I decided to read “Between the World and Me” after reading David Brooks’ column about the book, watching Charlie Rose’s interview of the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and learning that the book was No. 1 on the New York Times hard-cover nonfiction “Best Seller List.”
Reading the book prompted my conducting research about the book and the author and then reading his earlier memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle.” The following sets forth my reactions to all of this information. As always, I invite comments of agreement or disagreement.
“Between the World and Me”
As a white male septuagenarian, I thought this book by a 40-year-old African-American man described a world totally foreign to me. The book thus was another marker of the existence of U.S. racial segregation over the last 40 years. Part of my reaction was due to the author’s using words and names of people and music that meant nothing to me. I also found it difficult to understand his obvious mélange of what had to have been black “street talk” with “standard” English.
I had the sense that the author as he was growing up lived with an omnipresent fear of violence to his black body from his father, from other young black males and from law enforcement personnel and that this fear has produced an omnipresent rage. In his words, that rage “burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”
There were only two exceptions to this fear and anger, as I read the book.
The first was when he attended Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, the preeminent higher education institution for African-Americans, which he called The Mecca with so many beautiful young black women (“jennies”), with so many black people doing so many different things, with professors from other countries and with its large collection of books and articles by many black writers and scholars. He also met his future wife there. After six years on and off, however, he dropped out of Howard to pursue a journalism career.
The second was his recent trip with wife and 14-year-old son to Paris France for an escape from concerns about race while experiencing the gastronomic and cultural wonders of that great city. He also told Charlie Rose that his Paris trip was due to his love of the French language and wanting to see how France deals with its problems and to expose his son to other parts of the world. At least the first of these reasons motivated earlier black authors James Baldwin and Richard Wright, who are briefly quoted in the book on racial issues, to spend significant amounts of time in Paris. This love of Paris, however, could not obscure for Ta-Nehisi the fact that the French had colonized many parts of Africa and had taken advantage of its black people.
Coates told the Baltimore Sun the book was intended to tell a black audience “’I see your pain, and you’re not crazy.’ There’s racism, and then there’s the mind-tricks people play on you by telling you that the racism isn’t real.”
The title of the book puzzled me, and its inclusion in an extract in the book’s preface from a poem by Richard Wright, an African-American author and poet, did not help. I then searched and found the complete poem and discovered it was about the impact on a black man of his discovering evidence of the past lynching of another black man. I then concluded that the book’s title meant that white men’s violence against black men always comes between Coates and his perceptions of the rest of the world. Is that right? Here is the complete Wright poem (with the excerpt quoted in Ta-Nehisi’s book in bold):
“And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear–
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
my life be burned….
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun…. “
“The Beautiful Struggle”
Coates’ memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle,” was published seven years earlier. It covers the first 18 years of his life and, therefore, overlaps some of the time period discussed in the new book. I was surprised to discover that I thought the two books were describing two different men. Indeed, the use of the adjective “beautiful” for the earlier account of his first 18 years would not be apt for the telling of the same story, in part, in the recent book Of course, Coates in 2015 is different from the man he was when he wrote the memoir in 2008. Now he is reacting, in part, to the horrible recent killings of unarmed black men: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, to name a few.
In “The Beautiful Struggle” we learn that unlike so many young black men in the 1970’s and 80’s Coates had parents who were educated and concerned about his education and well-being.
Although Coates said he feared his father, William Paul Coates, and thought he was a “practicing fascist” mandating books to read and banning religion, his father also was an important figure in his life. The father was a Vietnam veteran, an early member of the Black Panther Part and an early collector and re-publisher of books and other writings of black authors. His father earned a B.A. degree from Antioch College and a master’s degree in library science from Atlanta University and worked at Howard University’s Moorland Spingarn Research Center, which is one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive repositories for the documentation of the history and culture of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and other parts of the world. Thus, many of the names of black authors mentioned in “Between the World and Me” perhaps were not discovered by Ta-Nehisi when he was a Howard student, but already were known to him through his father’s work.
His father’s interest in black culture also explains Coates’ first name, Ta-Nehisi, which “The Beautiful Struggle” says is an ancient Egyptian name for the mighty Nubians in Africa.
