Between the World And Me Book Club: Your Final Critical Thoughts

Readers continue to scrutinize Ta-Nehisi Coates's bestseller. Does the book present a blinkered view of black Americans? Is it actually bigoted toward whites?

David Hilliard, chief of staff of the Black Panther Party, speaks to a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on June 19, 1970. He called for a new U.S. Constitution. (AP)

The Atlantic has published five pieces inspired by Between the World and Me, from Michael Eric Dyson, Emily Bernard, James Forman Jr., Stuart Stevens, and Harold A. Pollack. Three more pieces came from Tressie McMillan Cottom. None of them are especially critical of the book, so we’re posting the best pushback from readers to balance things a bit. Below are two more emails in that spirit. The first is from an African American woman who is more blunt with her gendered take on TNC’s book than Tressie was in her second essay. Here’s Misa Dayson:

Although the book resonated deeply with me on many levels (as well as challenged me), as a Black women who grew up in Harlem, I could not help but notice how Mr. Coates was speaking about the violence done upon Black bodies from a decidedly male perspective.

This bothered me for two reasons. First, I understood that as a letter written to his son, Coates' focus was on transmitting knowledge to his child on how to survive and thrive in the United States as a Black man. However, many times throughout the book Coates slips into generalizing language about Black people, without spending time reflecting on impacts of the various gendered expressions of white supremacy.

This brings me to my second critique/uncomfortableness with this generalizing tone. Throughout the book, Coates mentions the word “rape” a fair amount when talking about the plunder of the Black body as a necessity in upholding The Dream. However, he never actually names who bore the brunt of these sexual attacks. The reader is left to assume that he means Black women.

It felt too easy to repeatedly invoke the image of sexual assault of Black women at the hands of White men to make a point about the bodily effects of slavery and white supremacy. And it felt disappointing to have this image repeatedly invoked without spending some time reflecting on what it means for Black women to navigate a white supremacist world that conceives of our bodies as always available to all men, regardless of race.

While reading Mr. Coates’ description of how much mental energy was spent during his childhood figuring out how to safely get to and from school, I thought about how so much of my mental energy as a tween and teenager was spent figuring out what clothes to wear in public so as not to attract too much verbal harassment on streets and subways—verbal harassment I knew could turn to physical harassment if I did not deflect unwanted advances in a way that did not harm a man’s ego.

As a teenager living in an urban Black neighborhood, my worry over my body centered not on guns and fist fights, but on boys and men who were socialized to think of street harassment as harmless flirtation and fun. And my white girl peers did not experience this same level of daily harassment the way my Black and Latina friends did in our predominately Black and Latina neighborhoods.

And it is difficult to write those words because I know that Black men are not my enemy. I also know that because we still do not allow for popular discussions about Black women’s experiences to take equal center stage in discussions about racism, we are stymied in creating productive dialogs about what Coates calls “the beautiful struggle” against institutionalized white supremacy.

Next is a blistering critique from Kate W., who doesn’t want to use her last name “because I work in professional circles (the arts and news media) where anti-Coatesism is frowned upon big time”:

I couldn’t possibly express everything I wish to express about this book into one review, so I will offer some random thoughts in no particular order.

1. Mr. Coates is an outstanding writer. I say that with sincerity. In terms of raw ability, Mr. Coates is one of the best writers I have ever read. That being said, his rhetorical skills are woefully lacking. His arguments bounce between anecdotal and circular.

2. Mr. Coates claims that the death of Prince Jones is his political “origin story.” He writes, “After Prince, I fully accepted the laws of gravity.” You see, Mr. Coates is the Reluctant Warrior. This as a very old gimmick but apparently still packs a rhetorical punch for some people. Mr. Coates didn’t want to be in a rage with “White America”! He was just minding his own business when Prince Jones (a friendly acquaintance) was killed by a racist policeman (who happens to be black, but that fact is irrelevant for his purposes) and then Mr. Coates found his worldview rocked. He was now radicalized and fully awake to the horrors of the racist country he lived in.

