Between the World and Me
Spiegel & Grau, 2015, 276 pp., $24
On August 12, President Barack Obama announced his summer vacation reading list, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me made the cut. But when the President, sitting on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard this past summer, opened this short book on race in America in 2015, he didn’t find his name in its pages, and his presidency received just a single fleeting mention. Coates’s book is justly receiving an extraordinary amount of praise and attention. It is a remarkable work; its prose ripples with effortless dexterity, and its passionate cry against resilient white racism hits at the perfect moment, this year of Sandra Bland and Samuel Dubose, in the immediate aftermath of Garner, Brown, Martin, Rice, and so many more. Yet this strange absence of Obama’s name tells us much more about the book and its author than do its most brilliant passages.
Obama is not the only gap. A brief book in the form of a letter to his 14-year old son about racism and blackness, it finds space to mention Trayvon Martin eight times, but that other Martin, Luther King, Jr., only once, and that pejoratively.
How many books on race circa 2015 would consider Obama so irrelevant that they would omit even his name? I know of none. Moreover, this was a book whose very existence is owed to a conversation with the President, according to journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells. Obama, in a brief chat with Coates at the White House in February 2014 responded to some of his attacks and ended by asking Coates to not despair. The incident prompted Coates to dig again into the pessimism associated with James Baldwin, and to begin the process of writing this letter to his son.
The result is a defense of depression, a plea for pessimism, and an argument against hope. He warns his son over and over that America has malicious plans for his body, for his life, that all his bourgeois privilege can vanish in the time it takes an all-too-typical cop to unholster a weapon. No one could argue with the sad necessity of that warning, but Between the World and Me goes so much further. It attacks the intellectual tradition from which Obama gets his inspiration, that of non-violence and Dr. King. Coates is a black nationalist, and these pages, along with his earlier memoir, make clear that his model is much more Malcolm X than King.1 The Malcolm-King divide within black politics was already trite by 1975 if not earlier, and even today masks much of the nuance and complexity in both men’s lives and thought. What makes Coates’s dissing of King noteworthy, then, is its relationship to that second larger silence, the non-mentioning of Obama.
It is not an absence born in malice exactly. Coates has written objectively and frequently about Obama’s presidency elsewhere. His September 2012 Atlantic essay on “Fear of a Black President” is one of the sharpest analyses of Obama’s political dilemmas as the first black Commander in Chief. While Coates lamented Obama’s crippling inability to address racial issues during his first term—aside from the Henry Louis Gates “teachable moment” of 2009, the exception that illustrates the rule—he largely blames the white political and media structure, which truncates what a black President can say or accomplish on race even more than it truncates what a white one can. At other times, Coates takes pride in Obama’s brilliance, at the sheer thrill of watching a black man being the smartest person in a room full of the best and the brightest.
The failure to mention Obama is instead born of the stark distinction between their fundamental outlooks on the problem of race in America. Coates cannot address the progress and hope Obama represents any more than Obama can express from the presidential podium the Coatesian rage that he surely feels about racial injustice in America. Each man’s muteness reveals something important. For Coates, black progress in America is always one step forward, one step back, to a more devilish, more intricate, more subtle caging of black bodies, black minds, and black dreams. The blunt oppression of slavery and Jim Crow are gone, but in their place have arisen structural racism, de facto segregation, epic and ongoing police brutality, the prison-industrial complex, self-hatred, and victim-blaming. Coates is far from alone in this view, but he is today its most eloquent proponent, both in this most recent book and in his far less poetic, if equally powerful, essay on reparations. For Coates, the Obama position is a fantasy, and a destructive one for true black aspirations of independence and personal freedom. White racism is so omnipresent, so ineradicable, that Coates avers an ultimately pessimistic view about its demise.
It is this juxtaposition of these two men, the politician of the possible and the prophet of pessimism, that is instructive. What can we learn about these two very different black men and about race in America from reading the works of each as compared to the other? It is a conversation and a comparison that they have already begun, in prose, speeches, and interviews, although not always, as we have seen, by name.
Obama famously and frequently quotes King about the arc of the moral universe being long but bending toward justice. In interviews about his new book, Coates directly challenges this view, arguing that from his atheistic perspective, the arc of the moral universe bends toward chaos. Coates loathes the comforting idea that the sacrifices of others, of Medgar Evers and the four little black girls of Birmingham, Alabama, of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, of King himself, reach an apotheosis in the election of Obama or in some eventual diminishing of racial prejudice. As he sees it, America in general, and its race problem in particular, just may not end very well.
