Between the World and Me: Baldwin's Heir?

By being himself, Coates is precisely the sort of writer that he needs to be.

James Baldwin, right, discusses a civil-rights incident with Bayard Rustin, left. (AP)

Over the next few weeks, The Atlantic will be publishing a series of responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. (An excerpt is available online.)

This is the second in a series. Readers are invited to send their own responses to, and we will post their strongest critiques of the book and the accompanied reviews. To further encourage civil and substantive responses via email, we are closing the comments section. You can follow the whole series on Twitter at #BTWAM, or to read other responses to the book from Atlantic readers and contributors.

The most obvious point of the titanic curiosity that has greeted Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me may also be its most overlooked: Across the nation, in parlors and schoolrooms, in restaurants and train stations, on television and radio, in churches and barbershops, in newspapers and on blogs, on Twitter and Facebook and nearly every other social-media platform, we are talking, all at once, finally, about a black man’s book. Not his death, thank God, or his latest film, or his hot rap record. We are talking instead about his willful and unapologetic act of grand literacy. Perhaps I’m of a generation that still takes pride in extraordinary accomplishments by black folk. And recently no accomplishment has been bigger than this: A young man who uses words to expose the extravagant hoax of whiteness has also won a hearing among some of its most stubborn beneficiaries. It is remarkable to call a spade a spade, so to speak, when it comes to white identity; it is more remarkable to be caught doing that, and to get away with it, and not just that, but to prosper in ungluing the artifice of race with a blow torch—with a relentless stream of words hot to the page, and even more, burning millions of other pages marshaled in defense of a white identity that he has just unwritten.

Of course, he isn’t the first to do this. His most obvious predecessor—one he is conscious of, one he aimed for—is James Baldwin. Some have taken offense to the comparison, proffered, mind you, by no less a literary light than the greatest living black writer, arguably the greatest ever: Toni Morrison. (Sorry Ralph Ellison acolytes, but the bar is high, and the tab is a four-book minimum; with Ellison’s single gesture of fictional literary genius, Invisible Man, he may count as Biggie, if we compare writers to rappers—and why not, in homage to Coates’ literary pedigree—but Morrison is what Lauryn Hill might have been in her world had she had Jay Z’s career).

When Morrison brought Coates into Baldwin’s orbit, she wasn’t suggesting that they write sentences alike; they don’t. Baldwin exults in luxurious, labyrinthine punctuation.  A Venn diagram of a Baldwin paragraph reveals a sublime congestion of commas that control the velocity of meaning, and a splatter of colons, semi-colons, and dashes that support more dependent clauses than a serial monologist. Coates’ lines are cleaner, simpler, gliding on the speed of graceful modifiers and sublime analogies; he also limns his meaning with pithy bursts of self-contained description. They are both beautiful styles. What they share in common, and what I believe Morrison meant in the comparison, is a forensic, analytical, cold-eyed stare down of white moral innocence. And the concomitant insistence that we awaken from the fantasies, and swear off the myths, of the imago caucasi, the collective white imagination that has made the world, or at least this country, in its image.

The James Baldwin comparison has got up the dander of the wooly madcap set; renunciations abound. Is it bad to want to be like Baldwin? When you want to be great why not emulate the greatest? LeBron wants to be greater than Jordan and Kobe? Beautiful, we’re the beneficiaries of the effort. Serena wants to cast her name beyond any other in tennis; Steffi who? Bravo. Kendrick Lamar wants us to mention his name with Nas and Jay Z? Pimp your butterfly. Coates wants to sing with Baldwin in the choir of black eloquence, and that’s a problem? That level of literary ambition is a good thing, or else what’s a prose heaven for? Coates did a daring thing: He took Baldwin’s conceit from the first and briefest section of The Fire Next Time, a letter penned to his nephew, waged a bet that the American public could absorb even more of the epistolary device, and wrote a book-length essay to his son. Recognize his risk; credit his chutzpah; applaud his intuition.

Some have claimed that because Coates isn’t an activist, he dare not assume Baldwin’s mantle. (Let’s not forget that even Martin Luther King dissed Baldwin when he declared he wasn’t a Negro leader and that it was the press that had dubbed him a Negro spokesman; that may account for skipping over Baldwin as a promised speaker at the March on Washington in 1963, a snub that cut him deeply.) But are we that literal? No heterosexual person can therefore fill Baldwin’s shoes? I’ve been a public intellectual and an activist for the last quarter century; I admire those who find their way from the classroom to the protest march.

But I also admire those who take the time to figure the reasons for the rebellion in the streets. Coates need not ever speak at a rally to be heard there, especially by those who are fed by his ravenous intellect and who drink in his considerable insight. His writings compose a powerful moral force for good; his words aid a thinking populace to find its ethical orientation and its justifications for action. Coates’ essay on reparations summed up public policy and rigorous social-scientific research on poverty and housing; he gave literary legs to an idea that walked right into the minds and mouths of folk who had previously spurned the concept or dismissed its relevance. He has battled noted liberal thinker Jonathan Chait on the Internet about the culture of poverty; vanquished conservative writer Shelby Steele in debate on television; and Between the World and Me caused New York Times columnist David Brooks to fret out loud about his whiteness. Lord, man, isn’t that enough? How much more of a Baldwin figure need Coates be?

Come to think of it, James Baldwin couldn’t be James Baldwin now. His herculean elegance may be lauded, but how well read in Baldwin are his fiercest defenders and newest advocates? It takes philosophical patience, and a universe of references spotted, looked up, traced, and then applied, to understand Baldwin’s scope. Twitteracy doesn’t necessarily encourage that sort of patience. Plus segments of Twitter, besides championing him, might assault Baldwin’s looks; hateful quarters of social media amplify the horrible discomfort with complicated blackness—precisely the sort of blackness that Baldwin embodied—in twisted retweets and damaging reposts.

If Baldwin couldn’t be Baldwin now, he’d more than likely be Coates, or somebody like him. By being himself, Coates is precisely the sort of writer that he needs to be—the sort of writer that we need, too, since every age gets the writers it deserves. Ta-Nehisi Coates is an enormously gifted writer who, while feeding his hunger to eloquently tell the truth about race, has also fed a nation starving for that same truth. That’s more than enough.