Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeLike many of the one- and two- star reviewers of this book, I bristled at certain passages in Between the World and Me. I felt attacked and blamed at times, because I, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ words, “believe that I am white.” So I understand the scorn directed at this book by many who dismiss it as divisive and simplistic in its assessment of the black experience in America.But here’s the thing: this book isn’t about me. It’s not trying to tell me what I should do to be a better person or make me feel guilty about things I don’t even understand, much less control. It’s not trying to fix anything. And if you’re reading it that way, I think you’re missing a profound experience.I’ve never been shown and made to understood the experience of a life so unlike my own as I have with this book. I felt the frustration and fear that Mr. Coates felt growing up black in America. I felt the anger he feels at people who believe that they are white dismissing that experience as so many sour grapes. I felt the hypocrisy of being told not to wear hoodies or play loud music for fear of someone breaking your body.That’s why this book matters. It’s not a solution to our race problems or an accurate assessment of the progress of America as a nation. It is not a book about white people and how we should change. It is simply a powerful testament of one man’s experience, and an offering of understanding.I grew up rich, white and privileged in suburban Virginia. I never had to think about my safety, my future or my pride through the lens of my race. I couldn’t even begin to conceive of that experience. Ta-Nehisi Coates is the first person to break through that reality of my upbringing and allow me to step into another experience for a little while.It was life-changing and important.
It’s hard to know what to say about a book about which so much has already been said. If you’re familiar with Coates’ writing from The Atlantic Magazine or elsewhere you already know that, in terms of style, he is a gifted writer who is always a pleasure to read, regardless of the subject matter he writes about.The subject matter here, however, is what is most important about “Between the World and Me.” Coates’ uses the experience of young African Americans and his own experiences growing up to create a poetic and impassioned letter to his son and, indeed to the world, about what it means to be a person of color in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century. My personal belief is that the issue of race and institutionalized racism is the most important issue we as a country face right now. The events of the past two years have focused a bright light on issues that many of us were only dimly aware of. Or, more accurately, that we knew about but didn’t want to face. For those who realize that they MUST be faced, no matter how painful we find them, Coates provides a remarkable first step with this compelling, poetic, and sometimes heartbreaking expressionistic book.The inability to see what causes pain, even though it is right in front of us, is a very human defense mechanism. But it is a defense mechanism that does not serve any of us or our country well. Empathy and a desire to understand that which we haven’t personally experienced but that we know are pernicious facts of modern Anerican life are key to the changes we must make. As an upper-middle class white woman, I’ve lived through very few of the events and feelings Coates describes in “Between the World and Me.” Which is all the more reason for me to read it and recommend it.This is undoubtedly one of the most important books of the last 50 years. If I could gift a copy to every single American, I would.
