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On Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me

December 28, 2015

This is a short book with a powerfully long crescendo. For those of you wondering about the time commitment, I basically read it in 48 hours (with Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a major “interruption”). What follows are all of my reflections and favorite passages (five each) after a first reading.

Reflections

1. Cosmopolitanism – I’m mildly surprised that Coates chose *cosmopolitanism* as the deep structuring ideal for himself and his son. It’s a keyword in the text. For my part, I respect the choice and admire the aspiration. It seems (obvious?) that Kwame Anthony Appiah, though not yet clearly cited, is nevertheless lurking in the background. Apart from Appiah, Coates’ own rooted cosmopolitanism is anchored in a worldview he credits to Howard University (the “Mecca”)—if any university, today, can merit that kind of ethical inculcation. I think Coates’ cosmopolitan imagination, however, derives from the Black Power movement. But I haven’t studied that movement closely enough to declare it a thick connection. After his reflections on Paris (pp. 117-129), I feel confirmed in citing cosmopolitanism as an organizing ideal in TNC’s thought/aspirations, for himself and his son. Again, I admire it.

2. Class – On top of the book’s deep lessons about “race,” when read through the lens of class consciousness, this book has wonderful potential as a teaching tool. I am haunted by the figure of Mable Jones. When TNC writes “I saw the iron in her eyes…” (p. 138), no quote resonated with me more in terms of cross-class consciousness. I’ve seen it in my poor “white” relatives from Missouri, the ones who either made it out or offered a blueprint for making it out.

3. History and Historical Thinking – I believe TNC is a historian in the making. The book contains some excellent reflections on history and demonstrates some keen historical thinking. If Coates doesn’t write a longer, prize-winning historical work before he ends his career, I will be surprised. In fact, I might even be disappointed if it doesn’t happen.

4. The Humanities and The Struggle – This book is a powerful affirmation of the liberal arts and humanities, especially in passages on pp. 115-116. TNC speaks repeatedly, and powerfully, of “the study” and “the gift of study.” He credits this ethic to his mother, who encouraged (i.e. compelled) him write out his questions and problems. This trait of study he equates with “the struggle.” For Coates life is about questions, and then answers that one questions more—an unending cycle of learning. That struggle is his cosmopolitan raison d’etre. Philosophical and historical thinking are, to me, TNC’s religion.

5. The Mystery and Power of Religion – Even though Coates personally rejects religion as a source of hope, and even rejects the idea of “hope” itself (and perhaps optimism), I found his reflections on religion intriguing (p. 139, 142). First, given TNC’s belief in study, questions, and answers, he reflected on the importance of Bible recitation in the black community as a source of intellectual inquiry in the lives of people he knows and respects. This reflection began with his interview with Mable Jones, but then moved on to Coates remembering the importance of recitation and the Christian religion to his (maternal?) grandfather and his wife. TNC writes the following in relation to his son and religion:

“And I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I oftent wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life.” – p. 139

A few pages later TNC continues, in relation to God, stoicism, religion, Mable Jones, and the Civil Rights Movement:

“Have you ever taken a hard look at those pictures from the sit-ins in the ’60s, a hard, serious look? Have you ever looked at the faces? The faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. They betray almost no emotion. They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe. But, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real. Or perhaps not armor at all. Perhaps it is life extension, a kind of loan allowing you to take the assaults heaped upon you now and pay down the debt later. Whatever it is, that same look I see in those pictures, noble and vacuous, was the look I saw in Mable Jones.” – p. 142

Despite his professed atheism, these are the reflections of a person with a profound respect for some aspects of religion and theism. That world is not accessible to him, but it is nevertheless real to him in that way that is has manifested in the bodies of his people.

Memorable Quotes and Passages

1. “There are people whom we do not fully know, and yet they live in a warm place within us, and when they are plundered, when they lose their bodies and the dark energy disperses, that place becomes a wound.” – p. 64.

2. “Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his 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. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.” – pp. 70-71

3. “And the plunder was not just of Prince alone. Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference check on babysitters. Think of World Book and Childcraft. Think of the checks written for family photos. Think of credit cards charged for vacations. Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks, and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth.” – pp. 81-82

4. Central passages in the book—on “race,” study, history, and persistence: “But I did not fall. I have my family. I have my work. I no longer feel it necessary to hang my head at parties and tell people that I am ‘trying to be a writer.’ And godless though I am, the fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me.

