Why white America insists on its racial innocence
Book review by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Susan Sontag once observed: “Great writers are either husbands or lovers. Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband [while others have] the gifts of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness.” She was writing about Albert Camus, “the ideal husband,” but she also mentions in passing George Orwell and notably James Baldwin, “two other husbandly writers who essay to combine the role of artist with civic conscience.” In times of instability, passion and insanity, Sontag argues, readers tend to approach writers such as these with a loving appreciation that mixes the personal, moral and literary to a degree that transcends the sheer content of the work.
I thought a lot about this assessment as the pre-publication promotional copy and early reader reactions began appearing for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s pocket-size new memoir, “Between the World and Me,” a riveting meditation on the state of race in America. It could hardly arrive at a more tumultuous moment. On the heels of a massacre, allegedly by a young white supremacist, in a black church in Charleston, S.C., in the midst of a year of protest and unrest in response to a spate of extrajudicial police killings of blacks and highly contentious officer acquittals, to read the news is to feel that black America is under constant siege.
Into this storm Coates steps. A national correspondent at the Atlantic with an immensely popular blog, he has come in recent years, by dint of formidable writing talent and prolificacy, along with what can only be described as an attractive brand of humility and an earnest appetite for self-improvement, to occupy a unique place in the national conversation on race as a charismatic thought leader of the black and white left. The comparisons to Baldwin have been immediate: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died,” Toni Morrison wrote in a widely circulated blurb. “Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.”
He is not only conscious of the comparison, he courts it, beginning with the form of the book, a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori, that purposefully conjures Baldwin’s 1962 “My Dungeon Shook,” itself a letter to his 15-year-old nephew, James. And though the title is drawn from Richard Wright, the animating spirit of “Between the World and Me” is Baldwin’s, too: “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,” Baldwin writes to his nephew. “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
What Baldwin diagnoses as white America’s pitiful need for innocence, Coates refers to repeatedly as “the Dream”: “The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts,” he writes early on. “The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. . . . The Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” Whereas Baldwin warns his nephew, “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto. . . . You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity . . . that you were a worthless human being,” Coates’s brilliant innovation is not to articulate but to embody the point, drawing on his hemmed-in childhood in 1980s and ’90s West Baltimore. He sketches with an axiomatic precision what such a terrible assertion means in stark human terms.
What “Between the World and Me” does better than any other recent book I can think of is relentlessly drive home the point that “racism is a visceral experience.” As Coates so compellingly explains, “It dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” To be black in the ghetto of his youth “was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” Throughout this book, he describes being in an at times feverish, at times numb-inducing fear for the safety of his own body. Here he is as a schoolboy in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, suddenly aware that a slightly older black boy with a pistol holds his life in the crook of his finger; here he is on the eve of fatherhood, stopped by a Prince George’s County police officer and terrified that one mistake — or less than that — could render Samori fatherless before he is born. Crucially, both of these threats for Coates amount to exactly the same thing; both flow from the same poisoned wellspring of white supremacy that irrigated a country with the categorical disrespect for black life.
In sociological parlance, Coates is a rigid structuralist, without even a thinly veiled disdain for those who would argue that oppressed blacks, like that gun-toting teen who menaced him at the 7-Eleven, develop modes of behavior that contribute to and sustain their oppression. They are, he argues, subject to larger dynamics. The nakedness he feels before the criminal forces of the world “is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy. . . . It does not matter if the agent of those forces is white or black ... what matters is the system that makes your body breakable.” These are unoriginal though nonetheless tremendously profound insights that bear serious scrutiny; what he makes of them now will separate him not just from Baldwin but also from previous iterations of himself.
The Coates of “Between the World and Me” is in many ways the apotheosis of the increasingly somber essayist who in recent years has been described— and has frequently described himself — as working in a “blue period.” “I had always considered a vaguely defined ‘ hope’ to be a prerequisite for writing,” he wrote on his blog in 2014. “What kind of intellectual confronts a problem and concludes, ‘Beats the hell out me.’ ” Further back, in 2010, he ventured more: “Watching my own son interact with the world, in a way that I did not, I’ve often felt that there really could be — at some distant point — a postracial moment.” But that optimism belonged to a time before Trayvon Martin, before Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Renisha McBride, Walter Scott — there are too many to name.
Today, during the second administration of our nation’s first black president, his message for his son is bleak: “Our triumphs can never redeem this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have.”
A people in possession of nothing but struggle is by definition a people composed of eternal victims. This is a blues that even Baldwin, friend to Martin Luther King Jr. and most eloquent witness to the racial terror of the ’60s, could never allow. “It seemed to me that if I took the role of a victim then I was simply reassuring the defenders of the status quo,” Baldwin told the Paris Review shortly before he died; “as long as I was a victim they could pity me and add a few more pennies to my home-relief check. Nothing would change in that way. ... It was beneath me to blame anybody for what happened to me.”
Coates is still a remarkably young writer, not even 40 years old. He has now written two books, memoirs both. Whether, ultimately, he will deserve Baldwin’s enormous literary reputation — rooted in a singularly expressive style and a diverse body of groundbreaking novels, essays, journalism, plays and astonishing oratory — or whether he will strike future readers as a highly distinguished imitator of the master is a question that will clarify itself only with a much larger body of work.
What is clear now is that he has indisputably inherited the mantle of “America’s conscience.” It is a role he has sought — and also been thrust into — in the age of Obama. This is both a coveted and a dangerous position to be in. “A writer who acts as public conscience needs extraordinary nerve and fine instincts, like a boxer,” Sontag cautioned. “After a time, these instincts inevitably falter. He also needs to be emotionally tough.” Coates has already publicly faltered on account of hypersensitivity, most notably in a heavy-handed and cringe-inducing dispute with a minor journalist who had the temerity to question his hyperbolic anointment of the MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry as the nation’s “foremost public intellectual.”
But in this book he is firing on all cylinders, and it is something to behold: a mature writer entirely consumed by a momentous subject and working at the extreme of his considerable powers at the very moment national events most conform to his vision. It is hard, perhaps impossible, not to be enraptured by his righteous and — unlike with Baldwin — loveless indignation. For ours is a time not so much of husbands and lovers as of platonic friends, writers who inspire scant genuine emotion. Ours is the perfect time for a very good husband to exhort us all to feel.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME By Ta-Nehisi Coates Spiegel & Grau. 152 pp. $24
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, has described himself in recent years as working in a “blue period.”