Between the World and Me, as many likely already know by now, takes the epistolary form—specifically, that of a series of letters from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenage son regarding what the elder Coates believes his son needs to know as a black, male, teenager who will hopefully make it to being a black, male, adult without being too sufficiently wounded emotionally, psychologically, socially, nor culturally, in the process.I read this book through the many inner and outer understandings and experiences of both myself and the world into which many generations of my ancestors lived; into which I was born, have lived, and continue to live. I read it through multiple and varied intelligences and perspectives. I read it through the eyes and heart of the fifty-five year old black man that I am—a man who can deeply identify with the voices of pain, angst, and grief through which Ta-Nehisi Coates principally speaks with throughout the book. I read it through the eyes and heart of the spiritual teacher that I also am—a teacher who teaches the deep, and I believe fundamental and necessary importance of understanding ones experience of this world through taking calculated ownership over ones very life—always and relentlessly looking within to understand the deepest essences of ones existence through that said life. I read it through the eyes and heart of being both a contemplative and a sacred activist who cogently understands injustice, greed, hatred, corruption, violence, sexual exploitation, and all manner of global depravity, and yet also as one who understands the often deeply mysterious powers of love, forgiveness, and redemption, etc.For me, in general, the narrative of the book teeters largely between bleakness and hopelessness with Coates’ recounting of his time at Howard University (The Mecca) being among the rare and also most prominent respites he takes from this.However, before I am accused of being haplessly addicted to hope or of not understanding the limitations of being eternally, blissfully hopeful, I want to quickly acknowledge that I have been a student of the teachings of Buddhist master, The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, for more than two and a half decades now. Among the voluminous teachings that have been birthed into the world by this prolific writer and well-respected Buddhist monk are his teachings around the concept he simply refers to as, “hope as an obstacle.”And so both Thich Nhat Hanh and I as well, are incredibly aware of the fact that for many of us hope can very easily become that which erroneously and often foolishly separates us from the inconvenient and difficult brutality of not only what has occurred in the past, it can also blind us to what may be happening in the world around us right now, this very moment, keeping us from being truly intimate with the present moment, if that present moment is providing us with experiences we don’t like or that we find uncomfortable or deeply distressing. I also understand that all of that precious hope out there may be twisted into something that provides us with an excuse for escaping into a believed “hopeful” future and simultaneously into a place that is not even real, because the future never is, due to the fact that we cannot control what horrible, twisted, or “unfair” horrors our hope-filled and dreamlike future existence may naturally and effortlessly morph itself into.Between the World and Me gives us a lot of truths to ponder—real, visceral, sometimes agonizing, sometimes very difficult to read, and quite often very inconvenient yet nonetheless provable truths. It does not however, always give us the whole truth and nothing but the truth in many of those same instances.One somewhat annoying and standout example of this for me is the Malcolm X Ta-Nehisi Coates presents us with. Coates references and praises Malcolm X several times in the book. At one point he declares his love for Malcolm X which is presented very much like the expressions of love a devoted mentee might have for a beloved mentor. It is also not unlike some presentations of the love a student has for his or her beloved guru or spiritual guide, in various Eastern traditions. Coates’ complete disappearance however, of Malcolm X’s involvement with the Nation of Islam, the impact on Malcolm X of both the real, flawed human as well as the projected divine personage of Elijah Muhammad and his teachings, the importance of Brother Malcolm’s trip to Mecca late in his life, and most importantly, how each of these formed the foundation of his initial and subsequent political, religious, and cultural rebirths—was a little much for me to simply, blindly accept.If one were to read Between the World and Me and have no prior knowledge of Malcolm X, one would walk away from the reading having no idea that Malcolm X was even a Muslim, much less a devoted disciple of Elijah Muhammad for an important portion of his life. Ta-Nehisi Coates seems to have remade Malcolm X in the image of Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is to say he seems to have given us Malcolm X the staunch and essentialist atheist. Here is a quote that seems to reflect this, that particularly struck me, “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality, unlike the streets and their bravado, unlike the world of dreamers. I loved him because he made it plain, never mystical or esoteric, because his science was not rooted in the actions of spooks and mystery gods but in the work of the physical world.” Huh?Coates’ deep and telling truths though not of the whole truth and nothing but the truth appeared to be something of a theme of the book, for me. Here is another quote from Coates that comes near the end of a prolonged narrative approximately twenty pages from the end of the book. The narrative consists of two and a half pages in which he recounts the partial stories of and circumstances around several very familiar names, some less unfamiliar, all black men murdered at the hands of law enforcement officers in the USA: “As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage.” When I initially read that I had the exact same reaction I just had as I typed those words, which is to say, I wonder what many of this country’s First Nations people, whose stolen land, broken treaties, and attempted ethnic cleansing this country is at least partially built upon, might have to say about that. In some ways it might seem nit picking to mention something like this. However, there are numerous moments like this in