by Janice Dowell
In the midst of growing media coverage of police brutality and racial injustice in the United States, as well as increased attention to matters of race in the philosophical mainstream, the arrival of writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, can only be described as “An Event”—and deservedly so. As Melvin Rogers, professor of African American Studies and Political Science at U.C.L.A, put it recently in the Atlantic, “Between the World and Me is an exquisite book, overflowing with insights about the embodied state of blackness and the logic of white supremacy. Coates’ prose is capable of challenging our understanding of the United States even as it captures our hearts”.
In honor of this event, as well as to deepen our understanding of this important book, Daily Nous has invited two philosophers, Christopher Lebron (Yale University) and Myisha Cherry (University of Illinois-Chicago), and one political scientist, Neil Roberts (Williams College), to share their insights and reactions to the book.
New York City isn’t usually prone to natural disasters such as major hurricanes. But there are exceptions. The most startling one is 2012’s Hurricane Sandy which brought the city that never sleeps to a complete standstill. I remember another hurricane when I was a young boy, before my teenage years. The name eludes me, but it doesn’t really matter. Rather, the thing I can’t forget is the preparatory mode into which my father launched. I learned from my father during that storm that living in a high-rise you place strong masking tape in X patterns on all the windows and you leave them all just a bit open to equalize the air pressure and prevent the windows from being blown out when strong winds hit. Well, that’s what we did and all we could do. The storm would come and we would just have to see whether our preparations would withstand the inevitable onslaught.
Some people tend to think racism is like that: a historical force that blows its mean winds upon our today, leaving us to either be pelted by the mortally dangerous debris it dusts up lest we raise our umbrella or daily newspaper to shield our vulnerable souls and bodies from its malevolent forces. Let’s think about this kind of description of racial inequality and let’s think hard. Does it make sense?
We can begin from one of the trendy and overused, but nevertheless true description of race: a social construct. The term is self-defining. We, you, I, the next door neighbors, Debby at the water cooler, Archibald at the Williamsburg blacksmithing station in 1888, the founders, the colonists, Christopher Columbus all created and maintain race. I, you, them, we are responsible. Sometimes the grandness of this creation, the energy with which it acts upon us, and the magnitude of the responsibilities it generates can convince some of us to perceive and experience the horrors racism produces as the result of history’s celestial forces. Natural disasters that bear down on us leaving us only to react with hope of making it through the storm. This seems to be Coates’s view and it strikes me as confused – the action that the vagaries of human agency entail are morally and political distinct from those entailed by powers by which we are merely buffeted and that are beyond our control entirely.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me is an elegant, lyrical, and insightful work of witness bearing. Coates invites us to observe his black life from the tough streets of Baltimore to his early and financially insecure days as a NYC writer right up to when he became the personality he is today. His book ultimately asks the reader, what kind of country is America that it can make a reasonable person like me live in perpetual fear for my life, and, urgently, for my son’s simply because I am black? Between The World And Me is a sincere reckoning with the deep hope for a better future alongside a biting cynicism whether that future can be obtained. There can be good reasons for cynicism. But there can be bad reasons and it is here that Coates’s reckoning makes me uneasy.
Coates seems fond of utilizing the metaphor of a natural disaster when describing the horrors that result from our history of white supremacy. At some points he seems to attribute the viewpoint to whites. At other times it’s less clear. For example: “[My mother] knew the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy could be spilled on the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate immutable fact of ‘race,’ imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not be under indictment.” (82) What makes this and similar passages troubling is that the naturalizing language is used without qualification; meanwhile, despite Coates’s many justified and spot-on complaints about our racial wickedness, he never calls it that – an evil. Without locating racism consistently and squarely as the result of human depravity and our collective resistance to social justice, passages like the following to his son read nihilistically: “I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it.” (107) There are those who will want to say that Coates is pressing for a humanistic view of flourishing that depends on one recognizing the stakes of existing through suffering. This view is deeply confused, even if it is Coates’s. The meaning of Samori’s life ought to be discovered in the manner that he ultimately finds a good fit with his vices and virtues, not as something pre-determined – as naturalized – and quite beyond his agency. To suggest this, despite the complaints and hand-wringing, gives up half the fight before one steps foot in the ring and no people ever effected social change without planting both feet on the field of contestation.
Thinking back to my own father and the hurricane, we made it through. Living in NYC, we didn’t live particularly concerned about such storms. But we knew they always come back whether we wanted them to or not. Though inconvenienced, we could not protest for doing so would be like blaming water for being wet. White Americans possess no such qualities from preventing me or anyone else from naming their racial predilections and insensitivities what they are when they are in play: unnaturally evil.
