I was really looking forward to finally digging into Between the World and Me. It seemed like the perfect type of summer reading: intellectually stimulating, yet short; intense in its topics and writing, yet luxurious in its prose. Ta-Nehisi Coates' conscious emulation of the structure and style of early twentieth century writers like James Baldwin (whom, to be fair, I haven't read) makes for a nice departure from more prosaic non-fiction. Epistolary as it is, Between the World and Me is a heartfelt and measured work.
As with my review of The Hate U Give, I'm going to lead off this review with some links to Black reviewers. These were much easier to find, and have received plenty of attention already, on Goodreads than Black reviews of THUG:
- J Beckett lavishes this book with praise, being able to identify with it and Coates' experiences on a very emotional level.
- Joshunda Sanders appreciates the central message of the book. However, she expresses some understandable discomfort with having Coates as the "recommended reading" Black voice in the States. When reading books like this, I like to seek out voices who have similar backgrounds but offer critique, because we need to remember that no group is a monolith.
- For that same reason, while it's very short, Michael Spikes' review explains how he was largely disappointed by Coates' prose and unconvinced that Coates' presentation of a Black experience in the States isn't one of great privilege.
- Although I disagree with much of Pascal's review in its particulars, I can understand his disappointment that Coates doesn't engage with racism more as a symptom/motivation for capitalism.
The issue of audience and Between the World and Me is an interesting one. Tressie McMillan Cottom, writing in The Atlantic, opines that this is a book meant for a white audience. And I can see how she gets that impression. Coates, however, has shown ambivalence over how much white people have picked up and lauded this book--which is to say, he loves that white people are reading the book and doesn't want them to stop, but he wishes that white people would stop making everything about, you know, how white people feel.
I can't help but discuss this book from a position of white privilege, of course; it's the only experience I have. Nevertheless, it's worthwhile to be mindful of the power relations within the sphere of literary criticism. Coates dampens the fervour I might feel for recommending this book to everyone by reminding us that he didn't set out to write some kind of guide to Blackness for white people. Similarly, as Sanders mentions in her review, linked above, it's dangerous to single out one voice and choose them as a symbol for the entire group's experiences. To do this is an act of erasure as pernicious as ignoring all such voices in the first place. Between the World and Me is a good book, maybe even a great book, and well worth reading and recommending--but it isn't all there is, and it isn't even necessarily a very comprehensive depiction of Coates' particular Black experience. Rather, it's a fragmentary rumination upon how his relation to Blackness has changed over time.
Coates is adamant in a thesis that grounds his Black experience as one of supremacy and control of Black bodies. He points out that, historically, it hasn’t been Black people who get to decide who is or isn’t “Black”—white people have created various definitions, rules, and tests, with the aim of defining whiteness through the exclusion of the other:
“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes the 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. (42)
This domination and control over Black bodies became a foundation upon which the capitalist engine of nineteenth-century America was built. Coates’ winding and indulgent meditation on Blackness often circles back to this inextricable link between capitalism and anti-Black racism. In particular, he often engages with the paradox of wealthy Black people who come from privileged, educated backgrounds, who live in gated communities, who are police officers who shoot unarmed Black men. Coates observes that one does not have to be white to benefit from or perpetuate white supremacy.
I’m reminded, too, of Lawrence Hill’s discussions of how the state defined Blackness in Blood. The need to regulate and define racial categories only exists as a result of racism.
Throughout Between the World and Me, by the way, Coates dances around the label of “white”, preferring instead to talk of the “Dreamers”, that is, Americans who subscribe to the classic American Dream. He does this to emphasize that white people lack a shared heritage in the way Black people do, as well as to include non-white people who nevertheless benefit from white supremacy as a result of other aspects of social status. I’m mentioning this because it’s interesting, though to be honest I sometimes spend less time worrying about labels and more time interested in the arguments beneath them. Essentially, though, Coates argues that “White America” is and can only have been created by the exclusionary and racist practises that some states are now so assiduously scrubbing from their textbooks.
So in this way, too, Coates touches upon the deep denial that has seized the United States since at least the abolition of slavery. He remarks:
Had I informed this woman that when she pushed my son, she was acting according to a tradition that held black bodies as lesser, her response would likely have been, “I am not a racist.” Or maybe not. But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.
This paragraph really resonated with me, owing to the sometimes-unconscionable amount of time I spend on Twitter. There are a great deal many things I love about Twitter, but the arguments and debates had on this platform are seldom one of them. And Coates pinpoints exactly the problem when he calls this “the politics of personal exoneration”. Somehow we’ve reached a point in our discussions online where being called “racist” or told you’ve offended someone, or made a misstep, is somehow more traumatic, more damaging, than Black people being killed, Indigenous people going missing, etc. There is an irony, as many have observed, that the same people who like to throw around the term “snowflake” are the quickest and most vociferous to scream and kick when you tell them something they said or did might possibly be racist. “I am NOT A RACIST” they proclaim, as if the louder they shout it, the more true it could possibly be.
But sometimes it’s tempting to dismiss this behaviour as a consequence of social media, whereas social media merely allows it to be more widespread. As Coates observes time and again in this book, denial is a unifying and long-running theme amongst Dreamers. Because if one stops denying, one might have to deal with the inequitable society one lives in and one’s privilege in it.
I can’t ascribe Between the World and Me a single epithet like “eye-opening” or call it “required reading” as Toni Morrison does. Serendipity had it that I picked this book up at a time when I was very receptive to Coates’ style and his imitation of epistolary, confessional writing of a bygone era. I could spend some time complimenting Coates’ attention to detail in his writing, but I worry that verges on the problematic (praising a Black person for being “articulate”).
The main thing I take away from this book, as a white person (albeit a white person in Canada, where our issues with white supremacy are somewhat different, but no less harmful, than the States’), is the need for white people to engage in these conversations in good faith. It’s not on Coates and people like him to educate us. And it’s our responsibility not to get defensive when called out for things that we say or do that are, intentionally or unintentionally, problematic or racist. Between the World and Me is powerful because it is personal: Coates is sharing his deeply-held fears and hopes regarding his son’s life in a deeply racist society. Alone, you or I cannot single-handedly fix this. Racism is not confined to moustache-twirling caricatures who go around using the N-word. So we must look at this and face this as a systemic problem and start dismantling it, brick by brick.