the book. At some point, for me, they collectively began to add up in ways I found negatively impacted my enjoyment of the book and more importantly, my trusting of Coates and his motives for some of what he says.Here, in this next quote, Coates is describing how no one in America would be considered racist if we left it to the racists themselves or the defenders of racists, to define that word: “In 1957, the white residents of Levittown, Pennsylvania, argued for their right to keep their town segregated. “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens,” the group wrote, “we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” This was an attempt to commit a shameful act while escaping all sanction, and I raise it to show you that there was no golden era when evildoers did their business and loudly proclaimed it as such.” Truth, truth, truth, truth, truth. What he fails to tell us however, is that social science research tells us very clearly that virtually no one, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, place of residence, or virtually anything else, wants to believe that any dastardly thing we/they do, is evil. We all have some way, some form of twisting all our dastardly deeds in some fashion as to somehow justify them. This is not a black nor white trait. All the current evidence points to this being a human trait. This is the whole truth here or at least it’s more of the truth than Coates gives us. To his credit Coates immediately follows that above quote up with a quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—a quote that very strongly agrees with what social science tells us about this topic—that doing evil and pretending one is in reality doing something good or justifiable is a human trait, a human flaw. However, Coates then immediately follows that Solzhenitsyn quote up with retreating back towards presenting this as a uniquely white trait. He just can’t get out of his own way, it seems. It’s as if he wouldn’t know who he was if he allowed himself to just get out of his own way.I noted more than a half dozen other examples of Coates telling us what I considered to be clear, poignant truths yet him also simultaneously not telling us the wider, broader, more fully contextualized, nuanced, or plain whole truth. I noted all of them in the copious notes I took while reading the book for the second time. I don’t feel the need to list all of them here. Doing such would nearly become the entire book review if I did so. As I’ve said, collectively, they began to add up for me, negatively impacting my trusting of Coates’ and his motives.Here is my slight tweaking of a well-known Shakespearean quote from Hamlet that for me, more or less summarizes my experience of Coates’ tendency of telling half-truths throughout the body of the book: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Ta-Nehisi Coates, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”Otherwise, beyond what I have stated so far, I mostly enjoyed the book, see the book as having merit, and I will continue to view Ta-Nehisi Coates as a skillful, insightful, and necessary voice in today’s world. I believe that voice is an important one and I hope he has more things to say and easily accessible formats in which to say them in. I still do not agree with Toni Morrison’s much commented on praise for this book complete with its, to me, hyperbolic allusions to James Baldwin and such. I essentially agree with Cornell West and what he has publicly stated about this. She, of course, is entitled to her opinion. She’s also an alum of Howard University, the same school Coates attended though did not graduate from. And she is also mentioned and acknowledged, very briefly, at least twice in Between the World and Me. So there’s also that.Ta-Nehisi Coates is now quite wealthy I imagine, propelled into this economic state of existence through royalty checks from this very book as well as the monetary perks from several of the awards he has more often than not, in my opinion, rightfully deserved—the 2015 nonfiction American Book Award being an exception to that, in my view. He is also several months into a yearlong residency in France. I am sincerely happy for him regarding all of this. However, I cannot help but wonder whether or not these rather significant developments in his life and perhaps others along the same lines that I do not know of, have impacted, even a little bit, that rarefied space in any significant way, that exists, between the world and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
One cannot possibly argue about someone else’s view of the world, but I am sad to see that Mr. Coates’ declared legacy to his son is basically ” I am angry and afraid, and you should be too”.While many of his articles in the Atlantic are clear, accessible and sometimes funny, this book sounds labored and self conscious. Was there an editorial decision to mention “people who believe they are white” once every 10 pages and “black bodies” on every other one? Rejoicing at the deaths of 9/11 responders because they fit his unexamined image of the enemy might be suited to a session with his therapist, but is irresponsible at best for a widely read author.Does Mr. Coates not know that the Hollywood visions of “Father knows best” TV phantasies of the 50s were just as unobtainable to most white Americans as they were to his black peers in inner city Baltimore? How can he leave out any discussion on the relentless violence that was doled out by parents on children who behaved badly and the obvious results of kids who then perpetuate this violence. And while it is important to remind the rest of the world of that fact that the wounds of slavery are slow healing indeed, it is more than a little surprising to me that there is no mention at all of the economy we are chained to that funnels most of the surplus into the hands of the 1%, leaving the rest of us – of any color- in increasingly dependent positions.Somehow I feel that Mr. Coates wrote the wrong book. I wish he would have spent less time on issues like the white woman who had the gall to say “come on” to his son, and more on how he himself took up the responsibility to become not just present in the life of his son, but a major caretaker.How he transcended the fear of the brutal streets and homes of his childhood to carve out a position that allows him privilege that must have seemed unobtainable when he was young. And maybe that next book will offer his son some hope, an outlook that surely is available even to self declared agnostics.