I’m sorry, but given the fact that Mr. Coates was raised by two political activists—one of whom is a former Black Panther—I am not buying this. Mr. Coates comes by his “radicalness” honestly. It did not take the death of Prince Jones to turn Mr. Coates into a Black Nationalist author. He was raised with these ideas, and based on what I have heard him say in current interviews, he is also raising his son the same way (this is a shame).

But let’s take him at his word that this one event changed him. Please allow me a point of personal privilege here: I have a good friend (a white person) who is a quadriplegic as a result of being shot during a robbery by black men. I was also personally robbed at gunpoint by black men (in a separate incident) but was more lucky than my friend and lost only money.

If I were to follow Mr. Coates’s example, I would paint all black Americans with this brush. I would become “radicalized” and henceforth say that all black people are dangerous criminals. Does this make any sense, intellectually or morally? I hope not.

But when Mr. Coates tells this story, Charlie Rose, David Brooks, David Remnick and Jon Stewart fall over each other to fawn over him. Why are the two examples different? Why is bigotry against white people acceptable when bigotry against blacks is anything but?

3. This book is pure nihilism. Mr. Coates admits as much; this is not my opinion. Mr. Coates believes in chaos theory as applied to the social sciences. He takes specific exception with the following MLK quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He disagrees strongly with this quote. He is, apparently, unable to recognize that in less than 150 years the U.S. has gone from a country where slavery is legal to one with a black commander-in-chief, a black attorney general, a black Supreme Court justice, a black woman as governor of his home state, and scores of black people in positions of power at every level of government. Mr. Coates fails to see this as an “arc.”

Do I mean to say we are done “bending” and “arcing”? Of course not. There is still plenty of work to be done. However, if going from slave to president in less than 150 years does not qualify as an arc, what does?

I am deeply sorry that Prince Jones was killed. He seemed liked a promising young man with a bright future ahead of him. I am very sorry Prince was killed, but his killing says nothing about all white Americans. (It wouldn’t say anything even if the police officer was white, but again, he was black.) And it does not prove the end of any arc other than the arc of Mr. Coates’ rhetoric.

4. The book’s thesis is perhaps the most troubling part but certainly the most hyperbolic: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” Here is where the circular logic comes into play. When it is pointed out that the vast majority of black people who are murdered are murdered at the hands of other black people, Mr. Coates conveniently blames even this on White Supremacy.

For him, it’s as simple as this: there is literally nothing a black person can do wrong that is their fault, in a cosmic sense. Every moral, ethical or legal crime is caused by the effects of White Supremacy. Some people, including myself, characterize this as racism. Denying that black people are capable of being agents of their own life or destiny is the ultimate kind of bigotry.

Mr. Coates has repeatedly admonished both Bill Cosby and Barack Obama for lecturing blacks about personal responsibility, so at least he is consistent on this matter.

5. The white-shaming throughout the book. Mr. Coates seems to think it’s OK to insult all white people in the gravest ways possible. All white people exist on a spectrum that has “benign neglect” and “free rider” on one end and “violent torture murderer” and “slave master” on the other end. All white Americans are guilty; it is only a matter of determining where they fit on that guilt spectrum.

In Mr. Coates’ world, to wake up white is to wake up a guilty person. This acts as a kind of mirror image to his view of black people, who have no responsibility for anything in Mr. Coates' world.

6. Shutting down comments on his articles or blog posts. Of course people who are spamming or trolling should have their comments deleted. Hopefully this goes without saying. Mr. Coates, however, does not want to hear disagreement about his pieces, however worded. This is highly troubling coming from any person, but especially from a writer or intellectual. Mr. Coates should be more than happy (not merely willing) to preside over a free and open discussion of his work. It’s hard to trust the motives of someone who doesn’t do so.

In summation: Mr. Coates is a Black Nationalist. If he were a White Nationalist, I don’t think I need to suggest how he would be received by reader reviewers, the literary world, the academic world, or the news/entertainment media. Because he is a Black Nationalist and not a White Nationalist, he can expect to receive praise from them all.

