This week Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for nonfiction for “Between the World and Me,” a heartfelt letter he wrote to his son about being a black man in America today.
I had read reviews of this book and interviews with the author, a national correspondent for The Atlantic where he writes about cultural, social and political issues, usually dealing with race. Earlier this year, he won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for his body of work, which includes this book, a memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle,” and many notable pieces for The Atlantic. Despite this research, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I had hoped, perhaps, for a deeper understanding, reasoned and thoughtfully presented, about the way an African-American man sees this country. I had hoped for new ammunition, which isn’t the right word at all, but it’s the one I’ll use, for talking to friends and family members at the Thanksgiving table when the talk inevitably turns to culture and politics. I had hoped for poetic writing.
I got some of that, but what I was left with was primarily a feeling of ambivalence. Despite the mostly glowing reviews, I found this book to be warmed over points that have been made more eloquently elsewhere. That’s not to say “Don’t read this book.” I think people should. But I have a point to make about that later.
First, here’s what I liked about the book:
1: When Coates talks about white America he calls them “People who need to feel white” or “People who believe they are white.” Fascinating. It doesn’t work in all cases, but research shows more white Americans have black ancestry than was previously thought.
2: He turns commonly heard phrases on their heads and makes us look anew at old thoughts: “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.” Beautiful.
3: He frames his best-laid argument in unique terms: That black people in America don’t even have control over their own bodies, a right everyone else takes for granted. “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.” He adds, “‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this 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.”
Reading these quotes, even I hear an Angry Black Man, but I listened to this book on CD, read by Coates, and he does not come across as angry, he does not sound bitter. In fact, he often seemed so dispassionate that I wanted to hear it read by an actor who could bring the emotional words to life. (As an aside, I also felt it disingenuous that he pronounced the word “ask” all through it as “ax.” Though I’m not sure what it could be, I’m sure he was making a point, but he doesn’t write it that way and, early on, he pronounces the word correctly, just once.)
He is at his best when telling stories, like the one about his friend Prince Jones, which becomes the centerpiece of his work. Jones was a Howard University friend killed by an undercover cop who said he had seen a car like Jones’ in an area known for drug dealing. He tailed Jones for miles, when Jones panicked about being followed at 3 in the morning (that’s my take on it after reading both Coates’ earlier piece on the case and news reports), he rammed the cop’s unmarked car and the officer shot him to death. To Coates, the promise of Jones was a beacon; his murder devastating. That the cop was not charged only made things worse. That the cop was black, though, Coates gives only lip service to.
What was most disappointing is, the examples above notwithstanding, I’ve heard most of these arguments for years. I’ve even used them in trying to make a point to people I know and love who mock Black Lives Matter. And that gets to my biggest, and saddest, criticism of this work.
On the cover of this book is a heavyweight endorsement from Toni Morrison: “This is required reading,” writes the Nobel laureate. But the whole time I was listening to the book, I couldn’t help but ask, “Required for who?”
The people who will read this book, regardless of color, already understand, in deep or superficial ways, the struggle of which he writes. They are the people who see the injustices of police, who understand—even if only on an academic level—the systemic racism, the hundreds of bitter little pills an oppressed race must swallow every day. They are the people who know why Black Lives Matter.
The others, the ones who don’t accept that racism can possibly exist in an America with a black president, won’t read this book. If they do, it’s only to pick apart Coates’ argument. That Coates’ thesis is sometimes supported by social-media style rhetoric will only make that job easier.
I may be as pessimistic as Coates is when I say that no one’s mind will be changed by this book. And that’s the most disturbing part of it.