In the black community of the 1980’s and 1990’s, we had a term to refer to folks who understood the social structure, were in touch with black history, and who knew the truth and were not blinded by the lies of white supremacy. We called them “conscious.” We had our conscious rappers (i.e. Sista Soulja, KRS-One, and Public Enemy), our conscious artists (usually spoken word poets), and the conscious religious folks (i.e. The Nation of Islam and Five Percenters). Whenever these conscious folks rapped, spoke, or taught, you heard “da truth” as well as their love for creating awareness and for imparting knowledge to the people they loved.
That conscious spirit is still alive today in 2015 through the music of artists like Kendrick Lamar and through the phrase “stay woke” — which means to stay informed and aware despite the B.S. that may attempt to convince you otherwise. That conscious spirit is also present in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
Coates’ text is heavy in consciousness. It is something he inherited. In Section I, he describes how his parents were always encouraging him to be politically conscious; something he describes as “much as a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.” His conscious spirit during college was clear by his own recognition that “I was made for the library, not the classroom.” In Between the World and Me, Coates attempts to impart this consciousness to his son and to us, the reader. He achieves in speaking the truth.
In section II, Coates breaks down the Civil War and slavery with the aptitude of a historian and the social relevance of a sociologist noting, “This lie of the Civil War is the lie of innocence.” With words like “‘Good Intentions’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream,” and “Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value,” Coates is like a conscious spoken word artist whose words make you want to shake your head and snap your fingers in agreement.
Coates makes a conscious call to us. He urges, “You must struggle to remember this past in all its nuance, error and humanity”, “Do not accept the lie. Do not drink the Poison” and “What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness. I resolved to hide nothing from you.” This consciousness was important to his survival and perhaps it will aid in our own. He notes, “I did not perish in the agony of not knowing.” In describing the joy of study and struggle, Coates writes:
“The changes have awarded me a rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to, when you have rejected the Dream… the changes have taught me how to best exploit that singular gift of study, to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers.”
Here Coates is following the Socratic tradition of self-examination and critical interrogation of the world. When we live the philosophical life, we become concerned with the questions as much as we are with the answers. I think the consciousness Coates preaches throughout the text is important, but I wonder if it’s enough.
Between the World and Me is a message of consciousness directed to his son as he approaches adolescence and to us as we rise to moral and civic maturity. This consciousness is the answer to surviving the struggle and a design for how to live in a black body. As a philosopher and critical citizen, I love interrogation and awareness but I find something insufficient in Coates’ overall message. I blame Malcolm X.
Although Malcolm X preached about how important consciousness was, that consciousness ushered in economic development, moral perfection, and physical health. Knowledge has both intrinsic and extrinsic value. Knowledge is not a library of facts that only makes us smile at night and makes the oppressor terrified. No! It doesn’t work that way. Consciousness is the foundation to a radical liberation, not the beginning and the end of it.
Fear is a recurring word used throughout the text. Coates admits he has it and may have imparted it to his son. But what is consciousness if what we know only makes us afraid and powerless?
Just when I think Coates will take us beyond the intrinsic value of consciousness and into the realm of black power, he describes power as a “deep knowledge of how fragile everything… really is.” For Coates, black power is “more gorgeous than any voting rights bill… it’s a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies.” Black power is beautiful but it cannot be restricted to only consciousness nor can this consciousness replace the action and other ingredients that we need for true liberation. Awareness of our fear, vulnerability, and fragility is important but it alone is not preventing black people from getting shot by the police, disproportionately incarcerated, or from being caught up in a constant cycle of poverty.
Between the World and Me is an enlightening analysis that leaves us knowing and understanding more than we knew before, but it is an insufficient guide for how we can navigate a world that has become a police state, where the killing of black bodies is excusable, and where fear is commonplace.
Consciousness makes us aware of the fact that we need more than itself to help us survive and thrive in the struggle.
how do I live free in this black body?
If there is no struggle there is no progress.
Curse me till I’m dead
Church me with your fake prophesizing that I’mma be just another slave in my head
Institutionalized manipulation and lies
Reciprocation of freedom only live in your eyes
You hate me don’t you?
Between the World and Me (henceforth Between) by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an arresting read. Its prose is pithy, poetic, and at times heart wrenching. Consider the following passage with its cadences of Beloved, whose author blurbed the jacket cover:
“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied” (82).
Between is a nearly one hundred fifty-page letter to Coates’s fifteen-year old son Samori, named after a resister to French colonialism. “The Struggle is in your name, Samori” (68). The word struggle recurs throughout the oeuvre of Coates as his 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle attests. Between has three parts and contains an overall book epigraph by Richard Wright along with subsequent epigraphs to the respective parts by Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and James Baldwin.
Coates employs an epistolary style of writing that, while comparable to an extent with Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time, evokes more concretely Cicero’s letter to his son in On Duties on transgenerational challenges and responsibilities and Sylvia Wynter’s “No Humans Involved,” an open letter on the quotidian dehumanization of black life written in the wake of the Rodney King riots. Between’s title mirrors that of Wright’s poem on lynching extracted as the text’s signature epigraph. Wright published “Between the World and Me” in 1935 in the journal Partisan Review and included it subsequently in the 1957 collection White Man Listen! Coates’s letter vividly captures what Rastafari assert is the fine line between fear, an inhibitor to change, and dread, the existential state of confrontation with life’s actualities that nevertheless furnishes the possibility for radical transformation in the human condition.