If anything, as Coates has become more prominent, he has become even more set in his faith that there is no change, and no hope. His first book, The Beautiful Struggle, is more novelistic and stylistically brilliant but also less doctrinaire in its politics. Coates ponders whether he might have escaped the Baltimore streets to the suburbs while, in his second book, the suburbs exist as a white fantasy world, a “dream.” In the first book, his academic failures, at schools that were led by blacks and infused with black heroes and narratives, were mostly personal. However, in the recent letter to his son, those same failures are attributed instead to the way schools constrict the black body and brain within white norms and rules. School is a different kind of death from the ghetto streets that destroyed so many of his classmates and friends, but no less fatal and far more insidious. The structural forces of white racism, dominant for Coates before, have now become omnipotent.
There is a passivity to his discussion of black lives that is almost comic at times, as when in his first book he describes his father as “the cat who was dealt a hand of seven kids by four women.” One need not side with discredited black moralist Bill Cosby to object to this description of serial polygamous fatherhood as something that just happens to men passively and without their volition.
That same passivity flows into Coates’s consistently apolitical approach. Not for Coates some legislative or electoral, or even judicial, remedy. He finds the entire political system largely irrelevant, if not irredeemably corrupt and compromised by white privilege. He is dismissive of the work of the famed non-violent protesters of the civil rights era; as the child of a Black Panther, perhaps understandably so. He wishes it were possible to take up arms against a sea of white troubles, and somehow, by opposing, end them. This is hardly unusual, given his ideology: Black nationalism, like many situationally futile nationalisms, is passionate and romantic, all theory and no practice, and so devoid of realistic political plans or goals.
That leaves Coates able only to take not-so-subtle potshots at King. While King’s most famous phrase is “I have a dream”, in Coates’s book the dreamers are “those Americans who believe that they are white” and who have imagined America to be a good and largely moral nation. It is a toxic dream that Coates sees as even threatening the earth itself from an environmentalist perspective.
But Coates does have dreams of his own. His first noted political stance, as the most prominent and effective advocate for black reparations, is completely unachievable. Humans will colonize Mars before white America will support the compensation, however just, of black Americans for four hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow. More recently, he has stated that if he were in charge of America, he would start by letting all the criminals out of jail, a comically radical proposal that is even less likely. It is an odd contradiction in Coates’s thought—there is almost no hope of racial reconciliation because of the resilient structures of white racism embedded in the nation, but somehow there will be reparations and universal commutations from this same white power structure?
Again, the contrast with Obama is instructive. Obama has always been about the possible, about compromise and communication, across racial lines. Both of his books are resolutely political, the second presidential campaign tome perhaps predictably and inevitably so. But even the first book, Dreams from My Father, written well before the launch of his national political career, is suffused with the hope that politics can bring about positive change for Black America, and indeed, for people around the world.
Obama learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. on the knee of his white mother, who expressly set MLK up as an avatar of black pride and achievement for her mixed-race son. It seems to have worked. It is King that Obama references, in his public speeches and in both his books, far more than Malcolm X or any other black figure. Obama does address black nationalism with respect, at least in his first book. Yet almost every time he brings it up, it is textured, nuanced, and portrayed as limited and limiting. Black nationalism was
an unambiguous morality tale that was easily communicated and easily grasped. A steady attack on the white race, the constant recitation of black people’s brutal experience in this country, served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair. Yes, the nationalist would say, whites are responsible for your sorry state, not any inherent flaws in you. In fact, whites are so heartless and devious that we can no longer expect anything from them. . . . [but] nationalism dissipated into an attitude rather than any concrete program, a collection of grievances and not an organized force, images and sounds that crowded the airwaves and conversation but without any corporeal existence.2
This quote from Obama could be inserted seamlessly into any given conservative criticism of Coates, such as the harsh review by National Review editor Rich Lowry. Long before Obama distanced himself from the angry black nationalism of his own reverend, Jeremiah “God damn America” Wright, he had made his disagreements with this ideology crystal clear.
In contrast, Obama has no doubt that King’s long, slow walk to freedom and equality is the only path. In his second book, written as a sitting U.S. Senator contemplating a run for the presidency, Obama has this to say about the King dream of a non-racial future:
I have no choice but to believe this vision. As the child of a black man and white woman, born in the melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who is half-Indonesian, but who is usually mistaken for Mexican, and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, I never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe.
