The dust-jacket summary of Between the World and Me promises a book that “clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.” I’m still looking for that last part. For that matter, I also wouldn’t mind finding that “bracing” confrontation with our present. There is nothing either transcendent or bracing in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s interpretation of race in America today. On the contrary, his view of things is relentlessly pessimistic and downbeat. This is only partly the result of the reality he sees and describes. It is mostly because of Coates’s approach to that reality and all of life: he is a secular observer in a secular age.
One brief, blunt passage sums up Coates’s view of contemporary America’s racial situation:
“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our [black] bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching) and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.
It’s hard to argue with Coates’s portrayal. Just look at our current state of affairs: the long list of dubious or plainly unjustified killings and abuse of black citizens. The wide racial gaps in income and wealth, abetted by continued systemic discrimination in public policies and private practices in housing, employment, and other fields. The drumbeat of reports on black children growing up in poverty at rates many times higher than white children. The toxic political atmosphere in which one major party has become a virtual captive of undisguised nativists and racists. All these things—along with many others—virtually scream “domination and exclusion.”
But does that snapshot give the full picture of race in America? Must the nation’s racial history not also be viewed dynamically, as if it were a film, beginning at Jamestown in 1619 and advancing to the present? Viewed that way, the picture hardly becomes rosy and cheerful, but it does show undeniable change and progress for the better.
Ta-Nehisi Coates burst into national prominence in 2014, when his lengthy essay, “The Case for Reparations,” appeared in the Atlantic, where he is a national correspondent. Copiously researched and documented, the article demonstrated how African Americans have had their lives and labor systematically plundered over the nearly four centuries since the first black slaves arrived in the United States. And contrary to common belief, the plundering didn’t stop when slavery ended, or even with the civil-rights laws of the 1960s. It continued—and continues—to the present, thanks to discriminatory government policies and industry practices that allow outrages like redlining, contract sales, racial steering, and other discriminatory behaviors.
Over the past year, Coates has become the media’s indispensable commentator on race in America, the black person without whose opinion no story on race can be considered complete. Between the World and Me, his second book and the winner of this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction, is a series of three essays cast as letters to his adolescent son. This epistolary device recalls the approach employed by the late James Baldwin, who addressed his thoughts on race in America to his nephew in his 1962 volume, The Fire Next Time. Indeed, Coates has been compared to Baldwin by no less a figure than the Nobel-winning novelist Toni Morrison.
Like Baldwin, Coates is a keen diagnostician of America’s racial ills. Indeed, some of his most trenchant observations virtually echo Baldwin’s. For example, on the tendency of white Americans to flee from any hint of guilt for racial violence and inequity, Coates writes: “My experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” And Baldwin: “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen…that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…. But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
But what Coates and Baldwin have in common is far less interesting than what distinguishes them. For all the ferocity of his rhetoric and his moral judgments, Baldwin, who began his public life as a teenage evangelical preacher, remained fundamentally Christian in his outlook, which is to say he remained fundamentally hopeful. His was the cry of a prophet, calling the wayward to repentance and holding out the hope of avoiding God’s terrible judgment. At the conclusion of The Fire Next Time, Baldwin writes: “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
Coates, by contrast, offers no such palliative. Hope is not his style; it doesn’t fit with who he is and what he believes. “Some time ago,” he writes early in the book, addressing his son, “I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory.” And again, reflecting later on the death of a college friend at the hands of a police officer, he writes: “Raised conscious, in rejection of a Christian God, I could see no higher purpose in Prince’s death. I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”
Inevitably, then, his judgments are grim and unleavened by hope. He writes in his conclusion: “Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more.” His advice to his son is, simply, “to struggle”:
Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.
The Dreamers to whom he refers are white people, who not only insist on their innocence but remain determinedly oblivious of the crimes of their ancestors and of their own resulting privilege. It cannot be an accident that Coates chose to convert the word “dream,” which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made into an expression of the nation’s aspiration to racial justice, into a synonym for hopelessness and despair.
In the end, Coates’s view reminds me of nothing so much as Matthew Arnold’s gloomy lament at the end of his poem “Dover Beach”:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.