Between the World and Me, which is structured as a letter to his fifteen year old son by Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a rejection of and an indictment of the United States––its origins, its history, its people. To that end it demands a rebuttal.No one has the right to deny Coates interpretation of his experience, to deny what it was like growing up as he did in poverty in Baltimore in the last quarter of the 20th century. He eloquently describes the incidents that led him to his negative conclusions about this country, including the odds weighted against him on the street and in school.Counterposing those experiences, however, was his family life. He was blessed by a grandfather who taught him the love of books and a grandmother who taught him the import of questioning authority. No sane person could have lived that life without coming away with a good deal of anger, nor without the tools to express that anger.Nor is Coates to be criticized as an outlier in the transcribing the story of the Black experience. As Toni Morrison suggests, he follows in a tradition that include James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, and others.Where does he go wrong? To me it’s defining the Black experience as both unique and intentional. Many groups have had experiences as bad the descendants of slavery. What of the Jews, the Armenians, the Russian and Chinese victims of Communism, the African victims of genocide, India’s outcastes, and many others?Coates seems to want an answer as a member of a group, which he will argue, is how others have defined him. Yet no time in human history had the rights of the individual without regard to gender or origins been more valued than on this continent on the day our Declaration of Independence was passed. Should we hold against the founders, as Coates does, the fact that their stand was a beginning and not the end of the story of the struggle for liberty for all people?In terms of intentionality, Coates’ fallacy is blaming people for policies over which they had no control and which many protested. Slavery had its opponents long before the United States became a country. Many died to put an end to it. Whites helped found the NAACP in 1909 and white college students of my generation went to the South to protest segregation. Has Coates talked to Black Southerners who were alive in the 1960s? The changes have been dramatic.One of the incidents that led to Coates’ unremitting anger was the murder of fellow Howard College student Prince Jones in September 2000 by an undercover police officer. Each one of the similar tragedies that can be traced as far back as you want to go eats at the soul and makes it difficult to challenge the notion that America is not a police state structured to crush Black people for the benefit of “those who think they are white.”Yet to make this argument Coates has to undercut his own thesis, as the officer who killed Prince Jones was black. Jones’ death can only be described as a reflection of race if one is willing to muddy the waters of rational discourse by suggesting all black police officers are white when it comes to their treatment of blacks.The problem instead more truly reflects the consequences of charging law enforcement with impossible and often contradictory responsibilities. The most difficult assignment for public officials in general, not just police officers, is operating in our inner cities. Generations living in poverty, where the family structure and other institutions are weak and where crime is a rational choice, have given rise to a hostile, war zone environment for teachers, social workers, bus drivers, meter readers as well as police officers.Can whites and blacks be blamed for leaving if they could? Coates would like to do so. He recalls seeing white children at ease in a mixed New York neighborhood and reflects on how black children are often told they have to be twice as good. “No one told those little white children . . . to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.” (91)Coates imagines a lot of things about whites that are just plain wrong. He imagines we make a big deal about being white to the extent we have lost our connection with our ethnic origins. Not true. He imagines we think differences in “hue and hair” are the right way to organize a society. Not for two hundred years. He imagines whites see race “as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world.” I don’t think I’m alone in seeing only one race––the human one.Has the fact that Coates grew up in a country that promises much it has not always delivered contributed to the level of his anger? Had he grown up in almost any other country in the world, he would not have had a foundation for his complaints, as nowhere else are people even promised what we are in the United States have been granted. Yes, America has often failed to deliver, but Coates questions whether the promises are genuine. That is his mistake.Progress has always been achieved by those who believed the