Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehesi Coates (Spiegel & Grau, 176 pp., $24)
Designation as the liberals’ official angry black man is a lucrative job. The market is upscale, but the job is only temporary. Fashions change, or rather remain subject to a cycle. The job isn’t easy; it requires high attainment in the art of performance. Black rage must be precisely matched with liberal guilt.
James Baldwin provides the original model, in essays published in The Progressive and the New Yorker in 1962 and then collected in The Fire Next Time in 1963. Baldwin was a deeply literary man, but the descent from Baldwin was steep. The sixties and early seventies served up new models on an almost annual basis. Before long we had Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and, lest we forget, George Jackson.
Entering the latter days of the Age of Obama, we find Jennifer Schuessler serving as the New York Times’s gatekeeper of liberal certification. Schuessler has given us loving profiles of Michelle Alexander (2012), author of The New Jim Crow, and Alice Goffman (2014), author of On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City—books portraying America’s criminal-justice system (and more, America itself) as deeply unjust to blacks. Now Schuessler has certified Ta-Nehisi Coates in connection with the July publication of his book Between the World and Me.
Penguin Random House shrewdly moved up the publication date of Coates’s book to take advantage of its currency in the context of #BlackLivesMatter. The book debuted on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list at Number One. In Coates, the man and the moment have met. What can we learn from the meeting?
Coates styles himself the successor to Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. Baldwin framed that book’s opening essay as a letter to his nephew. Coates frames his new book as a letter to his son. For readers who might otherwise miss Coates’s claim to Baldwin’s mantle, Coates offers Toni Morrison’s endorsement on the back cover; the celebrated novelist salutes Coates as the man to fill the “intellectual void” left by Baldwin’s death.
The Baldwin motif is suggestive of the book’s retrograde element. Though the book is padded to fill its 152 numbered pages, Coates seems to rehearse every racial shibboleth of the past 50 years up to—and including—those of the current moment. Black power, black is beautiful, Malcolm X (Coates takes up Malcolm X’s case against the nonviolent civil rights movement), the Black Panthers (Coates’s father was a member), “mass incarceration,” the leading cases of #BlackLivesMatter—they’re all recycled here, as though time has stood still and nothing has been learned.
Coates aspires to Baldwin’s literary quality in overwrought prose that makes the book almost unreadable. He is both verbose and repetitious. He must speak of the “breaking” of the black “body” more than 100 times. The text of the book begins on page 5 (“Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body”—a question that remains unanswered at book’s end). By page 12, I felt a bit like a broken man myself. According to Coates, “people who believe themselves to be white” have constructed the concept of race and subjugated blacks from the beginning of American history through the breaking of the black body. “People who believe they are white” are those who see the United States as an exceptional nation and believe in the American Dream. Coates calls them Dreamers and, unlike President Obama’s DREAMers, they are not to be indulged but resisted.
Coates fears for the integrity and security of the black body. His fear is the intended product of “people who believe they are white”—it’s their means of control. In the course of his book, however, Coates’s body is the subject of physical violence committed only by his parents. He refers to the beatings they gave him at several points.
Coates administers verbal beatings of his own to law enforcement, though he recounts only one personal encounter—an uneventful traffic stop in Prince George’s County, Maryland. This episode provides a lead-in to the book’s moving account of the death of Coates’s fellow Howard University student Prince Jones. Jones, 25, was killed on September 1, 2000, in Fairfax County (Virginia) by a Prince George’s County police officer (coincidentally named Carlton Jones) working undercover.
A Washington Post account of the incident fills in some details: “After following 25-year-old Prince C. Jones Jr. from Chillum to Fairfax on Sept. 1, 2000, Cpl. Carlton B. Jones, sitting in an unmarked SUV, fired 16 shots at the student in his Jeep, hitting him eight times. Five of the shots hit Prince Jones (no relation) in the back.” Jones had been driving to see his fiancée at the time.
Authorities in Maryland and Virginia declined to press charges against the officer, yet Jones’s family won a $3.7 million civil judgment against him. The jury concluded that the officer acted negligently and with force that he could not reasonably have believed to be legal. The jury also found that Prince Jones contributed to his death by his actions during the fatal encounter.
