For the past several years, I’ve greeted Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essays and blog posts for The Atlantic with nothing short of gratitude. As an African-American, he makes me proud. There is no other way to put it. I do not always agree with him, but it hardly matters. In a media world populated with pundits, so-called experts and public intellectuals driven by ego and familiar agendas, Coates’s voice stands nearly alone — a black man raised in the streets of Baltimore who narrowly escaped the violence that lurked around every corner and dodged the clutches of the prisons and jails that were built for him, and who now speaks unpopular, unconventional and sometimes even radical truths in his own voice, unfiltered. He is invariably humble, yet subtly defiant. And people listen.
So when I heard that Coates had been inspired, after rereading James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” to write his own version for the current era, I was overjoyed. As a civil rights lawyer, activist, legal scholar and mother of three black children, I could not wait to read what Coates had to say to black young people at this moment in our history, a time when many are struggling to make sense of how frequently black lives can be destroyed legally through incessant police violence and mass incarceration. I imagined that Coates’s new book would make plain for young people what is truly at stake in the struggle and disabuse them of the prevailing myths that breed complacency, defeatism or inaction. That was what “The Fire Next Time” did for me many years ago (and still does, every time I return to it).
I had to read “Between the World and Me” twice before I was able to decide whether Coates actually did what I expected and hoped he would. He did not. Maybe that’s a good thing.
“The Fire Next Time” was first published in 1963, a time when the prevailing racial order was being challenged by young activists on a scale and with a fervor not seen since the Civil War. The first several pages of the book are styled in the form of a letter to Baldwin’s 15-year-old nephew, offering advice about how to navigate the world he has been born into with black skin. Baldwin implores his nephew to awaken to his own dignity, humanity and power, and accept his responsibility to help “make America what it must become.”
“Between the World and Me” carries a very different message, though it is also written in the form of a letter to a black teenage boy. The boy is Coates’s 15-year-old son, who — like Baldwin’s nephew — is trying to make sense of blatant racial injustice and come to grips with his place in a world that refuses to guarantee for him the freedoms that so many others take for granted.
“I write you in your 15th year,” Coates states in the early pages. “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. . . . I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”
One of the great virtues of both books is that they are not addressed to white people. The usual hedging and filtering and softening and overall distortion that seems to happen automatically — even unconsciously — when black people attempt to speak about race to white people in public is absent.
But here we reach a fork in the road. Baldwin, in writing to his nephew, does not deny the pain and horror of American notions of justice — far from it — but he repeatedly emphasizes the young man’s power and potential and urges him to believe that revolutionary change is possible against all odds, because we, as black people, continue to defy the odds and defeat the expectations of those who seek to control and exploit us.
Coates’s letter to his son seems to be written on the opposite side of the same coin. Rather than urging his son to awaken to his own power, Coates emphasizes over and over the apparent permanence of racial injustice in America, the foolishness of believing that one person can make a change, and the dangers of believing in the American Dream. “Historians conjured the Dream,” Coates writes. “Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories”; Dreamers are the ones who continue to believe the lie, at black people’s expense. In what will almost certainly be the most widely quoted passage, Coates tells his son: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”
Little hope is offered that freedom or equality will ever be a reality for black people in America. “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own.” If his son held out any hope that the emerging racial justice movement on the streets of Ferguson, New York City or Baltimore or beyond might change hearts and minds, Coates seems determined to quash it. “Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: To awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white . . . has done to the world. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness.”
Still, Coates urges his son to struggle. “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. . . . But do not struggle for the Dreamers. . . . Do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves.” He says this even as he notes that the Dreamers are actively building the deathbed for us all. Technology has freed the Dreamers “to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.”
I will confess that after the first reading of “Between the World and Me” I was disappointed. Initially I was enthralled by Coates’s characteristic brilliance and insight, as well as the poetic manner in which he addresses his son. I found myself highlighting so much of the text it seemed the whole book was gleaming yellow. But by the end, I was exasperated.
Under what conditions could Coates possibly imagine that the Dreamers would wake themselves up or learn to struggle for themselves? When in the history of the world have the privileged and powerful voluntarily relinquished their status or abandoned the tactics that secured their advantage, without being challenged, fought, confronted or inspired to do so by some remarkable example? As Frederick Douglass observed long ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.”
