Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesCoates_between_world

After finishing Between the World and Me I had to force myself to consciously exhale. So sublime in places is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ prose that I had often been holding my breath as I read.

This is not the type of book I would normally read. A memoir of a young New York writer, discussing race relations in a foreign country. Normally I have far more interest in people, as a group and movement, than specific persons. Yet I’d encountered Coates blog over the years, and had a respect for his pen and mind. Given the reception of this book, I wanted to give it a go. I am very glad I did.

This book doesn’t try to transmit knowledge about what happens to black men in America today, so much as attempt the much harder task of giving wisdom about what it feels like. The book is a letter from father to son. A warning of the fear that constant destruction of black bodies and black lives is the ethos of his time and the world he has brought him into.

Fear drives much of Coates views. Fear of the streets, of the schools, of police, and of ‘those who call themselves white’. Much of the backdrop for the book is the spate of police killings of young black men. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. These are just the well-known few, amongst a sea of young men destroyed.

Once the narrative begun, I was glad to have recently read Radley Balko’s excellent ‘Rise of the Warrior Cop’ to give some context to the racing pulse Coates feels near the authorities. Coates does not blame the individual officers for their deaths, but a system which he feels sustains itself upon their destruction.

Many will detect a hatred in his views. And they will then be bewildered by the positive reception of this book. What they miss —as does the author himself I believe— is that this fear is not just a black endowment but a human wellspring. This is not to pretend some banal equality of circumstance or dismiss the true record of suffering. But rather to suggest the power of his prose is not just to recount what happens to black people, but to identify how people necessarily feel in a hostile, unjust, meaningless universe. It is indeed far worse for some, but Coates is wrong to believe whole classes and races have managed to escape it.

I often read to get something out of a text. New knowledge, acquaintance with a passing stream of thought, simply to say ‘yes, I’ve read that’. But after just a few pages of this book, I realised I didn’t want to get anything out of this book. I just wanted to read and keep reading. Like the late Christopher Hitchens, Coates is a writer I enjoy for the sheer joy of their words, irrespective of the meaning they were trying to convey.

What I got out of this book was therefore not knowledge. Rather it is a greater sense of empathy. I choose that word deliberately. I do not feel sympathy, or pity for Coates. I do not feel compassion, as if his suffering is my own, or that I am responsible for alleviating his burden. Rather, I feel the boundary of my acceptance of behaviour has been pushed wider, my all too human desire to criticise weakened. Not to pretend he or ‘his people’ are innocent, but that such catch all terms as ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ are creations of an abstract world of perfect rules and unconfused hearts and heads.

One of the most compelling sections for me was Coates description of his education. One that did not happen in any school room, and only occasionally involved paid instructors. Rather it was via books and conversations, new experiences and a relentless curiosity. Many will recognise his search for historical figures ‘to put in my trophy case’ as he puts it. A desire for narratives and stories that might help justify his life, his colour, his identity as worth something. As if the success of past black figures redeems or sanctifies those alive today.

Yet, like the section on fear, this too is an emotion felt across the spectrum. Millions have flocked to places like ‘Ancestor.com’ and the archives of their family, hoping to find a power in their name and blood line that might give significance to their own beating heart and flesh. It is however an escape, much like that offered by religion. Ultimately for Coates, both are unsatisfying.

Coates world view is instead much more grounded, giving the book a material essence that is far more powerful. Rather than acknowledging suffering then pulling away to discuss solutions or salvation, he stays with what it means for people. Real actual people. Not ‘slaves’ but the enslaved lives of individuals. Not trend lines, generations and other abstractions that we talk about. Rather the confusion, pain, and death of specific human beings. All with similar fingers and toes, pimples and pupils, and heads and hearts like our own.

Ultimately, I found myself rejecting Coates pessimism and lack of hope. I look at the history of the world, and for all the misery of now, I can see that while yesterday was worse, tomorrow will be better. But I appreciate his honesty in challenging this assumption. In a lunchtime interview with the Financial Times, Coates sets out his approach: “His job, he says, isn’t to prescribe policy; it’s to push more Americans to live in truth. “If we can act with consciousness, even if we can’t fix everything, that would be a monumental improvement.””

This is a powerful book that grabs like a fish hook and is difficult to dislodge from the mind till you have closed its cover. At its best, it reminds that politics and morality can only be generalised so far. That these are imprecise forms of understanding that abstract out the real lives and actions of people with breath in their chests. Empathy can only take us so far, but fresh paths require fresh lungs, and in Ta-Nehisi Coates, there is a strong new heart at work.