His parents’ desire for their son to have an excellent education was exhibited when as a fourth grader he was sent to local private schools for tests and hoped-for scholarships But Ta-Nehisi was not interested and did not do well on the exams so the private school option was foreclosed.
After doing reasonably well in ninth grade at William H. Lemmel Middle School in Baltimore, Ta Nehisi pleased his parents by gaining admittance to the City’s preeminent public high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which emphasized sciences, technology, engineering and math. He, however, did not do well there and was expelled at the end of his junior year after he failed English and was in a fight with another student in the cafeteria.
Afterwards, his father said, “Ta-Nehisi, you are a disgrace to this family’s name.” For the son, that hurt because he had completely let his father down and because “I’d failed myself. No matter what the professional talkers tell you, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail.”
Earlier that year after the family had moved to a large suburban home, Ta-Nehisi participated in an African-American ritual, Ankobia, to celebrate those who lead in battle, setting the standard for courage and commitment; this ritual was organized and taught by Pan-African black American activists.
He, therefore, experienced (and presumably enjoyed), at ages 16 to 18, the suburban lifestyle that he castigates in “Between Me and the World:” a life style “organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens.”
For his senior year of high school Ta-Nehisi attended Baltimore County’s Woodlawn High School and turned around his poor record at Poly. His grades improved. He gave a speech at a school assembly about Marcus Garvey, a proponent of Black Nationalism and the Pan-Africanism movement. Ta-Nehisi became a peer counselor and conflict resolution person. He applied to four colleges, including Howard, and was admitted to all of them and decided to go to Howard as the memoir ends.
The Charlie Rose interview reveals Coates as a calm, sensitive, rational, intelligent human being rather than a wild-eyed extremist who cannot get over the legitimate fears and anger of his childhood, an impression easily left by his later book.
In that interview Rose pressed Coates on whether the message of combating white supremacy or the process of writing was more important for him. Coates eventually admitted that writing was more important because he loves the challenge of writing and that eventually he might use his writing skills to do something else like writing a novel.
He also said he was deeply inspired by James Baldwin’s beautiful writing, and many have commented on Coates’ new book’s adopting the same form as Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew:” a letter to a black male relative (son for Coates and nephew for Baldwin) about violence against blacks. Coates’ comments about his love of writing and of Baldwin’s literary skills leave a lingering question: was his recent book an intentional or subconscious attempt to try to write like Baldwin? (I do not have the literary knowledge to answer that question.)
Coates also told Charlie Rose that he does not share the optimism and hope of many African-Americans and that he does not believe racial progress was or will be automatic or preordained, which was his interpretation of the famous saying of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
This interpretation of that saying, however, in my opinion, is clearly erroneous. No one can seriously believe that progress on racial issues or on any other social or political issue is automatic or preordained. Such progress or change requires a lot of work and sacrifice to advocate change and to mobilize public opinion in favor of such change. There will be disappointments or failures along the way, and that is why people in the struggle need words of encouragement and hope like these words of Dr. King. Indeed, Coates conceded to Rose that as a result of activists and pressure, there has been progress on racial issues in the U.S. since the Civil War.
In addition, Coates said he thought that President Obama’s recent eulogy in Charleston, South Carolina was the greatest presidential address he has ever heard. To see and hear it again, as in this video, still brings tears to all people of good will. Some of the President’s words also undercut Coates’ lack of appreciation for the importance of religious faith and of black churches in the struggle for racial progress. The President said:
- “The church is and always has been the center of African-American life, a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships. Over the course of centuries, black churches served as ‘hush harbors’ where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah; rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart — and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.”
I join David Brooks in his previously cited column in disagreeing with Coates’ total rejection of the American Dream. According to Brooks, “The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow. This dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide. It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements.”
 For the next eight years or so after leaving Howard, Coates was a journalist with freelance jobs, alternative weeklies, and magazines but never for more than two years at a time. In 2008, he published his memoir and then landed at The Atlantic, initially as a blogger; later, as a national editor.