On the second reading, my frustration diminished. I came to believe that the problem, to the extent there is one, is that Coates’s book is unfinished. He raises numerous critically important questions that are left unanswered.
The biggest question for Coates is rooted in the hidden connection between the American Dream as lived in the suburbs and the violence that ruled his daily life growing up in Baltimore. “Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets. But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day. And I was such a curious boy.”
As Coates grew older, attending high school and later Howard University — his personal “Mecca” — the questions sharpened and evolved. When a college friend, Prince Jones, was shot to death by a member of the Prince George’s County Police Department, Coates was overcome with a rage that radicalized him, and new questions flowed. The political apparatus that conspired to deprive Jones of his life was run by black people, a fact he struggled to understand. “The officer who killed Prince Jones was black. The politicians who empowered this officer to kill were black. Many of the black politicians, many of them twice as good, seemed unconcerned. How could this be?”
Reading the book the first time, I imagined that Coates would eventually answer these important questions for his son. He would spell it out — make it plain — the way he does so well in his essays, articles and blog posts. He would carefully define the Dream and delineate the difference between the nearly universal dream that parents have for their children — the dream of good heath, security, quality education and the opportunity to fulfill their potential and make a meaningful contribution — and the insidious Dream that is destroying the lives of children in Baltimore and threatening human existence on the planet itself. I imagined that Coates would explain what it means, exactly, to choose the Struggle over the Dream, and why so many black people, like those in Prince George’s County, find themselves lost in the Dream.
Reading the book the second time, I held no expectation that the big questions would be answered. I knew they wouldn’t be. It seemed that Coates was doing for his son what his own father had done for him: demand that he wrestle with the questions himself. The second time around I could see that maybe, just maybe, this is what is most needed right now — a book that offers no answers but instead challenges us to wrestle with the questions on our own. Maybe this is the time for questioning, searching and struggling without really believing the struggle can be won.
And yet I cannot pretend to be entirely satisfied. Like Baldwin, I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral; we must believe it is possible. Believing in this possibility — no matter how slim — and dedicating oneself to playing a meaningful role in the struggle to make it a reality focuses one’s energy and attention in an unusual way. Those who believe we are likely or destined to fail — because the Dreamers hold all the power and our liberation is up to them — can easily tell themselves they are “in the struggle” when they show up at a rally with a sign, or go on Twitter or Facebook to rant about the police, then do no more. When meaningful change fails to come, they can say, “We tried, but of course nothing happened.” But those who are in it to win it, and who believe in their own power and understand their responsibility to use it wisely, cannot so easily lie to themselves about the utility of random or halfhearted gestures of resistance, rebellion, organizing or consciousness-raising. Greater precision of thought and action is required.
Coates clearly knows the importance of avoiding vagueness or generalization about critical aspects of black experience. In one of the most moving passages of the book he reminds his son: “Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own; whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods. . . . ” He goes on to describe, in stunningly sensitive detail, what slavery means for this particular woman born in a country that celebrates freedom and yet will whip her, rape her and sell her children from an auction block. He admonishes his son that he “must struggle to remember this past in all its nuance, error and humanity.”
Over the years, Coates has repeatedly taken President Obama to task for speaking in the most general terms about what is needed to remedy what ails ghettoized communities, while speaking with great specificity about the alleged moral failures of black people. It seems highly unlikely, in view of all this, that Coates does not appreciate what is lost by failing to describe the Dream with particularity and by declining to offer guidance to his son about what it means, exactly, to embrace the Struggle at this moment in time. Surely the Struggle must mean more than questioning reality at every turn, if there is any hope of breaking once and for all the history and cycle of racial oppression in America.
Perhaps Coates hasn’t yet discovered for himself the answers to the questions he poses in “Between the World and Me.” But I suspect that he is holding out on us. Everything he has ever written leads me to believe he has more to say. He may imagine that we are better off figuring out for ourselves the true nature of the Dream and what it means to be engaged in meaningful Struggle. But I believe we could only benefit from hearing what answers Coates may have fashioned for himself. Whether you agree or disagree, one of the great joys of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is being challenged in ways you didn’t expect or imagine.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Illustrated. 152 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $24.
Michelle Alexander is the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”