"Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White", "The Dream", American Dream, Between the World and Me (2015), Black Bodies, Black Women, Book Reviews, Britni Danielle, Cornel West, Critiques, David Brooks, Exclusion, Facebook, Homage, Intersectionality, Mabel Jones, Memoir, Narcissism, National Review, New York Times, Politico.com, Prince Jones, Race Matters, Rich Lowry, Samori Touré, Sidelined, Systemic Racism, The Root
I don’t get most of the critiques of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestselling new book, Between the World and Me. It’s as if Coates had written Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994), the way White reviewers allegedly liberal and conservative have reacted to its publication. I have read Between the World and Me, and there are more than a few things that any reader could criticize or even praise. But more than a fair share of the criticisms of Coates’ book are flat-out misreads, impositions of the critics’ own biases on Coates, or based purely on the book’s back cover.
“Go West, Young Man!”
Cornel West began this parade of badly handled critiques last week with his Facebook post. The title — “In Defense of James Baldwin – Why Tony (how West spelled it originally) Morrison (a literary genius) is Wrong about Ta-Nehisi Coates.” — says it all. One impressive blurb from a leading author of the last half-century, and West seems to have lost his mind. Aside from disagreeing with Morrison about the James Baldwin, West wrote, “Coates is a clever wordsmith with journalistic talent who avoids any critique of the Black president in power,” adding that
Coates can grow and mature, but without an analysis of capitalist wealth inequality, gender domination, homophobic degradation, Imperial occupation (all concrete forms of plunder) and collective fightback (not just personal struggle) Coates will remain a mere darling of White and Black Neo-liberals, paralyzed by their Obama worship…
Funny. I didn’t know that Coates’ 152-page letter to his fifteen-year-old son was supposed to be a damning critique of President Barack Obama. Ax-grind much, Dr. West? Especially since, in a structural sense, anyway, Coates’ book indirectly pays homage to West’s groundbreaking 101-page treatise, Race Matters (1994). For West, though, the world is not enough, because in his mind, “it’s all about me.”
Intersectionality vs. Exclusion
There have been a few reviews criticizing Coates’ for not dealing with the intersectionality between race and gender for Black women in the context of facing the same struggles as Black men. Britni Danielle wrote in her review of Between the World and Me in The Root last week, “[b]ut what of the women? In Between the World and Me, black women are footnotes to the men’s stories—baby mamas, lovers, mothers, classmates, around-the-way girls, grieving mothers.”
I don’t entirely disagree with Danielle’s assessment, especially in specific cases, like when Coates discussed his mother, talked about the first two women he fell in love with, and in his understanding of his slain friend Prince Jones’ mother, Dr. Mabel Jones. Then again, how could a late-bloomer like Coates really dig deep enough to discuss intersectionality with any depth for his fifteen-year-old son? My suspicion is that a more serious attempt on Coates’ part would’ve fallen flat.
Narcissistic White Men on “Race Matters”
The most explosive critiques of Between the World and Me — at least for most Americans (read “White Americans” here) — have come from two rather unimpressive high-brow intellectual narcissists. New York Times columnist David Brooks last Friday and National Review editor Rich Lowry on Wednesday (via Politico.com) both took it upon themselves to express personal outrage on the part of millions of other upstanding White Americans.
Brooks titled his column “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” though it really should’ve been titled, “Hearing Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.” Because based on what Brooks wrote, with sentences like “It [Coates’ book] is a mind-altering account of the black male experience. Every conscientious American should read it,” it becomes fairly obvious to the astute that Brooks wasn’t listening. As I’ve explained to my soon-to-be-twelve-year-old son and my students over the years, “there’s a difference between hearing and listening. One requires you to be look like you’re listening, the other requires you to think and act on what you read and hear.” I guess Brooks didn’t listen to Morpheus in The Matrix (1999) either. Like so many, he doesn’t want to understand that the American Dream is “the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth”
Brooks read Between the World and Me, and heard, “White people like me are bad, the American Dream is bad — how dare you say that about me, Mr. Coates!” This is even more evident later in the review, as Brooks wrote, “Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?” Yes, Mr. Brooks, your White privilege matters, but doesn’t give you standing here.
Lowry based his nullification of Between the World and Me on the very themes that Coates’ spun on their heads in his book — individualism and skin-color-based violations of the Black body. Lowry wrote, “He [Coates] argues — although that might be too generous a word; it’s more like assertion shrouded in a haze of lyricism — that all that other black people did to hurt or threaten him was ultimately the product of white racism.” As if racism is somehow self-contained, an individual choice or decision, and not something that is embedded in America’s institutions, with systematic effects throughout society, to the point of self-hatred and internalized racism. Wake up, Mr. Lowry, and smell what you’re shoveling!
Between Coates and Me
As for my read, I found the book powerful, self-important, compelling, pompous, and at times nihilistic and heart-rendering. Yet I also found some of Coates’ work weak and underdeveloped. Yet for almost none of the reasons that other reviewers have used to excoriate him and Between the World and Me. If Coates’ book is really just a letter from a near middle-aged Black man to his teenager son, I can tell you that at fifteen, my head would’ve been spinning for weeks after reading the letter. And not in a good way. My first reaction would be, “Thanks a lot, Dad! This burden you’ve given me could finish me before I have a serious chance to start!”
This book is far more than a mere letter. It’s part memoir and part treatise on the nature of the poisonous American Dream (one critique I read thought that Coates’ bought into the Dream — someone needs to learn how to comprehend what they read) and American racism. It is also partly journalistic commentary on the lives destroyed by “The Dream” and the structural racism that has supported it for centuries. Coates’ book is not just a nod to Baldwin, Langston Hughes or Malcolm X (whom he identifies in his book). There’s some influence, direct or not, between Martin Luther King, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, even the late Derrick Bell.
And that strength is perhaps Between the World and Me‘s great weakness. As strong as the writing is, and as personal and emotional the journey Coates tries to take us on, it is a journey with far too many destinations. Some of the people on Coates’ journey remain underdeveloped as characters, so to speak, and really serve as foils rather than as other bodies with the same hopes and fears that Coates’ had growing up. The appeal of The Mecca of the Howard University yard and Moorland-Spingarn would be difficult for some to appreciate without more of a sense of Coates’ lack of belonging, as there is so little about his relationship with his parents (especially his mother) and siblings beyond ass-whuppins. The repetitive declarations around the light-skinned kid with the gun, the notion of “twice as good” (which is mentioned several times over thirty pages before Coates provided a definition), and Coates’ cringing at all things Christianity, while understandable, probably do as much to exclude readers as they do to invite.
All in all, the book probably could have been thirty or even fifty pages shorter. But whether too repetitive, too long, too much rhetoric and not enough intersectionality, I still think Coates’ succeeded in his goal. If I’m understanding it correctly, that is. To remind his son (actual and the millions of proverbial sons and sidelined daughters, I guess) that the “Struggle is in your name, Samori–you were named for Samori Touré, who struggled against French colonizers for the right to his own black body” (p. 68). Imparting this wisdom may be perhaps the most important duty any Black parent has toward any of their children.