Coates treats the case as one count in his indictment of the United States for subjugation of the black man. It certainly involves the breaking of a black body, Coates’s incessantly repeated theme in the book. Yet here’s the thing about the lonesome death of Prince Jones, as framed in the Washington City Paper article on the case: “Black victim, black cop, black county.”
I take it that Prince Jones was killed by a bad cop acting badly. Though it’s unclear precisely what happened, I have no problem seeing Jones’s death as a tragedy and an outrage. The jury’s verdict seems eminently reasonable. Coates’s verdict, by contrast, seems eminently unreasonable: “[I]n some inchoate form, I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.” Coates then launches this exposition—addressed, as the whole book is, to his son:
At this moment the phrase “police reform” has come into vogue, and the actions of our publicly appointed guardians have attracted attention presidential and pedestrian. You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will.
It’s a shame that we cannot interrupt to ask Coates what he is talking about. He continues: “And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”
To say the least, the tragic case of Prince Jones is less than a slender reed on which to hang this indictment of “the people who think they are white” or this condemnation of “majoritarian pigs.” Indeed, Coates’s indictment in this context seems like a bad joke. He has more to say about the case as the facts come to light after Jones’s death, but nothing to make his indictment here more reasonable.
Though Coates resurrects the old themes of black beauty and black power, blacks appear in this book as little but victims. Black agency disappears. Coates conjures even black-on-black crime as nothing other than a construct and creation of The Man (or, as Coates has it, the “Dreamers”):
“Black on black” crime is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the [restrictive property] covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel. And this should not surprise us. The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.
The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, were created by the policy of Dreamers, but their weight, their shame, rests solely on those who are dying in them. There is a great deception in this. To yell “black-on-black crime” is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.
Not surprisingly, Coates has detached himself from his fellow countrymen. On 9/11, Coates was in New York. “[L]ooking out upon the ruins of America, my heart was cold. I had disasters all my own . . . . I would never consider any American citizen pure. I was out of sync with the city.” He invokes the death of Jones (at the hands, let it be remembered, of a black police officer working in a department under black leadership) to make this declaration: “I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body.”
Coates’s book is not just dreadful, it’s also exceedingly strange. As he winds up the book’s middle section, he inserts an account of a visit to Paris with his wife and son. Meditating on their Paris interlude, Coates draws these lessons for his son:
Remember your name [Samori]. Remember that you and I are brothers, are the children of trans-Atlantic rape. Remember the broader consciousness that comes with that. Remember that this consciousness can never ultimately be racial; it must be cosmic. Remember the Roma you saw begging with their children in the street, and the venom with which they were addressed. Remember the Algerian cab driver, speaking openly of his hatred of Paris, then looking at your mother and me and insisting that we were all united under Africa. Remember the rumbling we all felt under Paris, as though the city had been built in abeyance of Pompeii. Remember the feeling that the great public gardens, the long lunches, might all be undone by a physics, cousin to our rules and the reckoning of our own country, that we do not fully comprehend.
If Coates doesn’t comprehend, I’m afraid I don’t either, and I doubt that I’m alone.
Coates’s recommendation of “cosmic consciousness” strikes a discordant note with almost everything else in the book, but it foreshadows his destination. In the book’s conclusion, his jeremiad takes an environmental turn. He condemns “the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.” As I noted above, Coates is pitching this book to an upscale market. That’s the only explanation I have for the note on which Coates ends. In the book’s penultimate paragraph, he expands on his critique of the “Dream” at the heart of the America he hates:
Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has 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. And its vengeance is not fire in the cities but fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately the Dreamers themselves.
Coates’s manifesto is not just an updated racial hustle, though it’s certainly that. It’s also a throwback to the environmental movement, circa 1969. Between the World and Me is a work both deeply hateful and incredibly pretentious. Recognizing the upscale market of readers for whom Coates has produced this dreadful book is perhaps the only way it can readily be understood.