rights possessed by others were due them as well. What can you achieve if you give up before the battle has even started?Hints in Between the World and Me suggest Samori Coates has moved beyond his father. The son’s experience is such that he takes for granted what the father still can not. While the father sees the death of young blacks at the hands of the police as evidence that nothing has changed, the son views those incidents as anomalous. Both would protest, but the son lives in a world where his opportunities are greater, where fewer pay attention to his skin color, and where the promise of the Declaration is closer than ever to belonging to all.I read Between the World and Me at the suggestion of someone I had criticized for his use of the term “mass incarceration.” I heard that term again during the Democratic debate from the mouth of Hillary Clinton. Loose language and especially inflammatory language used loosely bother me greatly. They are signs that people have stopped dealing with particulars and fail to see the damage that is done by throwing out generalities whose meaning fails to stand up to scrutiny.Ta-Nehisi Coates is extremely articulate. His phrasing speaks of genuine feeling and a bright intellect, but he also employs a lot of loose language. He sneaks in words whose meaning is inside baseball to those who think like he does.Here are three examples. The italics are mine:• “The destroyers (speaking of the police) are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy” (10).• “[E]ducators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility” (33).• “And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers” (131).Words matter. If the words on the pages of Between the World and Me matter, then the words of the Declaration of Independence matter, the words of the U.S. Constitution matter, and the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which Coates discounts, matter. It’s unfortunate that Coates disputes that Americans who are not descendants from slavery mean to include Black people when we use the term people, but we do.If Coates is not satisfied that two and a half centuries of American history have demonstrated a commitment to inclusion, I suggest he take another look. He sees the glass more than half empty. I urge him to talk to people who see it more than half full. They won’t be hard to find.
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. Not only because Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of America’s greatest and most important writers. Not only because I am a big fan of his work for The Atlantic–particularly his landmark piece The Case for Reparations–and have been eagerly anticipating this book for some time. Not only because the difficulty of writing this book has clearly taken him away from the prodigious amounts of daily output that his fans have come to cherish over the years.I love what this book is about. Someone needs to articulate and detangle the pernicious myths and bad history that has long held our country back from dealing with, understanding and moving forward when it comes to the issue of race. I am humbled at the way that Coates makes you think, makes you question your assumptions, and makes you see the inhumanity and disgrace of many of this country’s laws and politics. There are moments in this book that accomplish that.The problem with the rest of it is that it often feels like it was written by a writer who has fallen in love with their own voice. This is apparent from the very beginning of the galley copy which contains a letter from Chris Jackson, the book’s editor. It says that the book was originally supposed to be a book of essays about the Civil War (which I do hope Coates also writes) but instead changed after Coates re-read James Baldwin. He writes “[Coates] called after his reading and asked me why people don’t write books like that anymore–books that combine beautiful story-telling, intellectual rigor, powerful polemic, and prophetic urgency.” This is dangerous territory for a writer–when they’re motivated to emulate someone else, particularly a style from a different generation (a unique and peerless one I would add to that)The result is that this book seems to rarely come out and say anything. Or at least, say directly what it means. The opening scene is Coates writing about an appearance on cable television where he discussed race, fear and safety with the host (it’s also excerpted on his site). But instead of coming out and saying that, he writes “Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington DC and I was seated in a remote studio on the far side of Manhattan. There was a one word snaking into my ear and another dangling down my shirt. The satellite…” I’ll cut it there but it goes on for some time. My point is, what Coates is talking about is urgent and important. But it’s almost as if he doesn’t want to get to it. He can’t be direct. He has to refer to Howard University as “The Mecca” throughout the book, he has to use a million other