimistic, but I think they are wrong. Sometimes the truth is bleak, and being clear-eyed about it is not pessimism; it is necessary wisdom.

Reading his book makes me realize how profoundly vulnerable one is growing up black in America. This is something that someone who is white might never understand, and it’s even something that someone who is black but not originally from the U.S (like me) struggles to understand at a visceral level.

In his landmark book Whistling Vivaldi, Claude M. Steele introduced me to the concept of cognitive load, the mental effort of attempting to not fit a stereotype. I realized just how much cognitive load is imposed on black children and teens, navigating a dangerous and treacherous landscape (physical, mental and emotional). It’s made explicit in Between the World and Me:

It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments. It is the last bottle of wine that you have just uncorked but do not have time to drink. It is the kiss that you do not have time to share, before she walks out of your life. It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three-hour days for us.

An email from reader Mike Harrington:

I think the book ended on a somewhat hopeful note and that Coates does not want his son to lose himself despite having so much stacked against him. Funnily enough, the book reminded me of the recently ended manga series Naruto, which I’ve read for the past 15 years. There is a quote from a character that I could really relate to:

A real ninja is one who endures no matter what gets thrown at him... There is only one thing that matters if you are a shinobi [ninja], and it isn’t the number of jutsu [skills] you possess. All you need is the guts to never give up.

Of course, black people are not ninjas (or are we?). But it does take a lot to never give up, no matter what is against you.

Here’s KCL on the hope vs fatalism question:

I think the book is hopeful and actually pretty conservative. Conservative in the sense that no one is going to perfect the world in your lifetime, or maybe ever, but that’s ok.

Sandy Young—who used to help moderate TNC’s comments section, The Horde—agrees with KCL:

I have always found Coates to be a remarkably conservative voice in so many ways. This book, with its emphasis on fatherhood, on family, on learning, is another example.

KCL responds to Sandy:

I don’t want to disagree with your point (because I mostly do agree), but I also think we’re talking about a different kind of conservatism. There’s conservatism on the continuum of “follow your bliss” to “hard work and responsibility,” which I think is what you might be talking about. And then there’s conservatism as the opposite of the liberal reaction that somebody ought to do something, even if we don’t know what that something is or whether it will work.

To me, this is a conservative book precisely because critics are angry about the lack of answers or solutions in it. It does offer some ideas for moving forward, but they’re philosophical ones instead of political ones. So I don’t think Ta-Nehisi is actually a conservative—“The Case for Reparations,” for example, does think in terms of policy solutions—but he obviously has empathy for it.

Erik Vanderhoff, a long-time member of The Horde, emails his take:

I find the book hopeful, but I do not see it as the kind of hope that is uplifting. Mr. Coates does not appear to hope for a day of racial harmony free from quiet mutters of “nigger,” free from women and men clutching their pockets when a black man nears, free from violence meted out against our melanined brethren.

No, 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. You have to hope that progress is possible, because the only other option is the self-centered apathy of nihilism.

Sometimes you have to cling to those dragons and keep charging the windmills, even if they seem so immense that you are certain you and your donkey are going to get beat down with the eternal, mechanical indifference of the wind. You just get back up, slap your fat squire on the shoulder, and mount another charge.

Because as long as we have children, we have hope.

Your thoughts on the book? Email and I’ll update the post with your best points or publish a followup. We are closing the comments section for the time being but will post the most critical, civil responses from readers via email.