Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me
Coates’ book is structured as a three-part letter to his 15 year old son Samori. The letter outlines things Coates has learned about life, in particular the social matrix black Americans inhabit, the social order in America, this social order’s historical underpinnings and ongoing presence in the lives of black people, what perpetuates this order, the “Dream” many white Americans inhabit, what white America sees as black Americans’ role (place) in the Dream, and how black Americans must negotiate the consequences of having the Dream and all it entails thrust upon them. Coates recounts how as he grew up, wisdom came through books, those he knows, and intensive contemplation of the barrier he perceives between his own experience and, well, see the title. Coates states he intends to apply a rigorous lens, an assertive criteria, to the fabric of American life; he writes, “I propose to take out countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard” (8). Part of this moral standard is to discuss blackness in America in terms of physicality. This ties into what he calls the “Dream.” Not the American Dream, though perhaps for some it is. The Dream, as he states it, is something fictional, akin to Plato’s shadows on the wall, though this fiction is predicated on the exploitation and degradation of the black body and soul. Other outsider groups surely meet the criteria of those whose exploitation (and labor) is essential to the Dream but whose participation in it is unwelcome, but given America’s legacy of slavery, resistance to gains in civil rights for black Americans, and, intertwinedly, the legacy of the Jim Crow era, the Southern Strategy, and modern-day hostility toward groups like BLM, aside (arguably) from native tribes whose subjugation and annexed territories facilitated the Dream’s creation and expansion, no other group outside of black Americans has been victimized by the Dream so viciously. There are multiple things to consider when evaluating how the desecration of black physicality is essential to the Dream: 1. Historically black physicality has been grist for the mill of white supremacy and indeed the structural viability of a white nation, and 2. The destruction, seemingly at will or whim, of that physicality, is a crucial affirmation of the power structure, and everyone’s place in it. This is what people fight to preserve.
Coates’ text is, at its core, about growing up, a statement from a father who wants to see his son do well, succeed, and above all things survive. Fittingly, Coates spends a lot of time discussing his own childhood, and the threats to one’s own physicality that were ever-present in his community. During his youth in Baltimore, what one might look at as a dominant alpha drive among black youth and adults to claim space was, in his experience, about defensively preserving one’s body, which was beset with danger from all directions. He describes a boy taking on multiple people in front of a liquor store – the imbalance in the confrontation, and the physical threat it posed, for Coates, is symbolic. He writes of the boy, “This was a war for the possession of his body and that would be the war of his whole life” (18). In Baltimore as a young man, Coates takes note and renders in his writing commonplace rebellions that in fact were assertions of power, authority, and security so many people were lacking in their lives and motivated to establish. Of the boys in his neighborhood who would play music loud, and publicly, he writes, “The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, their own bodies” (15).
Coates also describes his dissatisfaction with schools he attended. An underrepresented part of the book is why he dropped out of Howard University, which he describes this way: “The history, the location, the alumni combined to create The Mecca – the crossroads of the black diaspora” (40). Early on, we get hints that schools don’t facilitate his learning and growth. Coates writes “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance” (27). Coates describes his connection to Malcolm X, who achieved a path to literacy all his own. One sees parallels behind the freedom Malcolm X felt to pursue his own interests while imprisoned (rendered in the famous text “A Homemade Education,” an excerpt from his autobiography), and statements of Coates’ like “The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free” (48). Consistently we see Coates as an avid reader, with passages like “I devoured the books because they were the rays of light peeking out from the doorframe, and perhaps past that door there was another world one beyond the gripping fear that undergirded the Dream” (34). Again, the tension between this readerly self and what caused him to leave Howard feels like not only a subject for another book/letter, but even a necessary supplement to the biographical arc that structures this book. There seems to be lurking beneath this book an emerging discourse on what about education facilitated his growth as a writer and person, and what in fact obstructed or discouraged it.
A few more notes on “the Dream”:
We see it as the white-defined Dream that America was ordained by God and destined to exist primarily for whites, and minorities are seen as unappreciated grist for the mill, and as permanent subclasses that reinforce whites’ privileged status, and moreover black Americans are people who must be demonized so that excluding them from the Dream is justified. Coates writes that “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” (42). The Dream also depends on reductive logic that makes its existence possible and perpetuate-able, the lifeblood of which is uncritical thinking and blunt reinforcements of the social order. The blunt, limited discourse creates a rhetoric that will travel, be easily understood, and self-perpetuate. “The Dream,” Coates writes, “thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing” (50). Coates even seems to give somewhat of a defense of white Americans who submit to the Dream, suggesting that human beings are so small, fragile, and subject to the social pressures around them, that an individual is likely a victim of these pressures. He even goes so far as to say that a police officer who killed his college friend was “a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws” (83). We see also how Coates’ atheism denies him the refuge of religion, of God’ love, of redemption in the afterlife, things in which he does not believe. He tells his son, “You have not yet grappled with your own myths and narratives” (21). For an atheist, the refuge of God offers no solace – so where is it to be found? Anywhere?
Coates is involved in the subject of children, and future generations, how young people have different historical awarenesses and cultural reference points. He talks about differences he has seen in the experiences of black and white children; walking around New York, and seeing white children playing, talking, and laughing on the sidewalk, he observes that “The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs” (89). In another section he sees white adults spilling out of a bar with glasses of sloshing wine, showing no concern over being accosted by the police. He worries about these fundamental differences in how people see the world, and how people experience power and freedom within it. The white children he sees do not have to negotiate the reality that “There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream” (105). Perhaps most distressing, even when giving his child a better life than the one he had, his son Samori is not immune to the realities of black life in America. After watching his son become upset at the exoneration of Mike Brown’s killer, he says, “even your relatively privileged security can never match a sustained assault launched in the name of the Dream” (130).
Coates in the book does not mention that there are in fact millions of white Americans who have rejected the Dream, and who fight for a more equal and just society. Repeatedly he claims black Americans cannot singularly overcome the oppression of the Dream, and need allies. In future essays, the role progressive and liberal whites play, and have played historically, in opposing the Dream, might be referenced at least as part of his experience as an adult in America (right?). The book ends with a distressing passage on the enduring power of the Dream, how pervasive it is, and how Samori needs to accept there will be a need to struggle. Which Americans will be part of that struggle, and work to combat the destructiveness of the Dream? That is a question for all readers to consider after finishing this book.