To read Melvin Rogers’s review of Between the World and Me, click here.
Since its publication less than a month ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book-length letter to his son, Between the World and Me, has become a must-read and a must-teach text. It presents a particular (black, middle-aged, male, West Baltimorean, atheist) glimpse of race in the United States today, one that rewards multiple readings given its use of language, imagery, and history.
For Melvin Lee Rogers, the book serves as a powerful indictment of modern-day white supremacy. But Rogers also believes the book to be dangerous, particularly for black readers. He believes that Coates promotes a vision of white supremacy so powerful it cannot be escaped, only endured, and that Coates promotes a vision of American life so pessimistic, progress is impossible. There is no audacity of hope to be found here. And if there’s one thing black people can’t afford, it’s a life without hope.
Rogers bases his argument on Coates’s use of natural disaster metaphors to describe white supremacy and its effects: on his unwillingness to console his son, after the St. Louis County Prosecutor refused to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, with anything more than a call to struggle; and on his inability to reflect upon how his own life reflects a certain type of progress.
The first time we see Coates refer to white supremacy using the metaphor of natural disaster is on page seven:
Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men. But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white. These new people are, like us, a modern invention.
The next time Coates refers to white supremacy in this manner is some seventy-six pages later, as a means of explaining his mother’s sometimes harsh treatment of him to his son:
She knew the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon 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 but 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 bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s laws.
Taking the above passage by itself, we could get the impression that Coates believed that white supremacy was a force of nature. But taking them in concert leaves a very different impression. Coates believes that white supremacy has the impact, the visceral impact, of what Christians would call an act of God. But he simultaneously believes it is the creation of institutions with very specific man-made roles and powers. And, as he points out a few pages later, at specific moments these institutions have been disrupted:
Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen. The fact of history is that black people have not—probably no people have ever—liberated themselves strictly through their own efforts. In every great change in the lives of African Americans we see the hand of events that were beyond our individual control, events that were not unalloyed goods. You cannot disconnect our emancipation in the Northern colonies from the blood spilled in the Revolutionary War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from slavery in the South from the charnel houses of the Civil War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from Jim Crow from the genocides of the Second World War. History is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory, but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.
Rogers only quotes the first line of the passage above in support of his argument that Coates believes progress is unachievable. In fact Coates is arguing the opposite—that change is possible, but when it occurs, it often occurs for unforeseen and unpredictable reasons. Rather than taking a pessimist’s approach with his son, he’s taking a realistic approach, grounded in American history. We can’t predict the future, but we do know change doesn’t occur without struggle, and racial change doesn’t occur without a whole lot more than struggle. Struggle—a watchword of sorts for Coates—is necessary, but not sufficient.
Finally, on Coates’s own life. Here Rogers echoes critiques made of other African-American writers, like Richard Wright and Toni Morrison. Given Coates’s own success, how can he make the case that progress is unachievable?
Again, the text is helpful here:
Here is how I take the measure of my progress in life: I imagine myself as I was, back there in West Baltimore, dodging North and Pulaski, ducking Murphy Homes, fearful of the schools and the streets, and I imagine showing that lost boy a portrait of my present life and asking him what he would make of it. Only once—in the two years after your birth, in the first two rounds of the fight of my life—have I believed he would have been disappointed. I write you at the precipice of my fortieth year, having come to a point in my life—not of great prominence—but far beyond anything that boy could have even imagined.
Coates continues plainly “If my life ended today I would tell you it was a happy life—that I drew great joy from the study, from the struggle toward which I now urge you” (italics mine). And he is fully aware of the forces that placed him in his position.
Again, Coates is a realist, not a pessimist. This realist approach enables Coates to see the way white supremacy works through institutions, ideas, interests, and identities: although Coates uses a range of naturalist metaphors in talking about white supremacy, he only uses these metaphors to talk about white supremacy’s brutal impact. Struggle provides Coates profound insight and joy. His realism also enables him to see the wonders of black life.
These wonders and the black institutions that make them possible explain his life. Whether it’s his family or Howard University, it’s black people and the institutions they made that give Coates the skills necessary to cast aside the dream in favor of struggle. What is that if not acknowledging the possibility and the reality of progress?
The realist argument Coates makes in Between the World and Me poses no threat to black people. Black people have never been threatened by the realities of struggle, nor have black people ever been demobilized by the lack of hope. Rather, black people have been persistently threatened by the public assault on black bodies. Black people have been demobilized by rhetoric falsely blaming them for their condition. We would do well to keep that fact in mind going forward.
To read Melvin Rogers’s reply, click here.
Lester Spence is Associate Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His book, Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics is forthcoming from Punctum Press.