Clearly, these two men have arrived at very different positions after very different personal journeys. Of course, some of their current differences are simply occupational. A successful politician cannot be openly pessimistic and a writer need not be practical, or careful, about the ideological company he keeps. Obama only threw Reverend Wright under the bus of his presidential ambitions when it became politically necessary; had he never run for national office, he may well have stayed in Wright’s pews for another twenty years. After all, Wright’s raw anger at America’s treatment of black America was only news to folks who had never been to a black church before. And perhaps Obama refers to King just because whites, who make up the vast majority of his constituents, would be confused, unmoved, or angered by references to other black figures.
The earlier one goes in their lives, the more a few similarities appear. Both wrote their first books largely as meditations on how their fathers shaped their young lives. Coates, in a world where fathers were largely absent (by his account), had an intensely involved father. Obama, in a world where two-parent families were the norm, had a peculiarly absent father, peculiar not only because of his non-presence but because he left Obama as a black child in a white family.
Both fathers had children by multiple women, so these autobiographies are full of half siblings and complicated family relationships with older women. Both of the fathers were also raised by polygamous fathers, in Obama’s case by Muslim practice in Kenya, in Coates’s case by his grandfather’s unusual choice to impregnate three sisters in America. They were both men of big dreams. Obama’s father hoped to rise high in Kenyan politics thanks to his widely acknowledged brilliance. Coates’s father hoped for black liberation via the Panthers, and then through an independent press he started to republish the works of forgotten black intellectuals.
Still, Obama and Coates were raised in utterly opposite racial contexts. Indeed, it would be hard to find purer archetypes of what Richard Thompson Ford described so well in The American Interest as the fractured monolith of black life in America.3 Coates grew up amid the entrenched underclass of Baltimore, knowing almost no white people at all. He calmly recalls how some of his friends beat two white kids who happened to stray into their neighborhood, not primarily because they were white, but just because it was obvious they had no backup to call upon, and thus, by the vicious rules of his streets, were easy prey. It was otherwise a largely black world, and one in which police and gangs were seen as moral equals at best. Coates was born understanding black America like a child absorbs his mother tongue, effortlessly, almost instinctively.
Obama grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, mostly among non-black people. While his financial circumstances were never flush, he was a scholarship boy at an elite private school. He knew privilege far more than hardship. He claims he became aware of the racial freight his dark complexion carried one day while reading a magazine article about the suffering some blacks went through in an attempt to whiten their skin. His is a blackness studied and observed, not lived; it bears no resemblance to the lives of the black underclass so powerfully portrayed by Coates. His memoir is remarkably revealing as it depicts Obama agonizing over how to, as a college student, “show . . . loyalty to the black masses.” Elsewhere, he writes of “the constant crippling fear that I didn’t belong somehow. . . . I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.”
One is reminded of the old joke about the difference between Catholics and Jews: Jews are born feeling guilty, but Catholics have to learn it from nuns. Obama’s nuns of blackness were the women of Chicago in his community organizing days, who taught him the norms and rules of African-American life. He had been reading and studying the African American experience from afar in Hawaii, and at largely non-black campuses; only in Chicago as a young man does he get close to it. But he’s never fully at home in either world; he writes of slipping between one and the other. A relationship with a white woman ends because she feels she cannot “be black”, but her realization is preceded by Obama’s own dawning conviction that he would be unable to live in her rich white world without compromise.
Like many ethnic firsts in American public life, Obama was embedded in majority culture even more than most minorities. John F. Kennedy was once described as the most WASPish Irish Catholic anyone had ever met. This style and bearing telegraphed that his presidency would be non-threatening to the Protestant majority, and separated him from more “ethnic” Catholic politicians like Al Smith. Obama took it one step further, by actually being a “half”-descendant of the majority. Just as Kennedy avoided Georgetown and Notre Dame, Obama chose Columbia and Harvard, not Howard and Morehouse.
This delicate balancing has obviously been essential to Obama’s political success. He was just black enough to adroitly use black support to narrowly defeat Hillary Clinton in 2008. We forget today what a hard sell that was initially, particularly given the black electorate’s known affection for the Clinton family. Obama had his racial authenticity questioned by several black writers, including Stanley Crouch. Not only was he of mixed race, but his black heritage was solely African, with no legacy of slavery, and thus he could not comprehend the true African-American experience. At the time, his blackness was defended by none other than a young Ta-Nehisi Coates:
Back in the real world, Obama is married to a black woman. He goes to a black church. He’s worked with poor people on the South Side of Chicago, and still lives there. That someone given the escape valve of biraciality would choose to be black, would see some beauty in his darker self and still care more about health care and public education than reparations and Confederate flags is just too much for many small-minded racists, both black and white, to comprehend.4
Barely black enough, thanks to his wife and his church, and just white enough to assuage white fears of an angry black President who might have demanded payback for centuries of white murder, rape, and oppression. Had he been even a smidgen closer to Coates in his political positions and attitude, he would never have become President.
