Ta-Nehisi Coates’ second book, Between the World & Me forcefully rises to the high standard suggested by Toni Morrison’s full-throated endorsement on the cover. As she says, he fills
the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died… The language… like Coates’ journey, is visceral, eloquent and beautifully redemptive.
And all this in a mere 152 pages.
Published by chance in the heat of a rising Black Lives Matter! movement, he writes of his own 15-year journey, as the painfully concerned father of a son, himself a fully engaged son of 60’s Black Panther activists, the thankful student of a grandmother with instincts of a genius, and as a “damaged” black man and budding intellectual, forced to survive the trials of Baltimore’s mean streets. By writing so artfully and from the heart, as he relentlessly probes his world, Coates provides an indispensably human extension to essential history & analysis begun by Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) and Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow.)
Written as a letter to his 15yr old son, his tone is direct but his narrative voice is not simple or simplistic, as he avoids established and inflammatory rhetoric. Instead, he employs the unusual device of creating metaphorical coding for concepts he develops with challenging and sometimes changing meanings. These multiple and interlocking codes begin with the title itself, taken from Richard Wright’s poem of the same name. The World is Coates’ evolving perception of a life entirely outside his own, defined by a concept of Race that is itself parsed and examined in some detail. Coates’ book describes his life’s quest to understand all the implications of that vast space between the World and his own experience.
Wright’s work is quoted at the book’s start with only the first stanza, but a full reading of the poem reveals the raw visceral meaning: for Wright, that space perniciously encompasses the breadth of Jim Crow experience, evoked in verse as a quiet forest, the scene of a most hideous lynching, which rises to threaten the observer’s own Body (which is yet another code Coates uses.) Both title and poetic source are well chosen for Coates’ book.
The World apart from Coates’ own experience is constructed by Dreamers, who are “White – or believe themselves to be white,” as America’s vaunted, inclusive melting pot is exposed to be a muddy “anything but Black” with no cultural identity of its own that is not associated with power.
Race is a convenient contrivance enabled by this insidious fallacy about whiteness, in one of the most demographically and culturally diverse nations in the world. It is a frame that is based in the power relationship of oppression. The Dream is the ideology of that World apart, evoking prosperity, security, possibility – promoted by images that are everywhere around him: TV programming, advertising, schools, churches; the Dream does not appear on the Streets in his Baltimore neighborhood. This entire construct serves to threaten his Body in every moment, as it has for centuries, as the Streets’ death rate rises, infecting his mind and very existence.
The Mecca is the promise he does find – in knowledge, in books, in a vibrant and diverse Black culture, in his father’s radical heritage, in Malcolm X – fully bursting to fruition with Howard University in D.C. (a many-branched family tradition.) His exploration is unbridled, the evolution of his thought continuous and insightful, always delving deeper. A studied understanding of the 1960s overlays his parents’ own experience, becoming almost contemporary for him. (Here, the recent Black Panther documentary is also relevant.) He examines the history of slavery and its neverending web of consequences.
Coates’ concept of community expands steadily as he observes Howard’s international palette of “black.” In one extreme, he is dismayed to find gay & lesbian culture is an accepted part of this Mecca, so far from his Streets. His young family moves to New York City and he is staggered by the spectrum of cultures, from opulent Dreamer Broadway to Harlem, yet some black faces pretend to jump the gap. He takes his son on visits to Civil War battlefields as he seeks to understand. He spins out of his urban northeast orbit with a visit to Paris, and his mental landscape shudders again; yet still there is that space “between the world and me.”
The book begins and ends with the Black Body metaphor, which includes a complex relationship with his father and reoccurs throughout as his existential fear jumps between himself, his son, his friends and his people. When an affluent Howard acquaintance is later murdered by a black cop, the fear is crystallized and colors his perception.
Some years later, his visit with the friend’s mother is compelling and unwinds into a staggering 3-page finish for the book. Above all, with the death of her son in spite of her life’s efforts and “success” at providing him every opportunity, she wishes only that the entire Dream that produced his death fail in some “national doom.” Coates reflects on his culture’s age-old hope that the Dreamer plague would somehow be punished, an idea encouraged from Marcus Garvey to Malcom X. But his outlook has become too expansive; “I left the Mecca knowing that this is all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sewn, we would reap it right with them.”
His maturing eye spans a wide view of Dreamer destruction, now-unbridled:
[progress] freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors rising with the seas.
So what of the future? For a capsulized message to his son, one may well look earlier in Coates’ story, to this statement of purpose directed to his son:
The [Dreamers] who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and wonderful world.
Between the World and Me – and Coates’ singular literary voice – are indispensible for those interested in the ever-unfolding lineage of African-American commentary and literature. He does not provide answers; he challenges us with new ways of seeing our heritage with eyes wide open, even as his own exploration continues. He is only now 40 years old and there is no sign his seeking is complete, so we may expect more from him.
Pops’s rating: 9 revelations.
I don’t know about you, but I want to read it now.