Between the World and Me, which is structured as a letter to his fifteen year old son by Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a rejection of and an indictment of the United States––its origins, its history, its people. To that end it demands a rebuttal.
No one has the right to deny Coates interpretation of his experience, to deny what it was like growing up as he did in poverty in Baltimore in the last quarter of the 20th century. He eloquently describes the incidents that led him to his negative conclusions about this country, including the odds weighted against him on the street and in school.
Counterposing those experiences, however, was his family life. He was blessed by a grandfather who taught him the love of books and a grandmother who taught him the import of questioning authority. No sane person could have lived that life without coming away with a good deal of anger, nor without the tools to express that anger.
Nor is Coates to be criticized as an outlier in the transcribing the story of the Black experience. As Toni Morrison suggests, he follows in a tradition that include James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, and others.
Where does he go wrong? To me it’s defining the Black experience as both unique and intentional. Many groups have had experiences as bad the descendants of slavery. What of the Jews, the Armenians, the Russian and Chinese victims of Communism, the African victims of genocide, India’s outcastes, and many others?
Coates seems to want an answer as a member of a group, which he will argue, is how others have defined him. Yet no time in human history had the rights of the individual without regard to gender or origins been more valued than on this continent on the day our Declaration of Independence was passed. Should we hold against the founders, as Coates does, the fact that their stand was a beginning and not the end of the story of the struggle for liberty for all people?
In terms of intentionality, Coates’ fallacy is blaming people for policies over which they had no control and which many protested. Slavery had its opponents long before the United States became a country. Many died to put an end to it. Whites helped found the NAACP in 1909 and white college students of my generation went to the South to protest segregation. Has Coates talked to Black Southerners who were alive in the 1960s? The changes have been dramatic.
One of the incidents that led to Coates’ unremitting anger was the murder of fellow Howard College student Prince Jones in September 2000 by an undercover police officer. Each one of the similar tragedies that can be traced as far back as you want to go eats at the soul and makes it difficult to challenge the notion that America is not a police state structured to crush Black people for the benefit of “those who think they are white.”
Yet to make this argument Coates has to undercut his own thesis, as the officer who killed Prince Jones was black. Jones’ death can only be described as a reflection of race if one is willing to muddy the waters of rational discourse by suggesting all black police officers are white when it comes to their treatment of blacks.
The problem instead more truly reflects the consequences of charging law enforcement with impossible and often contradictory responsibilities. The most difficult assignment for public officials in general, not just police officers, is operating in our inner cities. Generations living in poverty, where the family structure and other institutions are weak and where crime is a rational choice, have given rise to a hostile, war zone environment for teachers, social workers, bus drivers, meter readers as well as police officers.
Can whites and blacks be blamed for leaving if they could? Coates would like to do so. He recalls seeing white children at ease in a mixed New York neighborhood and reflects on how black children are often told they have to be twice as good. “No one told those little white children . . . to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.” (91)
Coates imagines a lot of things about whites that are just plain wrong. He imagines we make a big deal about being white to the extent we have lost our connection with our ethnic origins. Not true. He imagines we think differences in “hue and hair” are the right way to organize a society. Not for two hundred years. He imagines whites see race “as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world.” I don’t think I’m alone in seeing only one race––the human one.
Has the fact that Coates grew up in a country that promises much it has not always delivered contributed to the level of his anger? Had he grown up in almost any other country in the world, he would not have had a foundation for his complaints, as nowhere else are people even promised what we are in the United States have been granted. Yes, America has often failed to deliver, but Coates questions whether the promises are genuine. That is his mistake.
Progress has always been achieved by those who believed the rights possessed by others were due them as well. What can you achieve if you give up before the battle has even started?
Hints in Between the World and Me suggest Samori Coates has moved beyond his father. The son’s experience is such that he takes for granted what the father still can not. While the father sees the death of young blacks at the hands of the police as evidence that nothing has changed, the son views those incidents as anomalous. Both would protest, but the son lives in a world where his opportunities are greater, where fewer pay attention to his skin color, and where the promise of the Declaration is closer than ever to belonging to all.
I read Between the World and Me at the suggestion of someone I had criticized for his use of the term “mass incarceration.” I heard that term again during the Democratic debate from the mouth of Hillary Clinton. Loose language and especially inflammatory language used loosely bother me greatly. They are signs that people have stopped dealing with particulars and fail to see the damage that is done by throwing out generalities whose meaning fails to stand up to scrutiny.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is extremely articulate. His phrasing speaks of genuine feeling and a bright intellect, but he also employs a lot of loose language. He sneaks in words whose meaning is inside baseball to those who think like he does.
Here are three examples. The italics are mine:
- “The destroyers (speaking of the police) are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy” (10).
- “[E]ducators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility” (33).
- “And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers” (131).
Words matter. If the words on the pages of Between the World and Me matter, then the words of the Declaration of Independence matter, the words of the U.S. Constitution matter, and the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which Coates discounts, matter. It’s unfortunate that Coates disputes that Americans who are not descendants from slavery mean to include Black people when we use the term people, but we do.
If Coates is not satisfied that two and a half centuries of American history have demonstrated a commitment to inclusion, I suggest he take another look. He sees the glass more than half empty. I urge him to talk to people who see it more than half full. They won’t be hard to find.