Ironically, a Coatesian Obama is only seen in conservative media, where, according to Rush Limbaugh, the President has virtually made it legal for black kids to savagely beat white ones on school buses; or on Fox News, where Obama is depicted whenever possible as “playing the race card.” In truth, Obama has said far less about race than any other modern President. The widespread acceptance of such reality-challenged views about Obama and race demonstrates the necessity of Obama’s avoidance of racial topics. For far too many whites, Obama gives a silent black power speech every time he appears on their televisions behind the presidential podium.
Now, as his presidency approaches its close, the arc of Obama’s politics may be bending toward Coates. We see in the Obama’s recent statements on the shootings in Charleston and the Confederate Flag issue a much greater willingness to talk about race in a forthright manner. If he goes through with a large set of non-violent drug offense commutations sometime between now and January 20, 2017, it will demonstrate rare presidential courage on a racially charged issue. Knowing that he will likely never have to face a majority white electorate again, Obama is now concerned with what his legacy on race will be. The first black President is thus probably going to get blacker in the final year of his presidency. He may find much inspiration in his beach book by that angry black man.
For his part, Coates shows no sign of change, of moderation. Indeed, he seems to be moving away from Obama as Obama perhaps moves closer to him. But in a very practical sense, Coates is getting more Obama-like in life, remaining a black nationalist in prose only. He frequently professes surprise that any whites read his work, because he thinks he is writing exclusively for blacks. But is this really surprising? He rose to prominence writing for the very white liberal establishment journal The Atlantic, and he doesn’t publish with some obscure black-nationalist press but with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House. Nor does he limit himself to black institutions and media outlets as he publicizes his new book. If whites are largely beyond redemption and black salvation lies in some vaguely sketched program of liberation and self-reliance, why do all this? As it is, he has been proclaimed “liberal America’s conscience on race” by no less an authority than the Washington Post, and his stature on the Left is such that the mildest criticism can cause a Twitter war. Radical chic is back, and white pessimism about race is quite marketable. As Obama moves toward Coates ideologically, he will find Coates comfortably situated among the white liberals who made Obama a superstar after his 2004 DNC convention speech.
And Coates’s success has made an additional poignant connection between these two men. Both Obama and Coates are now hobnobbing with the uber-rich, welcome at Aspen and Davos, Wall Street and CNN. The visceral fear inhabiting the pages of Coates’s first book was that the urban streets and their creator/owner, white racism, would devour his life. That fear is transferred to his son in his new book, but it is truly secondary to the terror, largely unvoiced but all too perceptible, that his son will grow up somehow inauthentically black—in short, as an Obama.
If Ford is right, and there are emerging two black Americas—one for whom structural racial barriers to success are omnipresent, resilient, and complex, and one for whom racism is a diminishing personal concern—the children of both of these men are being raised firmly in the latter group. The true nightmare for Coates would be walking into his son’s room and finding a poster of Ben Carson or Ayn Rand, or some other preacher of the irrelevance of race. Coates hopes to persuade his son in advance to never listen to such false prophets, because the gap between black and white will remain “unbridgeable”:
You would be a man one day, and I could not save you from the unbridgeable distance between you and your future peers and colleagues, who might try to convince you that everything I know, all the things I’m sharing with you here, are an illusion, or a fact of a distant past that need not be discussed.
Coates has been compared to James Baldwin, and he obviously sought to emulate that great writer with this most recent work. But Baldwin was not afraid that his nephew, to whom his essay was addressed, would fall for some white illusion of racial progress. Rather, Baldwin ended his essay with a plea for black people to work to educate, with love, the lost and deluded whites, their kin from afar:
But these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.5
By contrast, Coates ends Between the World and Me begging his son not to help whites understand race, not to hope for whites to be converted to the truth, as Coates drives by the ghetto in the driving rain, a ghetto exactly the same as the ones in which his parents were raised. Only the ghetto is forever, only the ghetto and the fear it creates are real; all else is a toxic dream, even when it is dreamed by a black President finishing what may one day be considered one of the more successful presidencies in American history.
1Coates, The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir (Spiegel & Grau, 2009).
2Obama, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Broadway Books, 2007), p. 199.
3Ford, “Black and White No Longer”, The American Interest (September/October 2012).
4Coates, “Is Obama Black Enough?” Time, February 1, 2007.
5Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Vintage, 1963), p. 7.