Persistent debates on Toni Morrison’s likening of Coates to Baldwin obscure focus on the central dilemma Coates wrestles with: how can blacks, whose bodies and being are the subject of violence, hate, matrices of bad faith, and orders of unfreedom, ever truly be free? Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 “The Blacker the Berry,” articulation of hood politics, and To Pimp a Butterfly album cover aesthetics featuring several shirtless black fathers and sons posing in front of the White House probe this question. So too does Frantz Fanon, who closes Black Skin, White Masks (1952) with a prayer: “Oh my [black] body, always make me a man who questions!” Moreover, the contemporary significance of the query for body politics, freedom’s meaning, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement is manifold. For Coates, conveying to Samori his own journey from West Baltimore to Howard University, Chicago, New York City, Paris, the world of journalism, and back to Maryland and DC serves as the bulwark for deciphering the dread of black male disembodiment and the evanescent status of freedom.
There are two prominent streams of thinking about freedom in Western thought: negative and positive. Negative theories (freedom as non-interference and non-domination) conceive of freedom as the absence of a condition encroaching upon an agent. Positive theories (generality, plurality, autonomy) underscore collective action, participation, and self-mastery. Both streams contend that unfreedom and freedom are static, fixed conditions and that their streams are unrelated. We must reject this view.
I have argued recently that marronage (flight)—the perpetual act of escape from states of enslavement—more accurately defines freedom. Flight involves the physical, psychological, metaphysical, and social-structural. Marronage occurs on micro- and macro- levels encompassing the fleeting flight of individuals, bounded maroon communities of fugitives, and mass revolution enacted through the agency of a sovereign entity or a bottom-up upheaval of a people. Applying the flight heuristic to Between, we can read the letter and accompanying pictures as a genealogy of Coates’s own marronage. The discussion of Howard University, or The Mecca as Coates dubs it, “the crossroads of the black diaspora” (40), provides evidence. The marronage framework also highlights forms of marronage Coates prematurely dismisses as untenable.
The Mecca Coates describes is a type of maroon community. Coates differentiates the formal institution of Howard from learning transpiring outside classrooms. He writes of his flight from Baltimore to The Mecca and meeting an array of black people; some reared by black nationalists, others attending a majority-black school for the first time. We learn Coates’s father, a former Black Panther local captain, once was a Howard research librarian. We see a picture of Coates in a dorm room reading a classic Pan-Africanist text. We read about Coates meeting Samori’s mother. We read Coates repeating love for his son. We read Coates’s rationalization for departing Howard. We also read of plunder and loss, the latter centered on Coates’s friend from Howard: Prince Jones.
Current state-citizen tensions surrounding police killings of unarmed black youth and the failure to hold officers responsible for unlawful actions has roots in centuries of sanctioned violence against black bodies. Coates remarks, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage” (103). His searing recitation of Prince Jones’s death bolsters the claim. In Baltimore, Ferguson, and across the US, white police officers habitually are implicated and often exonerated in cases of racial violence against young blacks. The unaccountable officer who shot Jones was black. Whites are not the only emissaries of white supremacy. Sociopolitical structures enshrine the tradition of killing black bodies by persons spanning the color line.
Justifiable rage, however, leads Coates to provincialize the scope of freedom for black Americans. Coates implores his son in the final paragraph “to struggle” yet be wary of “the Dreamers” and their narrow conception of progress (151). He professes atheism, viewing no afterlife and future solution to a world suffuse with white supremacy. His concentration on negative freedom (i.e. how non-interference in and non-domination of black lives by police and agents of state might materialize) occludes attentiveness to the interrelated positive valences of flight: political imagination, restructuring of the sociopolitical order, agents’ psychological conditions, and refashioned modes of constitutionalism necessary for alternative world-building where the Prince Joneses and Sandra Blands shall not be killed with impunity.
Let us harken back to the fugitive-turned-ex-slave Frederick Douglass, raised not far from Coates, same state, different era. Geographically, that state is the territory Maryland. Psychodynamically, that state is wrapped inside a black body grappling with its American unfreedom. As with his predecessor Douglass, Coates takes seriously the psychodynamics of black disembodiment. Douglass, like Coates, utilized journalism and autobiography to establish positions. Like Coates, he changed writing styles over time. He also admitted his imperfections (for Coates, this occurs on Twitter).
Douglass asserted in 1857, “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle.” His idea of perpetual struggle cultivated marronage individually and set the terms for mass transformation when it was considered irrational and untenable.
How to live free in a black body may be a quandary but not a paradox. Black women and men can and must live free in their bodies. Douglass concurred. Let us, dare I say, hope Coates does too.