euphemisms and indulgent profundities, but why? It doesn’t make his point clearer. On the contrary, if you’re not searching for it, you might miss it. In fact, it often feels like he missed it–or at least lost track of it.I tried to imagine someone currently not convinced of Coates’ genius or the significance of his message. Sadly, I could not see them making it more than a few chapters before closing it and moving on to someone else. Someone less talented, less insightful, but at least more straightforward. No one would make that argument about his past writing, which is almost always cogent and clear and definitive.The irony is that there is a section in the book where Coates discusses what he learned from poetry. He writes “I was learning the craft of poetry, which is to say I was learning the craft of thinking. Poetry aims for economy of truth–loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” The reality is that this is a short book that somehow manages to violate that dictum. I don’t think its Coates fault–he is a brilliant writer. But somewhere in the rush to publication or in the editing process, the genius was not given the feedback they needed. The book exists in some kind of impenetrable bubble.Which is really unfortunate because as events have shown recently, America is its own impenetrable bubble. There’s that line from Kafka about how a book should be an axe that breaks the frozen sea within us. This could have been this book. That’s not to say it’s not without its gems. But it fails to full break through.
This book, in the form of a letter written to Coates’s son, is about one thing:How much it sucks to be an African-American.That’s a statement so polarizing, so fraught with cultural, historical, political and socio-economic baggage that even naming it causes people to seize up with anxiety. Few things in our manically polarized age are as polarizing as quickly or as sharply as even hinting that that sentence is possibly true (admit it, you felt uncomfortable reading it).This is ostensibly a ‘personal’ letter, which is simultaneously its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Coates’ communication of his frustrations with being black in America, from a childhood of unspoken fears almost too profound to articulate to coming to consciousness of the fact that a black person’s body is a thing to be degraded and destroyed with impunity by police, the american penal system and by racist housing and lending practices…is agonizing and relentless. His perspective on these matters is, by and large, beyond the faintest sliver of hope or redemption. This is a work of profound personal exhaustion.Of course filtering such a massive, staggering, historically woeful concern through one’s own voice and personal history carries some major pitfalls, especially for one painfully obvious reason: Ta-Nehisi Coates is first and foremost a journalist. His staggering piece making the case for reparations:http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/was a stunning cry from the political wilderness. But more than that, it was cool, clinical and backed up with a slew of unarguable data and eye-witness accounts proving the existence of racist lending practices going back years.”Between the World and Me” ultimately relies more upon an intense emotional confession, one which I think Coates’s admittedly brilliant reportorial skills are just not up to. He tries to co-opt the cadences and imagery of powerful black literary writers like Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka and of black leaders like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. He tries to situate himself in their lineage, not simply as black Americans but as people pushing back with a fiery determination against a world full of external explanations or who and what they are.But in this book it only works half the time.In the other half he comes across as clumsy, almost struggling to swim around in a syntactical style to which, honestly, he doesn’t seem that well suited. Then again, maybe as someone who lives in such a data-heavy era, I simply want this issue to be presented with as much acid-etched information as possible, and that a cry from the heart, no matter how sincere or noble or painful just doesn’t move a reader the way his journalism has.Ta-Nehisi Coates has the potential and the drive to be a Great American Writer (whatever that bizarre label means in our age). But, National Book Award be damned, I don’t think he has reached that potential yet. I think in 20 years this book will be regarded as a potent statement, but I suspect and hope that his magnum opus is yet to come.
I will not dispute anything Coates says; his argument is powerful and sad. But I found his rhetoric a bit overblown and off-putting. Lest you think that I reject his premises, let me just say that I found James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” equally furious, equally valid, equally tragic, but gorgeously written and thus, for me at least, much more powerful.
