I had the opportunity to lead a book discussion about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant and bracing Between The World and Me at the Emma Clark Library in Setauket, NY. It was an honor to sit and re-read this book in the company of the straight-talking, close-reading, passionate, women-of-a-certain-age who would choose to attend a book discussion about white privilege and US racial violence in the wilds of Eastern Long Island. Truly– there are good folk everywhere.
Below are the introductory thoughts I offered to my co-readers.
“There is a paradox facing all of us in this room as we approach Ta-Nehisi Coates’s text Between the World and Me three years after its publication. Since its arrival in 2015, this book has been anointed and praised by the heavyweights in American literary establishment. Between the World and Me is a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Award Winner, it is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; it is lauded by Publishers Weekly, O; the Oprah Magazine, and all the guiding lights in the print media establishment. This book propelled the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to a level of public celebrity that he himself found profoundly destabilizing. “I want to tell you a story about the time, still ongoing as of this writing,” Coates explains in a recent Atlantic essay, “when I almost lost my mind. In the summer of 2015, I published a book…” By any account, this is a book that has made an impact on the American consciousness.
And yet, there is a paradox.
April 2018 Danny Ray Thomas a 34 year old Black man was walking on a north Houston street, with his pants around his ankles. He was in the midst of a mental health crisis. He was shot and killed by the police.
April 2018 Saheed Vassell 34 year old Black man was standing on a Brooklyn street corner, pointing a piece of a welding torch at passers by. He was in the midst of a mental health crisis. He was holding the metal when he was shot and killed by police.
April 2018 Diante Yarber 26 year old Black man killed in a Walmart parking lot in California. When the officers approached the car where Yarber was in the driver seat, Yarber did not exit the vehicle as asked but reversed the car. At that point Officers fired more than 30 bullets into the car Yarber was sitting in with his friends. Diante was killed and many others in the car were gravely injured.
March 2018 Stephon Clark, a 22 year old Black man was in the yard of his grandmother’s house, where he was residing, when he shot at least seven times. He was holding a cell phone when he was shot and killed by the police.
I could go on; but I won’t.
This is the paradox. Coates’ book has been embraced so deeply. And yet, alongside the Pulitzer, the MacArthur Genius Grant, there is a putrid reality: obdurate, everpresent— the willful, unrelenting, arbitrary, destruction of black male bodies by their government and its sentries. That which Coates’ rails against in his missive continues unchecked. On what level, then, has this book been embraced? How can we account for its impact?
There is much to discuss within this book that is part memoir, part history lesson, and part phenomenology. Today, I want to offer a few thought on this paradox– the acclaim bestowed upon Between the World and Me and the intransigence of racialized state terror in the USA. Many of the critiques of the book have circled around this paradox: what should we make of the liberal establishment’s adoration of Between the World & Me? There appears to be an appetite for these ideas and this particular voice– why is this so?
The scope of Coates’ argument is substantial; he describes the USA as a country borne in and addicted to violence, a nation built upon the plunder of settler colonialism, of genocide, and enslavement– what he calls the theft of the Black body. “Here is what I would like you to know., ” Coates writes on page 103, ” in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body– it is heritage.” Racialized violence is more than an error or a shadow in US history, for Coates it is at the heart of the national project.
In this book, the American Dream is hurled against the reader, it is an epithet. At the heart of US democratic ideals, Coates identifies a perfect lie: America’s lofty self-image, the ideal of a country tied to freedom, a place steadily moving toward a “more perfect union,” has been used to hide, turn away from, and mask the violence that is at the foundations of this nation’s pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Moreover, the people who have historically established the boundaries of citizenship and full humanity within these borders and then benefited from these exclusions: the “people who think they are White,” are cloaked in this violent dream. Unwilling to acknowledge their country’s historical violence, they also cannot countenance their country’s roiling present and so, the future, presumably, is also shaded from them.
This is the scope of the argument– that this country is rotten at its core, and must be transformed. Like James Baldwin, Malcolm X, or David Walker, Coates is part of a particular prophetic tradition of Black intellectuals, people who use the texture of their own experiences, the witness of their own eyes, bodies, and insights, to stand up and speak out. But just as we have, in this country, this prophetic tradition, we have also a record of how these public disembowelings of the American Dream have fared.
When David Walker published his Appeal in 1830, a document in which he wrote ” we the Blacks or Colored people are treated more cruel by the White Christians of America than devils themselves ever treated a set of men, women, and children on this earth,” he expected a backlash. And he received it; newspapers around the country railed against Walker’s “monstrous slander” of the country and a price was put on his head in Georgia. Even the abolitionists of the day described the pamphlet as too radical. However, Walker’s work was also smuggled around enslaved Black communities in the South and free Black communities in the South. Whenever the stories of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey are told, the name of David Walker must also be mentioned.
Malcolm X’s biting tongue, his clear-eyed skepticism of the USA’s pretensions toward largesse were also received similarly. “If you stick a knife in my back, nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no porgress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” Malcolm X, as you know, 50 years ago, was assassinated. We also should know that his legacy and voice lives on; his example of unapologetic humanity continues to whisper in the ears of young people everywhere.
But when we come to Coates– we see that his book is a bestseller, he has the ear of the US scholarly and literary establishment. His book is so deeply critical of the nation which has been the stage of its success. Some have tried to fault the author for the paradox of his book’s reception, I invite us to ask a different question.
What is the responsibility of the reader? We often think about the responsibility of authors, of artists, of people who create– are they being fair in their representation, are they accurate? But how do we consider the responsibility of the reader? Does such a thing exists, and if so, how we might articulate its boundaries? In classical Eurocentric modernity, the value of literature is largely understood in terms individual personal transformation– we read in order to enlarge our hearts, and our knowledge, to feel something, to be saved, to gain more insight. But is there another step beyond this? What is our responsibility,when we read about injustices to which we are party and accomplice?
This question is not easy; there is no singular answer. Undoing the web of structures and choices that have created our segregated, unequal and violent status quo is neither easy nor short work. Coates himself has painted the picture so bleakly, made the mountain so high, that those who believe themselves to be White might take refuge in lifting their hands helplessly. And yet, there is something profoundly terrible about reading Between the World and Me, awarding it richly, and then fading back into the Dream.