“I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me. I have not spent my time studying the problem of ‘race’—‘race’ itself is just a restatement and retrenchment of the problem. You see this from time to time when some dullard—usually believing himself white—proposes that the way forward is a grand orgy of black and white, ending only when we are all beige and thus the same ‘race’. But a great number of ‘black’ people already are beige. And the history of civilization is littered with dead ‘races’ (Frankish, Italian, German, Irish) later abandoned because they no longer serve their purpose—the organization of people beneath, and beyond, the umbrella of rights.

“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. You have seen in this conversation that the struggle has ruptured and remade me several times over—in Baltimore, at The Mecca, in fatherhood, in New York. The changes have awarded me a rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to, when you have rejected the Dream. But even more, the changes have taught me how best exploit that singular gift of study, to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers.” – pp. 115-116

5. “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.” – p. 149

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5 Comments
  1. i gave up reading TNC when the Atlantic made him their wunderkind and his writing and social media presence strove to reduce absolutely everything to race, class, or both in an us-versus-them attitude. Perhaps he deserves a second chance – if I can, indeed, reduce my already-established bias.

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    • Jay: Thanks for the comment. I’m curious about your sense of topical oppression in Coates’ writing, esp. for the Atlantic. I think TNC uses race as an entry point into other topics, which often makes those other topics quite interesting. As for class, well, we do live in an age of extreme inequality. Writing about class is quite relevant to a great many of us. If that results in a seeming us-v-them attitude, well, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The one-percenters are using one American political party (to an extreme) to maintain their interests. And the Democrats, esp. HRC, seem inclined to accommodate one-percenter interests. Given the political situation, everyone who writes about class is doing a great public service. – TL

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      • Where you see TNC using race as an entry point to other topics, I see him using race as THE topic; again, a caveat: I have not read his more recent work (i.e. anything in the last seven months or so). That said, not everything is about race; sometimes things just happen with no prejudice or bias at all. However, as the saying goes, whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it.

        As far as class goes, I have no problem with class or even inequality of outcome. I do have a problem with American politicians protecting the 1% at the expense of the 99%, but blame belongs with Congress and the President, not with the 1% [I am aware that at certain points the two groups overlap.] I do not believe our current Congress or President has the 99% in mind, but neither did their predecessors. Most proposed “solutions” punish the 1%’s success (or the 99% relative lack of success) rather than Congress’ ineptitude [prime example: ACA].

        If we’re being honest, class has always existed and will always exist, except in theoretical treatises. So, when Coates rails against class, I see him railing against a perfectly natural and normal order of human existence that will only be overthrown or overturned in an Animal Farm / Fahrenheit 451 / 1984 / Communist Manifesto type situation; and even in those cases, class exists to the detriment of those at the bottom in ways I find more unappealing than under capitalism.

        Coates continually appeals to democracy, but America is not a democracy; democracy will result in mob rule – and the Court of Public Opinion [jurisdiction: District of Social Media] has showed us just how powerful the mob will be. America is a Democratic Republic, and we should be electing wise representatives. To echo Plato, long live the Philosopher Delegate.

        TL;DR: I would rather die poor and free than made equal by government mandate, and to continually blame race or class for societal ills is to remove responsibility from both the individual and their elected representatives.

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  2. Where you see TNC using race as an entry point to other topics, I see him using race as THE topic; again, a caveat: I have not read his more recent work (i.e. anything in the last seven months or so). That said, not everything is about race; sometimes things just happen with no prejudice or bias at all. However, as the saying goes, whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it.

    As far as class goes, I have no problem with class or even inequality of outcome. I do have a problem with American politicians protecting the 1% at the expense of the 99%, but blame belongs with Congress and the President, not with the 1% [I am aware that at certain points the two groups overlap.] I do not believe our current Congress or President has the 99% in mind, but neither did their predecessors. Most proposed “solutions” punish the 1%’s success (or the 99% relative lack of success) rather than Congress’ ineptitude [prime example: ACA].

    If we’re being honest, class has always existed and will always exist, except in theoretical treatises. So, when Coates rails against class, I see him railing against a perfectly natural and normal order of human existence that will only be overthrown or overturned in an Animal Farm / Fahrenheit 451 / 1984 / Communist Manifesto type situation; and even in those cases, class exists to the detriment of those at the bottom in ways I find more unappealing than under capitalism.

    Coates continually appeals to democracy, but America is not a democracy; democracy will result in mob rule – and the Court of Public Opinion [jurisdiction: District of Social Media] has showed us just how powerful the mob will be. America is a Democratic Republic, and we should be electing wise representatives. To echo Plato, long live the Philosopher Delegate.

    TL;DR: I would rather die poor and free than made equal by government mandate, and to continually blame race or class for societal ills is to remove responsibility from both the individual and their elected representatives.

    Like

  3. Reblogged this on heleyem.

    Like

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