Collected Reviews of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me
I went looking for reviews of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, ahead of our last reading group meeting on it. In case you needed evidence that Coates has sparked a national conversation, here it is. The reviews point up the issues raised by the book: who is this book for? what kinds of demands do White and Black readers bring to the book and how do those demands point to the very issues Coates raises about the relation between the Dream and the struggle?
First, The Atlantic Monthly has a host of reviews including an online book club discussion with people like Tressie McMillan Cottom, Michael Eric Dyson and critical voices of readers. One of those readers accuses Coates of reverse racism and black nationalism.
The New York Times published a review by Michelle Alexander who criticizes Coates for a certain vagueness:
Coates clearly knows the importance of avoiding vagueness or generalization about critical aspects of black experience. In one of the most moving passages of the book he reminds his son: “Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own; whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods. . . . ” He goes on to describe, in stunningly sensitive detail, what slavery means for this particular woman born in a country that celebrates freedom and yet will whip her, rape her and sell her children from an auction block. He admonishes his son that he “must struggle to remember this past in all its nuance, error and humanity.”
Over the years, Coates has repeatedly taken President Obama to task for speaking in the most general terms about what is needed to remedy what ails ghettoized communities, while speaking with great specificity about the alleged moral failures of black people. It seems highly unlikely, in view of all this, that Coates does not appreciate what is lost by failing to describe the Dream with particularity and by declining to offer guidance to his son about what it means, exactly, to embrace the Struggle at this moment in time. Surely the Struggle must mean more than questioning reality at every turn, if there is any hope of breaking once and for all the history and cycle of racial oppression in America.
The critique of speaking in general terms might seem to echo an earlier review in The New York Times, this one by Michiko Kakutani, though Kakutani is concerned that Coates unnecessarily generalizes between the police who kill his friend and the police at 9/11. Kakutani’s response suggested to me that Coates hits a chord with his refusal to play into a certain post-9/11 affect:
There is a Manichaean tone to some of the passages in this book, and at times, a hazardous tendency to generalize. After Sept. 11, he writes that he could “see no difference between the officer” who had gunned down his Howard University schoolmate Prince Jones a year earlier — firing 16 shots at the unarmed young man, who was on his way to visit his fiancée — and the police and firefighters who lost their own lives in the terrorist attacks: “They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.”
This startling passage seems meant not to convey a contempt for the first responders on Sept. 11, but to underscore the depth of Mr. Coates’s emotion over the loss of his friend and his anger at police killings of unarmed black men — killings that represent to him larger historical forces at work in American society, in which black men and women were enslaved, their families and bodies broken, and in which terrible inequities continue to exist. Yet it could be easily taken out of context, and it distracts attention from Mr. Coates’s profoundly moving account of Prince Jones’s brief life, and the grief of his mother, a woman who had worked her way up from the “raw poverty of her youth” to become an eminent doctor, trying to provide her children with comfortable — and most of all, safe — lives, which, in Prince’s case, would be cavalierly taken away one night by a police officer later found guilty of negligence and excessive force.
I wondered if Coates would want to be saved in this way from being “taken out of context.”
Syreeta McFadden at The Guardian like many other reviewers picks up the comparison to James Baldwin. McFadden sees Coates as more of a poet to Baldwin’s preacher. She too points to the absence of Black women’s voices and experiences on their own terms (not just mourning their fallen Black men), and references other critics who raise the same concern, including Hope Wabuke at theroot who writes:
And yet, of course, it would be remiss not to mention the absence of women as full agents in their own lives; instead the women serve as witnesses to the trauma of black men. They are mothers—edifying, saintly, loving—but not subjects. Indeed, the mention of Renisha McBride in an aside is a rare space given to a female victim of racial violence; the rest, especially the detailed portraits, are male.
Some reviews, like Ryan Holiday‘s in The Observer, exemplify to me the way that criticism can produce a self-inoculating distance from an argument:
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 overwrought phrases, 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.
Holiday’s review in particular gave me pause about whether and how this book is for white people. When I read it, I thought it was obviously for white people, but written in a rhetorical style that could draw white people in to see his perspective as a father writing to a son. I especially thought this when Coates’ writes:
Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.
But then several pages later, Coates writes:
But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.
That passage made me think, it is to the Dreamers, the people who think they are white. And the point is, it’s not about us. But it is. Kinda. We’re the problem. But we’re not the solution. But maybe we are. But we need to deal with that, with ourselves. It’s on us. But it’s not about us.
Support for this view that it is a charge to the Dreamers could be found in a Slate review by Jack Hamilton, American Studies and Media Studies Professor at the University of Virginia:
Between the World and Me is a love letter written in a moral emergency, one that Coates exposes with the precision of an autopsy and the force of an exorcism. Taken as a whole the book is Coates’ attempt to sever America’s ongoing romance with its own unexamined platitudes of innocence and equality, a romance that, in the writer’s telling, “persists by warring with the known world.”
Ok, the love letter part doesn’t seem like it’s concerned with people who think they are white. Hamilton articulates the point well:
White Americans may need to read this book more urgently and carefully than anyone, and their own sons and daughters need to read it as well. This is not to say this is a book about white people, but rather that it is a terrible mistake for anyone to assume that this is just a book about nonwhite people.
So the reviewer just claims that the opposite is true — contrarianism is a calling, not a birthright, after all — writing that “by spreading blame so widely, Mr Coates eases the consciences of those who fastened the chains, tightened the noose, wielded the billy club and the people who told them to do it.” The notion that a white person could read Coates’ book and have their consciences eased by it is, to be frank, so absurd as to suggest that the reviewer hasn’t even read the book. Granted, reading the book isn’t actually a prerequisite for writing a contrarian review of it, but it’s considered sporting in most intellectual circles to actually read the work one critiques.
Not really a review of the book, but a reflection on it, is Leigh Johnson’s two-part series on Reading Coates. Just several days ago, The New York Times published a letter responding to Michelle Alexander’s review. Last week The Guardian published an article based on an interview with Coates in Paris. I read at least one call to make the book part of an all-metro reading program. If you want to go find more references, including Coates himself continuing to talk about the book, follow the #BetweentheWorldandMe hashtag (and oh, if you are not already on, get on Twitter).
If you haven’t read the book yet, do. If you have found other reviews that you thought were really good or really problematic, post them in the comments.
Update: This is not an exhaustive list, but a list of representative reviews. Here’s some others:
Chris Hartman for the Christian Science Monitor
Donna Bailey Nurse for The Boston Globe
Matthew Shenoda for LA Times
Carlos Lozada for The Washington Post
Pamela Newkirk for The San Francisco Chronicle
Thomas Chatterton Williams for The Denver Post
Eisa Nefertari Ulen for TruthOut
Daniel José Camacho for The Christian Century
Rich Lowry for Politico on “The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates”