Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Spiegel & Grau, 152 pp, $24.00, ISBN: 978-0812993547
The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 292 pp, $26.00, ISBN: 978-0374298470
It has been a bad couple of years for African-Americans. A bad four hundred years, many would say. But since the summer of 2014, when, in quick succession, Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York policeman after complaining about being harassed for selling loose cigarettes, John Crawford was killed by a police officer in an Ohio Walmart when confronted holding a toy gun, and Michael Brown was shot dead during a scuffle with a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the story of a black body’s destruction” has been brought to America’s attention with unprecedented focus, sparking peaceful and not-so-peaceful protests across the country, vivifying diverse, forceful commentary, and bringing together a range of activist efforts into what many are calling a second civil rights movement.
Those summer deaths were not isolated incidents. And they are nothing new. The US has a long, tragic history of extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men and women, and though the recent march of protest has raised awareness, the pace of tragedy has not slowed. The police killings have continued: Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Walter Scott. The list is partial. Some of these men and boys suffered from mental illness. Some were shot in the back. All were unarmed. Most recently, Jamar Clark was killed by Minneapolis police responding to a domestic dispute. Witnesses claim he was shot in the head while restrained on the ground, possibly handcuffed.
As disturbing as these incidents are, their aftermaths have frequently suggested that the police, the state, and the public at large do not share the black community’s sense of outrage. Quite the opposite. Michael Brown’s bleeding corpse was left lying in the middle of the road for four hours. A grand jury decided not to indict the policeman who killed him. A month later a New York grand jury came to a similar decision about the death of Eric Garner. The October 2014 killing by a Chicago policeman of Laquan McDonald – he was shot twice while running away and fourteen times while he lay on the ground – was captured on a police video that was not made available for public viewing for four hundred days.
Reaction to this series of tragedies and their fallout has been sometimes visceral, sometimes thoughtful; sometimes violent, usually controlled. The events in Ferguson and elsewhere have pushed race to the forefront of current consciousness and brought a magnifying glass to related issues: the militarisation of American police departments since 9/11; the demographic disparities between many police forces and their citizenry; deep racial and political divisions in reactions to the shootings and their aftermaths. And the dissent has broadened, from the street to city hall to athletic fields to the classroom. In particular, college students across the US have organised campaigns around issues of race on campus and against the mainstream notion that America is an integrated, post-racial society.
Like the Arab Spring, this latest wave of American revolt has been diverse, sustained and powered by social media. The internet has played a large part in the dissemination of evidence of institutional discrimination and the way in which reaction to it has been organised. The ubiquity of smartphones and dashboard cameras has meant that digital capture of police transgression is more available than ever, and the viral spread of incriminating video and photography is matched by the speed-of-light sharing of anger and reaction. Black Lives Matter, a grassroots, chapter-based organisation founded in response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, has skilfully used social media to spread the word about racial injustice and to orchestrate action. Over the last eighteen months it has evolved into a high-energy, high-profile catalyst of much of the national protest.
The appearance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me at this important moment in the evolution of African-American civil resistance is not an accident. Over the last decade, Coates has played a major role in the shaping of twenty-first-century radical consciousness and become a principal advocate for a new activism based on an uncompromising reading of American history and culture. In a highly influential blog and several powerful magazine articles in The Atlantic, he has argued for a thorough reassessment of racism in the US. His 2008 article “This Is How We Lost to the White Man” challenged the black conservative tradition (especially as espoused by a pre-disgrace Bill Cosby) that favours hard work and moral reform over protest and government intervention. “Fear of a Black President”, his 2012 cover story for The Atlantic, accused Barack Obama of being a “conservative revolutionary” who “effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square”.
Coates’s most powerful Atlantic piece to date, the fifteen-thousand-word “A Case for Reparations”, was published just weeks before Garner and Brown’s deaths. Leveraging two years of intense research into the pervasive, long-standing institutional racism of housing discrimination, he argued that African-Americans remain, by far, the most segregated ethnic group in the country, and with this condition comes a “concentration of disadvantage” that has assured the persistence of inequity and stands as evidence that “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it”. Reparations, which Coates suggests would be “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences”, is the price he says Americans must pay to “see ourselves squarely”.
“A Case for Reparations” is rigorously reasoned and carefully expressed. Coates makes a point of using language that does not allow his audience to retreat into the soft folds of euphemism. “I felt like many of the people that I was reading in the ’90s,” he has said, were “burdened by the need to explain to white people. And that has an effect on your language.” So Coates uses the term “white supremacy” instead of “white privilege”. The US criminal justice system he calls “penal warehousing”. American history is best defined – at least from his perspective – by words like “plunder”, “menace”. “disembodiment”, and the most loaded epithet in the American lexicon: “nigger”.
Here is Coates, writing in The New York Times, on this last word:
A few summers ago one of my best friends invited me up to what he affectionately called his ‘white-trash cabin’ in the Adirondacks. This was not how I described the outing to my family. Two of my Jewish acquaintances once joked that I’d ‘make a good Jew.’ My retort was not, ‘Yeah, I certainly am good with money.’ Gay men sometimes laughingly refer to one another as ‘faggots’…
A separate and unequal standard for black people is always wrong. And the desire to ban the word ‘nigger’ is not anti-racism, it is finishing school … If you could choose one word to represent the centuries of bondage, the decades of terrorism, the long days of mass rape, the totality of white violence that birthed the black race in America, it would be ‘nigger’ … That such a seemingly hateful word should return as a marker of nationhood and community confounds our very notions of power. ‘Nigger’ is different because it is attached to one of the most vibrant cultures in the Western world. And yet the culture is inextricably linked to the violence that birthed us. ‘Nigger’ is the border, the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear. It tells white people that, for all their guns and all their gold, there will always be places they can never go.
All their guns and all their gold. The phrase has literary and historical resonance. It is elegant and concise, the touch of a writer who knows the potential of language and the emotional impact of the poetic. Words, like peoples, have complex histories and subtle present-day shades. Coates knows that the narrative of American racism is centuries old and will extend for a long time to come. And that any serious discussion of it must use language that does not deny the subject’s inconvenient truths.
So it feels natural that his next major statement is a literary one. Between the World and Me builds on the cumulative argument of his articles and blog, but its authority derives less from having something new to say and more from how it is said. This book’s distinctive strength is formal. Using the age-old literary devices of epistle and confession, Coates adds a very personal dimension to his argument without losing the weight of logic. The book is a potent blend of reason, rhetoric, and emotion.
Taking the form of an open letter to Coates’s fifteen-year-old son, Samori, Between the World and Me explores the American realities that have led to, and continue to perpetuate, a situation where, as he tells his son, “the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body”. Beginning with the terrors of his own adolescence, he describes the fears that shaped his upbringing: fear of the police, of “detainings, beatings, and humiliations”; fear of the streets, where gang members might “break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies”; fear even of his father (whom he loved, and continues to love):
My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us. Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns.
The traditional safe havens offered him no recourse. Friends quailed before “all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease” of their surroundings (though there was sometimes refuge in numbers). The educational system, Coates says, “had no time for the childhood of black boys and girls”. The schools “were hiding something, drugging us with false morality so that we would not see, we did not ask: Why – for us and only us – is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies?” And religion, the source of so much strength and succour for African-Americans over the decades, is for Coates a particularly dangerous distraction. He places it within the same framework as the dream of American exceptionalism:
Some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were sceptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live – specifically, how do I live free in this black body?
And so I had no sense that any just God was on my side. ‘The meek shall inherit the earth’ meant nothing to me. The meek were battered in West Baltimore, stomped out at Walbrook Junction, bashed up on Park Heights, and raped in the showers of the city jail. My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.
