Between the World and Me Book Club: Not Trying to Get Into Heaven

In departing from the religious rhetoric of hope and focusing on the “struggle,” Ta-Nehisi Coates retains the ability to relate to his multiple audiences.

David Goldman / AP

When you review Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic lots of people email you to tell you what you should have said. In this final installment of the Between the World and Me Book Club, I’m exercising some privilege by responding to some of that feedback.

Many white readers seem confused about my interpretation of the book as two texts in the first of three essays. To put a finer point on that, this book’s primary audience is white people. That is not to say that the book doesn’t also appeal to other readers, but rather, that the literary device of a book written as an open letter describes a racial reality that would only surprise white readers. And Coates goes about filling in those holes with remarkable effect for all readers. For example, Coates’s parental anxieties translate into a brilliantly bracing critique of capitalism that deftly links the history of enslaved labor to everything from global inequality to climate change.

Other readers have focused on the hopelessness in the text, both bemoaning it and celebrating it, like boot-camp survivors. I attribute this to two things. For some white readers, nothing short of black people wrapped in the American flag, serving apple pie to soldiers at a country-music festival on plates commemorating our liberation from the dark continent would qualify as hopeful enough. Coates could never have rendered the hope those readers find wanting in Between the World and Me because they don’t really seek hope, but rather, craven absolution. They need priests, and Coates is a writer.

But if white readers wanted pathological patriotism, black readers want religiosity. The final section of Between the World and Me is stronger for Coates’s refusal to give the people what they want.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is not trying to get into heaven and that troubles people’s waters. In passage after passage, Coates crafts a subtle argument about the role of the black church in black philosophies. Recounting his conversation with the mother of his murdered college friend, Prince Jones, Coates says:

As she talked of the church, I thought of your grandfather, the one you know, and how his first intellectual adventures were found in the recitation of Bible passages. I thought of your mother, who did the same. And I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you.

Reflecting on religiosity and historical memory, he writes:

Have you ever taken a hard look at those pictures from the sit-ins in the ’60s, a hard, serious look? Have you ever looked at the faces? The faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. They betray almost no emotion. They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe.

If Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, then for black people who don’t church, it is also the loneliest hour. Pew’s survey of religion in the U.S. finds that “nearly eight-in-ten African Americans (79 percent) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent among all U.S. adults.” And it’s not just religion that is very important to black life, but also churchiness. The cultural milieu of organized black church defines so much of how black people engage with the world. Even if your family only attended on Christmas and Easter, if you’re a black American and someone says “God is good!” you’re to know to respond, “All the time!” From the way we dance (Coates says he doesn’t dance; it could well be because he never learned to shout in a black church) to how we laugh and fight for citizenship—it has all always been tied up in a particular brand of religiosity. Part of that is the focus on the afterlife. The appeal to the “by and by,” the post-corporeal inheritance of earth, and the crown to replace your cross—these form the rhetorical foundations of black hope in literature, life, and politics.

Those foundations are not in Between the World and Me. Without it, Coates has to find a new rhetorical device. He settles on the struggle:

This power, this black power, originates in a view of the American galaxy taken from a dark and essential planet. Black power is the dungeon-side view of Monticello—which is to say, the view taken in struggle. And black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors. Even the Dreamers—lost in their great reverie—feel it, for it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying.

He is not the first to articulate a black politics without churchiness, but it is a particular moment for Coates to do so. The consensus seems to be that millennials are less religious than previous generations but that they maintain cultural beliefs rooted in religion. They may not go to church—but like black agnostics and atheists, they hold onto its linguistics and ritual. But I have been struck by the sight of youth organizers gathering under the “Black Lives Matter” banner, who seem to also be articulating a post-black church political language. Even as they welcome elders like the theologian and academic Cornel West as foreparents of the movement, some organizers are speaking without explicitly religious themes. The historian Robert Greene II says Between the World and Me is part of the post-soul era of literature. It wants to stretch the boundaries of blackness and do so using nontraditionally “black” subject matter. I think that is a smart read of the book’s place in the literary canon. I also think that the book is an entry in a long conversation about the role of religion, especially western Christianity, in the articulation of black people’s lives.

The final section of Between the World and Me resists solutionism which most Christian theologies embrace. Pragmatic solutionism might take the form of policy prescriptions, but religious solutionism adopts forms like a turn to prayer, or efforts to earn the password to the pearly gates. In literature, especially in literatures of oppression, the subject matter is so bleak that these forms of solutionism are meted out as treats for surviving the visceral experience of socio-political violence. In contrast, Between the World and Me is a noble attempt to speak for black folks without excluding the ones who aren’t trying to get into heaven. It is a departure from the rhetoric of “hope” that Barack Obama borrowed from the black liberation theology of Jeremiah Wright, for instance. It 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. But this imperfect but worthwhile book is no less beautiful for offering no benediction.