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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”: The Dream and the Pain of History

Between the World and Me, the new book by The Atlantic‘s silver-penned editor Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a fast-detonating truth bomb in the hands of its readers. At once a deeply personal memoir, an incandescent sociopolitical essay, a tight-packed literary pamphlet, and a species of impassioned secular sermon on the African-American perspective in a supposedly “post-racial” society that is inherently anything but, Between the World and Me ought not to be as essential as it is. But a civil society such as that of the United States of America that continues to target black bodies for destruction and plunder, to echo Coates’ bluntly effective terminology, requires such a searing critique.

Coates’ first book, The Beautiful Struggle, was more of a proper memoir, albeit one that sought to make sense of the fearful but joyous everyday reality of growing into one’s black adult self in America, and Between the World and Me is also firmly grounded in personal experiences, in the galvanizing force of memory. Coates is a highly prolific writer, producing more traditional but still deeply powerful long-form journalism for the prestigious East Coast magazine that employs him (such as his mighty piece “The Case for Reparations” from last summer) while also blogging and tweeting about current events and politics but also classic hip-hop, basketball, video games, learning the French language, American and world history, and whatever else strikes his fancy. His many outlets for public writing seem to be admirably treated as blackboards or notebooks to scrawl down and refine his ideas, to focus and sharpen his prose for when he needs it the most.

Between the World and Me is packed with import, composed with a sort of careful forcefulness. Sentences land heavy body blows; a paragraph can leave a reader winded, staggering. Organized as a letter to his teenaged son (which Coates admitted in a recent Daily Show interview was a “literary conceit”), the book’s observations are cohered by this “advice to a son” organizational principle, like Polonius advising Laertes without the comic foolishness. It repeats key terms like mantras or leitmotifs, linking the way that Coates understands American society, politics and history with his own experiences and those of other African-Americabetweentheworldandmens around him and in the national news.

Coates writes of the concept of White America as a mass self-justifying fantasy, “the Dream” of “people who think they are white” (the phrase of James Baldwin, whose book-length essay The Fire Next Time is a strong influence on Between the World and Me). The Dream’s foundations for 400 years and into the present day are erected on the broken and economically exploited bodies of African-Americans and the internalized fear that the ever-present threat of that disembodiment creates in America’s seemingly perpetual underclass. Not merely slavery but the attacks on Reconstruction, the systemic exclusion of Jim Crow, segregation, housing policy, ghettos, and the prison system, the deadly terrorism of lynching and the KKK, and myriad other smaller and larger effects of the dehumanizing practices that have shaped the African-American experience in the United States are noted and discussed with clarity and wisdom.

Coates comprehends the “race problem” itself as a construction that intrinsically supports the Dream. “Race” is a construct and a malleable one at that; its boundaries shift, the compartments that it arranges around certain minorities and distinct groups frequently moved depending on the needs of the society. It is anything but immutable, is not even skin deep. And yet these racial distinctions have formed a tribal identity for African-Americans that Coates recognizes and values as well, and that he comes to understand as having much greater breadth and variety than is generally acknowledged upon attending Howard University, a historically black university that he refers to as “The Mecca”.

But as important and familiar as that identity is, as much beauty and truth as it imbues, Coates recognizes it as being the product of the eternal fear of imminent potential destruction for African-Americans. He wishes his son to understand and value the quotidian struggle with that inheritance of fear, but also to experience the wider world, such as Coates and his family glimpses in Paris (while also recognizing that this city’s romantic allure is built on a Dream as well). There is ever a note of sadness to Coates’ memories, to his words to his son about his own journey, the acknowledgement of progress but also of the tragedy of retained fear and of wasted days, months, years in its thrall.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique element of Between the World and Me is the atheist Coates’ rejection of the multi-generational narrative of progress and hope imparted by the African-American church. Without the belief in eternal life and an arc of history that bends towards justice, Coates is left feeling cold by the non-violent resistance of the beknighted Civil Rights movement and the continued exhortations for contemporary black activism to emulate it. “Allow us to break your bodies without resisting,” the gatekeepers of the Dream say with this insistence, “and perhaps those of us who believe themselves to be white might one day feel enough bad about it to put a stop to it.” To an atheist, as Coates says, the body is the soul. No expectation of becoming a shimmering ghost that gazes down beneficently from a cloud as ghettos improve for their black residents or the prisons empty and close or police are punished for shooting unarmed black men until they see no advantage in continuing to do so or, indeed, as a man with a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother becomes President is worth the destruction of the only vessel that will ever carry one’s consciousness. Fairy tales and myths are the tools of the Dream, and Coates rejects their easy comfort with admirable forcefulness and intellectual nuance.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at one point in Between the World and Me that he is no cynic, though that precise criticism has been levelled at him often in the reception of the book. In the New York Times opinion pages, David Brooks gave the book backhanded aesthetic praise while castigating Coates for displaying insufficient reverence for the Dream, that myth of inborn American benevolence and righteousness that confers an aura of blamelessness in any situation. The Dream is the only recourse for the Brookses of America, however, since the waking reality (what Brooks unreflectively calls Coates’ “excessive realism”) is one of fear and plunder for African-Americans, even in a supposedly tolerant modern nation.

Americans may wish – vaguely, amorphously, and perhaps disingenuously – for an end to this state of affairs, if they even allow themselves to acknowledge it. But Coates provides no simple political, social, or even emotional road map to the “healing” or “reconciliation” of the deep wounds that racism has inflicted on blacks and whites alike (the former with the wounds inflicted upon them, the latter with the inflicting of their wounds on their collective conscience). Indeed, healing is a lie, another aspect of the Dream, no less pernicious for its soft empathetic contours. Feeling the pain of history and experiencing the struggle with that feeling is the only path to progress between white and black in America, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ lightning-strike of a book makes it even harder to contemplate taking any other.

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  1. Larry and Lorraine Langager
    September 10, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    I saw him on Charlie Rose. A very captivating young man. Did you buy the book or get it from the Library? I’d like to read it.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  1. September 29, 2015 at 2:48 pm
  2. November 10, 2015 at 7:39 pm
  3. January 15, 2016 at 7:39 pm

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