This part of the book echoes Coates’s 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle, an expressionistic account of growing up in inner-city Baltimore at the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s and an examination of his relationship with his father, a former Black Panther who raised seven children with four mothers. But the context of Between the World and Me is richer, more focused politically. Coates has used the rigour of his journalism and the experience of seeing his own son approach manhood to give full expression to his fears and hopes for Samori, and thus to explain the dilemma of the African-American citizen in a way that, as Toni Morrison says, “is as profound as it is revelatory”.
The dilemma is further defined as Coates moves the narrative out of adolescence and into his years at Howard University, where he discovered poetry, history and ideas; examined, embraced, and then moved beyond a series of intellectual solutions to the dilemma, including Black Power and Pan-Africanism; and where he met friends from backgrounds very different from his own, including his future wife, who taught him that the world of black culture was varied, rich, and beautiful. He emerged from Howard with a clear sense of the true purpose of education as a “process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness”.
The starkest example of that terribleness was the killing of one of his Howard friends, Prince Jones, who was gunned down by a policeman in a case of mistaken identity. Jones’s death would haunt Coates. Later, as his career as a journalist developed, he would visit Jones’s mother, and his account of that visit is one of the most moving sections of the book. Coates sees the injustice of Prince’s death as both a personal tragedy and an inevitable outcome of a system that refuses to see itself for what it is:
I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth … The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies – the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects – are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into ghettoes armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream.
Coates’s “Dream” is a narrow interpretation of the American dream, “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”. It is not the American dream in which Martin Luther King’s dream of freedom and equality was deeply rooted, but an exclusionary false innocence that is based on subjugation and supremacy. Conjured by historians, fortified by Hollywood, gilded by novels and adventure stories, the Dream as he defines it is at the core of post-Civil War American culture and, the civil rights movement notwithstanding, continues to support a system where “it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage” (Coates’s italics).
This is a profoundly pessimistic vision. Coates uses the phrase “people who think they are white” to describe all Americans who, regardless of skin colour or ethnic background or political stripe, accept the system for what it is, who subscribe to the Dream. And the Dream, he says, runs so deep in America that it eludes those ensnared by it. You would imagine that, if pressed, Coates would claim that President Obama and most progressive Democratic politicians are caught in that snare. It would be the inevitable conclusion of his belief that “the plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”
To the end of our days. That is bleak. However, the form of Between the World and Me demands that Coates articulate a solution, if only in the form of advice to his son. Given these horrible truths, how must a young black man live in twenty-first century America? What must he think and do? Coates rejects the traditional black parental advice to “be twice as good”. Such racially self-conscious caution he sees as futile; there is no refuge from racism in America. So what is there? “The struggle,” he says to Samori, “is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of this world under your control … You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds always at your heels.” Stay outside the false innocence, he counsels. “I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
Coates’s tone creates a sense of intimacy, of overhearing a father’s considered advice to his son. We feel as if we are listening in. But this feeling of privacy is a formal illusion, of course. He is speaking to all of us. The book is a clarion call. And herein lies the author’s greatest challenge. Between the World and Me has won the National Book Award. It is a New York Times bestseller. Coates’s book tour has included addressing packed-out audiences at the nation’s most prestigious institutions. Producing this book at this moment – as young African-Americans are re-imagining their lives and looking for guidance on how to make the impulse to dissidence impactful and meaningful – feels less than enough. Will despair, or the awesome struggle just to keep despair at bay, suffice for the new movement? How can a reforming consciousness survive the ultimate summary that “one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen”.
Coates’s critics – and they come from both right and left – usually praise his book’s power and forthrightness while warning of the danger of his despair and questioning his thesis that white supremacy does not merely shape the system, it is the system. Coates’s focus on the black body is sharp and unifying, but he offers little hope that its suffering can be transcended. “Struggle is all we have,” he tells his son, “because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all.”
