on Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)
At Cambridge University in 1965, James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. debated the following question:** “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the Negro?” Baldwin explained how the American power structure systematically oppresses the black individual who must ultimately tell him/herself that “nothing you have done has helped you, and nothing you will do will help you or your children.”
Buckley agreed that racism in America is “a dastardly situation” and only a “charlatan” would say otherwise. But he insisted that Americans (ie., whites) care about these iniquities and that racism persists due to two factors: 1) racists continue to oppress for their own benefit, and 2) the “Negro community has failed to make certain exertions” to improve its own welfare. Buckley’s racists are the most obvious ones of that time, angry southern Democrats who would become Republicans soon enough.
When Ta-Nehisi Coates reflected in The Atlantic on the demise of the old guard at The New Republic, he could have been delivering Baldwin’s rebuttal 50 years ago. Coates wrote, “White people are often sincerely and greatly pained by racism, but rarely are they pained enough. That is not true because they are white, but because they are human.” To revisit the Baldwin/Buckley debate is to watch one’s illusions of a post-racial America vanish – because the terms of engagement have not changed.
Coates’ three-part essay, Between the World and Me, today stands at the top of the non-fiction bestseller list. Spiegel and Grau moved up the book’s publication date to July 14, two months ahead of schedule. Last Friday night, NPR’s Michele Norris led a dialogue with Coates at the benefit opening of the Martha’s Vineyard Book Fair. Coates told the audience that his editor, Christopher Jackson, had kicked his ungainly manuscript into shape, excised many pages, and steered the author to address the essay to his son, evoking Baldwin’s open letter to his nephew James. It was excellent editorial advice.
James Baldwin famously slammed Richard Wright’s novel Native Son as a screed in literature’s clothing, but perhaps he would have no such issues with Between the World and Me, a screed in memoir’s cloak. In the debate, Baldwin asserted that American capitalism was established on the backs of black slaves. Coates makes the same point, though you may want to turn to Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told (Basic Books, 2014) for a powerful rendering of this history. “The Dream” is Coates’ prime target – the entrenched persistence of prejudices that not only exclude individuals from the productive workings of a liberal democracy, but demean and control their bodies and kill. Between the World and Me is heated testimony to the corroding effects of living perpetually in fear.
He writes, “This is the foundation of the Dream – its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgement of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any on going effect on our present.”
Chris Jackson’s prudent advice not only led to the injection of poignancy into Coates’ narrative but also gives the author the opportunity to consider his own uncertainties – since his son Samori is growing up in a multi-cultural environment with advantages and freedoms the father never enjoyed. But fear dominates. He writes, “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.” Between the World and Me is most engaging while tracing Coates’ own education. With a pendulum’s swing, Coates moves from memory to blunt assessment and back: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.”
Meanwhile “the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” The calls for diversity “allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is a real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed tom protect them. The truth is the police reflect America in all its will and fear.” But Coates isn’t interested in police action per se. His indictment goes deeper. America for him is a plunder state, ruinous in every respect, a metastasis of disaster capitalism. Coates says, “the Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers,” but generalization and constriction of narrative are his tools as well. The world is portrayed as populated solely by two types: the objector and the abdicated. Immediacy is his brio. Between the World and Me rushes to speak and was rushed to market because it concentrates what otherwise is diffused in the din of media.
Of course, it is not the son (a narrative convenience) whom Coates addresses but an audience lulled by illusion and “good intentions.” The truths are spooned out, repeated over and over in a manner meant to suggest an essential obsession. By dividing the essay in threes, the editor adds some resting places – but the breaks don’t function in a meaningful way. This compact book could have been even further edited and tightened without damaging the effect.
“I wanted you to have your own life, apart from fear – even apart from me,” Coates writes. “I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” At a crucial time as a young man, he realized that “the point of my education was a kind of discomfort.” I know, too, that I am marked by old codes. The discomforts of Between the World and Me make those markings impossible to ignore.
[Published July 6, 2015. 152 pp., $24.00 hardcover]
You may watch a video of the Baldwin/Buckley debate by clicking here.