Recently, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Coates writes about the realities of his life as a black man in America, and he manages to do so in ways that are both deeply personal and specific while also helping readers to see that his experience is not singular. The book is in the form of a letter to his son, lending it a type of intimacy and honesty that we often can only access in conversations with a dear friend. The urgency of his topic is clear, and his publishers saw that too; the publishing date was in fact moved up in the summer, something that is almost unheard of in the publishing industry.
Coates’s ability to write of the deeply personal in a way that helps readers see how the specificities of his story pattern across the larger nation is paired with another hard-to-master stylistic approach: he writes of brutal truths in language that borders on the poetic, or the lyrical. While there is a tradition in African-American writing that builds upon the language and rhythms of the church service, this is different; Coates notes his own disconnection from the historical melding between activism and church. He also urges his son to somehow find moments, pieces, or acts of beauty in the midst of all that is terribly wrong. It’s possible that the poetry of Coates’s writing is that gift; a work that, while it speaks to readers its painful truths, also stuns us with its linguistic grace.
A review in the New York Times, by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, discusses her initial frustration with what she thinks might be Coates’s holding back on providing any real solace to his son, and any outline of what can and should be done to move our nation in a different direction. Alexander writes of her first reading of the book, “by the end, I was exasperated. Under what conditions could Coates possibly imagine that the Dreamers would wake themselves up or learn to struggle for themselves? When in the history of the world have the privileged and powerful voluntarily relinquished their status or abandoned the tactics that secured their advantage, without being challenged, fought, confronted or inspired to do so by some remarkable example?” Alexander’s second reading of the book caused a shift; she becomes increasingly convinced that “he has more to say,” and that we’ll likely hear it.
While his book is about his own experience as a black man in America, his momentary shift to environmental devastation also refuses to give readers a way forward (“The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all” 151). Alexander points out that, like James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), which Baldwin wrote to his nephew, Between the World and Me is not “addressed to white people”; this is “one of the great virtues of both books,” in part because it means there is no hedging.
Coates draws our attention to the body, and specifically, the black male body, again and again in the work. At the very end of the book, he momentarily moves from the human body to the physicality of the Earth, pointing out that the plunder of both has been driven by Dreamers—those who believe in the certainty of the American dream. Dreamers miss what the dream has built on—the crushing of others, and of African Americans in particular. Coates tells his son, “Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of Earth itself. . . . Something more fierce that Marcus Garvey is reading on the whirlwind” (150-51).
I’ve thought of Between the World and Me many times, every day really, since I read it. I think of it not only in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, but also as the refugees and migrants stream into Europe from Macedonia, Serbia, and other parts of the Middle East and Africa. Recent reports about the ways in which human-made climate change will make such crises much worse cause me circle back to Coates’s own linking of Dreamer’s denial about race, plunder, and environmental change. While I in no way wish to conflate structures of race and environment, there is something about the ways those who benefit from different types plunder share: a refusal to see what is in front of them.
Owning “it,” be it white privilege, or the ways in which humans are contributing to climate change, is not easy. It’s not easy because doing so means we can’t just keep on keeping on. It means once we see what’s there, we have to act. To be clear, this is not written in a tone of self-righteousness; instead in a place that sits between terrible despair, and a collective call to try something different.
In the 1980s, college students across the country were active in getting their universities to divest from South Africa. This summer, Columbia University became the first university to divest from private prison companies. One of the students involved in the movement told CNN, “the private prison model is hinged on maximizing incarceration to generate profit.” A spokesperson from Columbia explained the university’s decision, noting, “This action occurs within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum” and “the decision follows … thoughtful analysis and deliberation by our faculty, students, and alumni.”
Maybe Coates did not finish his book by offering his own plan for “what to do,” because it is our job to help pick up that load, to start doing the doing, to face what is in front of us, to own it, and to act. Despair, I’ve come to find, doesn’t really seem to get us very far.
**Dr. Katie Gilbert is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Humanities and Ethics Center at Drury University