“The past is never dead,” Faulkner famously told us. “It’s not even past.” Coates insistently argues that the American narrative is one of denial, that its culture has “made enslavement into benevolence” and that the mettle it takes to acknowledge the history of this “long war against the black body” is beyond most Americans. Marilynne Robinson would no doubt agree. Like Coates, she has a strong sense of the past’s legacy and an even stronger awareness of the consequences of ignoring it. Like Coates, she defines American culture in a way that makes many uncomfortable. Her uncompromising Christian message – articulated in different ways in her splendid fictions and her formidable essays – challenges both American religious fundamentalism and the reductionism of much contemporary liberal rationalism. And like Coates, she is an intellectual outlier who, by the power of her work, has attracted national attention – most recently by engaging in a wide-ranging conversation with President Obama last September, published in two instalments in The New York Review of Books.
Unlike Coates, however, Robinson offers us a version of national history that, while acknowledging the greed, injustice, and violence of its origins and their persistence into the present, sets the task of reform in the context of a belief in the democratic will and in a religious truth that “lies beyond our capacities”. And her frame of reference is imposing. The essays in The Givenness of Things, her fifth volume of nonfiction, continue to explore her favourite subjects – theology, metaphysics, politics, science, history, education, and literature – in language that is rigorous and often abstruse but never imprecise. It can be tough to read her, but so worth the effort. And she brings to these themes not just her formidable intelligence but the weight of a much misunderstood strain of American progressivism with a great deal to contribute on the subjects of racism and reform.
It is perhaps unfair to review The Givenness of Things only in the context of Coates’s book. Its complexity and range deserve broader and deeper scrutiny. But so much of what Robinson has to tell us addresses the despair of Between the World and Me, directly and indirectly, that such a narrow approach is, I hope, forgivable. “What is to be done?” Chernyshevsky (and Lenin) asked. In Russia, how that question was answered changed history. The course of human events is not predetermined, and the same question now hovers over the motives and methods of those involved in the new civil rights movement. They would do well to attend to Robinson’s perspective.
Robinson has her own way of tying the legacy of slavery to present myopia, and though it comes from an entirely different angle from Coates’s argument, it is equally powerful:
Since American intellectual culture is an endless corridor of funhouse mirrors, we don’t know what Karl Marx did know, that the cotton economy of the South was altogether the creation of British industrial capitalism. It was the greatest producer of wealth in the American economy, and its apologists foresaw a limitless expansion of it, into the North, and even into Central and South America. It was a great engine of wealth dependent on what [Jefferson] Davis called, rather coolly, ‘this species of property,’ African slaves. One need not read far to see what our great experiment might have become. And the spirit behind it would have been Mammon, not Moses.
These sentences come from the essay “Memory”, which laments the right’s cooptation of the word “Christian” and the collapse of political liberalism. Robinson argues that the two are connected. “A movement that cannot acknowledge its name,” she writes, “cannot acknowledge its history, its philosophy, or its achievements.” By allowing Christianity “to become a brand name for assorted trends and phenomena”, American liberalism has denied a central part of its tradition. That tradition – Northern, Protestant, reformist and dynamic – was once the moral impetus behind the most significant social reforms in America’s history, rooted, she argues, in biblical metaphysics. That many on the left now associate the Bible with all that is “mean, obscurantist, or sinister,” and that the South is considered religious and the North is not, are consistent with the historical notion that the Bible offered justifications for the institution of slavery which the North answered with brute force. Robinson’s research suggests otherwise: prior to the Civil War, Northerners “allude to Scripture far more often, and use it far more essentially as the basis of their argument” than Southern apologists for slavery. In other words, moral force, not brute force, was the North’s answer. And preventing the spread of the evil of slavery beyond the South’s borders, as she says above, was not a foregone conclusion. Had the North’s guiding philosophy been material utility (as it is, she argues elsewhere, in the US today), then Mammon might well have prevailed.