White people are literally lined up around the block to get on “the right side” of this book and its author. They mistakenly and cynically believe that doing so will inoculate them against the charge of being a racist themselves. Mr. Coates can be as offensive and as negative as he wants to be and there will be thousands of people lined up to tell him how intelligent and insightful he is.

I do believe that Mr. Coates is highly intelligent. I base this observation on his writing ability and his public speaking ability. This is clearly a man of intellect.

But as far as insightful, I could not disagree more strenuously.

What about you? Care to defend Between the World and Me against that critique? Email and I’ll update this post with your best counterpoints. Update from Thomas Dale, who takes on “the old black-on-black crime cliché” in Kate W.’s email:

Mr. Coates directly addressed this in his dialogue with the Mayor of New Orleans at the Aspen Ideas festival, which I watched on YouTube.  Going from memory, he said that most murderers know their victims, and most people are killed by someone from their neighborhood.  Thus if you live in a black neighborhood, odds are that someone who tries to murder you will be black.  The same principle applies if you live in a white neighborhood.

Here’s that dialogue with Mayor Landrieu:

Elizabeth Sampat also addresses that issue:

The vast majority of violent crime is between people who already know each other, thus all intra-racial crime shares similar numbers. Because the country has a history of white people keeping Blacks segregated—through slavery, through actual segregation laws, through redlining—the fact that most people mostly know others of their own race is a product of white supremacy. Therefore, “black-on-black crime” is a product of white supremacy.

Kate W. bristles under what she refers to as “White-shaming” and accuses Coates of the narrative that “All white Americans are guilty; it is only a matter of determining where they fit on that guilt spectrum.” It’s honestly the only sentence she wrote that is true: we are all complicit. We all benefit (whether our family came over on the Mayflower or after the Potato Famine or to escape WWII). For white people who have grown up insulated in the Dream that Coates speaks of, with the beautiful lie of meritocracy, we need to feel as though our struggles are real and our successes are earned. And within the closed ecosystem of white society, they are! But the bodies of millions lay beneath our feet and we don’t even know their names. That doesn't have to diminish your successes, but it should color them.

Coates didn’t write this book for white people, and has said on Twitter that he doesn’t care what white people think of it. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to overhear such an intimate conversation between a man and his son, one that was not meant for my ears.

Another email comes from Stephen Matlock:

I’m still reading the book, so I can’t give a full response. I can’t say I’m enjoying it. I can say I’m reading it and thinking about it.

I think the first email is spot on, in that the voices of black women are not being heard as well as the few voices of black men who have national prominence. It’s on us, the public, to seek out more diverse voices, even if they challenge us and contradict us. It’s a good thing to be challenged because it helps us think and grow.

I can’t say I fully understand the second email. I’m an evangelical Christian for 4+ decades, and I think what Coates says about the moral arc of the universe is spot on, in that there’s nothing in this world that moves us towards progress and justice—except us, who do the work towards progress and justice. There is no guarantee that we will progress. Witness, for example, the speed by which Republicans—once the party of Lincoln—leapt into action to strip voting rights from citizens after the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There was no need to do what they did; they did it because they are moving away from the progress gained in 50 years of American history.

I don’t want to dismiss Kate W.’s opinions. I just don’t think they’re based on an understanding of Coates’ position. He might be making certain errors in analysis, but he is not wrong in his awareness or his experiences. If he makes errors, help him out by proposing better analyses.

A final email, from Jerae Kelly:

People cling to the idea of hope like they are hanging from a ledge. Recently, the Baltimore Sun published a poignantly titled op-ed, “In Baltimore, Hope Can be a Dangerous Thing” in which the author (a Baltimore City school teacher, like myself) describes that we continue to have hope even though we know we will be hurt.

This resonated with me—save for the callousness that builds each time I’m hurt, that I fear will overwhelm me someday. But after reading Between the World and Me, I found comfort in Coates’ idea of “verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope” because verbs, actions, and struggle are tangible, while all the others are not. Hope requires an expectation, while struggle creates the expectation. I believe this is what he meant when he wrote, “The struggle is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of the world under your control.”