I’m going to take a massive risk here because I know at this point it is essentially illegal to contradict the ‘everything’s racist privilege is a flaw’ mandate, but the standard liberal critique is that America is ‘not ready for an honest conversation about race’, let’s try to prove that wrong.I think Ta-Nehisi Coates is a brilliant writer and I’ve enjoyed him very much, but over the years he’s changed and I believe at this point he’s doing America, particularly black America, a terrible disservice by focusing on what has proven to advance his career, the narrative that America is massively racist and it permeates every aspect of life irresistibly. The problem with this view is it’s defeating to the very population it’s intended as advocacy for, because implicit in this message is ‘it’s impossible to advance. The system is so corrupt and set against you, you’ll never succeed. Your failure is assured and outside your control’. That’s a terrible message, it’s devastating and mean.And I’ll tell you I think Mr. Coates knows better. I think his honest philosophy has been corrupted by the realization that there’s a lot of money to be made transferring the feeling of failure from the underprivileged to the privileged. And I think he’s found a lucrative audience and he’s serving it, the same way Jonathan Franzen caters to people with unhappy families. That’s understandable, an author is a human being with needs and is naturally going to deliver what’s celebrated and in demand. The problem here is it’s not a victimless crime. At the same time he’s selling guilt, he’s selling defeat and hopelessness.A more positive, accurate message would be: All fathers need to spend their lives with and in support of the one woman they have fathered children with and actively raise those children into adults. That will advance all of America to a post racial tomorrow a hell of a lot faster and more substantively than reparations, an obsession with guilt, or even magic. But it wouldn’t sell as many copies, that’s the problem.
I had rather high hopes for this piece of work. I found it at first to be written so loftily that I lost interest and didn’t touch it again for a few weeks. But something inside of me nagged, and so I made a go of it again, having finished only a few moments ago.I think what struck me the most about Coats’ letter was its overall pessimistic nature and darkness. I realize, however, that given the last few centuries, that bleakness is entirely forgivable, and because I don’t understand the African-American view, I don’t feel entirely comfortable decrying the tone of this book.Still, I feel as though he’s left little optimism here for his son to receive, and a few things are disquieting: for example, that ‘probably…no people have ever liberated themselves through their own efforts’, & that the idea of a single person capable of introducing meaningful change is ‘a myth’. These are harmful assertions.I am a Middle Eastern woman who covers with traditional abaya and hijab, and I have dark skin. To that end, I can understand suffering at the hands of ignorance and bigotry, but I also know that I have a deliberate choice in the way I view the world. If I choose to see it as a desolate, dark gulag in which every person is out to do me some harm, I would have a miserable life indeed. I do not choose view the world in such a manner.The only other thing that stands out is Coates’ atheism. He does not believe in God, and neither do I (I’m a Buddhist, and while we do believe in ‘higher’ entities or spirits, they are powerless to save us, and we don’t typically ascribe to a Creator God). It isn’t his atheism that bothers me, but rather the resulting way in which he views the world as a consequence of that atheism that I find sad. Coates states that ‘our bodies are ourselves…my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh’. Even these words are not troubling in themselves, but because he makes clear that he believes in this ‘one shot’ life only, with no salvation and no do-overs, he seems heavily oppressed by the fear of ‘losing’ his body, and of someone ‘taking’ it away from him. (If we have no afterlife, then I, too, might be so pessimistic.)As a Buddhist, it’s hard for me to relate to the world in this way. We are taught specifically that, while we certainly exist, neither the fleshy body nor the brain is what makes us ‘me’, and that we leave this flesh behind when we take our next rebirth.This book is not poorly written, but I’m not sure anyone who picks it up can come away from it with any vigor or hope. That’s pretty disappointing.

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Between the World and Me

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