 Richard Wright (1908-1960) is best known for his 1940 novel “Native Son” and his 1945 autobiography “Black Boy;” his poem, quoted at the end of the first part of this blog post, provides the title for Coates’ book. James Baldwin (1924 –1987) is well known for Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), Giovanni’s Room (1956 The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976). Coates on page 133 of his book quotes from Baldwin’s essay, “On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies,” a paragraph of which is contained in the Appendix to this post. Coates also quotes two other African-American poets whose full poems are in the attached Appendix: Sonia Sanchez (p.3) without Coates telling the reader the full poem is about Malcolm X; and Amiri Baraka (p. 73).
I. Reviews of “Between the World and Me”
Bennett, Ta-Nehisi Coates and a Generation Waking Up, New Yorker (July 15, 2015)
Brooks, Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2015)
Harris, The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York Magazine (July 12, 2015),
McCauley, Ta-Nehisi Coates on the roots of racial violence, Balt. Sun (July 18, 2015),
Remnick, Charleston and the Age of Obama, New Yorker (June 19, 2015),
Schuessler, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Visceral’ Take on Being Black in America, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2015)
II. Other Writings by, and Interviews of, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates, American Girl, The Atlantic (Jan./Feb. 2009) (article about Michelle Obama)
Coates, Between the World and My Book Club: Your Final Critical Thoughts, The Atlantic (Aug. 8, 2015)
Coates, List of Articles in The Atlantic
Coates, My 10 Favorite Books: Ta-Nehisi Coates, N.Y. Times (July 31, 2015)
Coates, Ta-Nehisi News (Blog of the most recent and crucial events in the social, political and cultural life of the U.S.)
Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014)
PBS NewsHour, Interview of Ta-Nehisi Coates: We accept violence against African-Americans as normal (July 23, 2015)
III. Richard Wright
Richard Wright’s Poem, “Between the World and Me”
IV. Sonia Sanchez
Biography: Sonia Sanchez (born Wilsonia Benita Driver, September 9, 1934) is an African-American poet most often associated with the Black Arts Movement. She has authored over a dozen books of poetry, as well as plays and children’s books. She was a recipient of 1993 Pew Fellowships in the Arts.
“do not speak to me of martyrdom of men who die to be remembered on some parish day I don’t believe in dying though I too shall die and violets like castanets will echo me.
Yet this man this dreamer, thick-lipped with words will never speak again and in each winter when the cold air cracks with frost, I’ll breathe his breath and mourn my gun-filled nights.
he was the sun that tagged the western sky and melted tiger-scholars while they searched for stripes. he said, “fuck you white man, we have been curled too long. nothing is sacred now. not your white face nor any land that separates until some voices squat with spasms.
Do not speak to me of living. life is obscene with crowds of white on black. death is my pulse. what might have been is not for him/or me but what could have been is not for him/or me but what could have been floods the womb until I drown.”
Sanchez, Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems (emphasis added)
V. Amiri Baraka
Biography: Born in 1934, Amiri Baraka was raised in USA. Having studied Philosophy and Religion at Columbia University, he has a sound knowledge of these subjects that also reflects well in his writings. He is a well known African-American writer of fiction, drama, poetry and music. With books such as Tales of the Out and the Gone, he has received the PEN Open Book Award and is also respected as one of the most widely published African American authors of his generation. Apart from writing, Baraka is considered as a revolutionary political activist and has given lectures on various political and cultural issues extensively throughout Europe, Africa, USA and the Caribbean.
“A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and Black people
call across or scream across or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will.
Our world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone’s
tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air
We are beautiful people
With african imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with african eyes, and noses, and arms
though we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.
We have been captured,
brothers. And we labor to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new
correspondence with ourselves
and our black family. We read magic
now we need the spells, to rise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred words?
VI. James Baldwin
Biography: James Arthur Baldwin (1924 –1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable if un-nameable tensions. Some Baldwin essays are book-length, for instance The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work(1976).
Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, written well before gay equality was widely espoused in America: Giovanni’s Room (1956). Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is said to be his best-known work.
“On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies”
“[The Europeans who came here paid the price of becoming “white.] And [they] have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot’s wife— looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt.” Baldwin, On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies, in Roediger (editor0, Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means To Be White at 177-180) (emphasis added).