This point is important for readers of Coates. Racial discrimination may indeed be systemic, its horrors pervasive and unacknowledged, but the means of combating its evils are within the American tradition that prompts in him only despair. In another of the book’s essays, “Awakening”, Robinson describes how the great religious revivals that swept through the mid-colonies in the late eighteenth century and the northeastern states in the first third of the nineteenth, known respectively as the First and Second Great Awakenings, were “attended by a cluster of reform movements – enhancements of the status of women, broadening of access to education, mitigations of social and racial inequality.” The reformers who emerged from the Second Awakening included a group of Yale Divinity School graduates who founded Oberlin, Knox, and other small Midwestern liberal arts colleges whose administrators insisted that African-Americans and women be admitted on an equal basis with white men. These reformers were abolitionists like Charles Finney who, though the moral conscience of their time, came to be seen as cranks or extremists. Robinson sees a parallel with contemporary liberalism:
The word ‘liberal’ has been effectively stigmatized, as the word ‘abolitionist’ was and is. As if generosity were culpable. As if there were some more reasonable response to slavery than to abolish it. As I write, the Voting Rights Act is being challenged before the Supreme Court.
The liberal impulse, in other words, waxes and wanes in a democracy. The reformist collapse that followed the Civil War did indeed, as Coates describes it, result in a long-term view of the war as “a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor, and élan”. It also led to the emergence of the “near-slavery called Jim Crow” which, as Robinson says, though it emerged most strongly in the South, “influenced law and practice throughout the country, buttressed by eugenics theories and ‘racial science,’ which were taken as real science in those same religious circles that had been passionately antislavery decades before”.
Robinson calls the civil rights movement of the sixties the Third Great Awakening, led by the black church but sooner or later supported by all major denominations. The speeches of Dr King and his followers used explicitly biblical language, but it was language consistent not just with the African-American religious tradition but also with Jeffersonian liberalism. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” This bold sentence, written by Jefferson, quoted by King, is “based on a reading of the creation narratives in Genesis”, Robinson points out, yet “functions as a powerful ethical statement for vast numbers of Americans who have no investment whatever in the authority of Scripture”. As King was aware, this sentence lay behind many great American reforms as it would lie behind those that his movement achieved. But reform movements fall back, and the gains of the sixties are now often taken for granted or ignored or assumed to be enough to create a level playing field – which we know, or should know, they don’t. But we Americans are not good at learning from our history. We are unlikely, in numbers, to listen to Robinson’s call to “take very seriously what the dreadful past can tell us about our blindness and predilections”.
And yet Robinson agrees with Whitman’s belief that “Democracy is a great word, whose history … remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted”. As she said to Obama in their NYRB conversation, the “basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people. You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing.” She agrees with Coates about the dreadful past and the ignorant present, but she does not share his acceptance of “the chaos of history” and the belief that the body and its fate are all we have. Beyond the chaos of history is the mystery of the good:
The haunting fact is that we are morally free. If everyone around us is calling for Barabbas, it is only probable, never necessary, that some of us join in. Since we have not yet burned the taper of earthly existence down to its end, we still have time to muster the dignity and graciousness and courage that are uniquely our gift. If we are making the last testament to the nature of human life, or if we are only one more beleaguered generation in a series whose end we cannot foresee, each of us and all of us know what human beauty would look like. We could let it have its moment. Fine, but would this solve the world’s problems? It might solve a good many of them, I think.
Never necessary. We all have the free will to choose the harder, more moral option. Others, with less encouragement, have made that choice. First, it has to be said, we need consciousness, and Ta-Nehisi Coates does as much as anyone to make us see and feel the history and scale of wrongdoing. But we need to know that the past also gives us a legacy of bravery and right thinking. And it gives us a framework for action, one that recognises the dignity of all people, which Robinson calls “our gift”. Our soul, if you will. For her, that framework is Christianity. For others it may be the civil religion of Dr King or Ghandi’s passive resistance or the moral leadership of Mandela. Whatever it is called, we cannot overcome injustice without it.
Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based writer on literature, history and jazz. His most recent novel is A Lonely Note (Little Island, 2015).