Top critical review
3.0 out of 5 starsTa-Nehisi Coates’ Wounded Attachment
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on July 21, 2015
As we read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, it often feels as if we are overhearing a conversation not meant for us; the tone of the book implies privacy and intimacy. Written in the epistolary form, the book is presented as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori. This has invited the comparison to the prefatory essay—“My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”—in James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time. There Baldwin speaks to his nephew about the horrors of being black in America. Similar to The Fire Next Time, Between The World and Me is substantively exquisite, overflowing with insights about the embodied existence of blackness and the logic of white supremacy. Combining historical analysis and social theory, and framed as a personal journey, Between the World and Me is delivered in prose capable of challenging our understanding of the United States even as it captures our hearts.
The appearance of privacy is deceptive; we are not spectators, we are the subjects of the book. The lessons Coates shares with his son are meant for us. But for all of the beauty and power of the book, it is also profoundly troubling. The wound of racism is too fresh; the sharpness of the pain captures his senses and arrests his imagination. The worry is that if we follow along, we, too, shall be captured.
Consider two moments. The first moment comes after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.
"You stayed up till 11 pm that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it."
The second moment comes at the end of the first chapter, and serves as a summary of sorts of Coates’s assessment of our predicament:
"You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstances—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. 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 this 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.
The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise."
I would love to write like this; I’m sure you would as well. But the beauty of these passages should not conceal their disquieting revelation. The reason Coates does not comfort his son is because there is no comfort to provide. Why is this the case?
Coates often rejects the hubris of the American mythos—the idea that racial progress is a necessary feature of American life. As he says at one point, “one cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.” American exceptionalism does not allow for the confession of fallibility. The mythos, as he cogently reveals, serves as a blinding light for those caught within it; Americans spin out “Dreams” of their greatness, of their moral purity, or more modestly of their long journey to redeem the past. One is reminded of Bill Bennett’s response to Anderson Cooper during the presidential election of 2008. “Does anyone know,” asked Anderson, “what this means in terms of change of race relations in the United States?” To which Bennett responded: “I will tell you one thing it means as the former secretary of education: You don’t take any excuses anymore from anybody.” The suggestion by Bennett was clear: the ascendency of Obama, an African-American, to the presidency settled the problem of race relations and racial discrimination. Obama was the fulfillment of the American promise, effectively allowing one to deny the residue of racial discrimination that otherwise continues to determine the life chances of black folk.
The Dream seems to run so deep that it eludes those caught by it. Between the World and Me initially seems like a book that will reveal the illusion and in that moment open up the possibility for imagining the United States anew. Remember: “Nothing about the world is meant to be.” But the book does not move in that direction. Coates rejects the American mythos and the logic of certain progress it necessitates, but embraces the certainty of white supremacy and its inescapable constraints. White supremacy is not merely a historically emergent feature of the Western world generally, and the United States particularly; it is an ontology. By this I mean that for Coates white supremacy does not structure reality; it is reality.
There is, in this, a danger. When one conceptualizes white supremacy at the level of ontology, there is little room for one’s imagination to soar and one’s sense of agency is inescapably constrained. The meaning of action is tied fundamentally to what we imagine is possible for us. “The missing thing,” Coates writes, “was related to the plunder of our bodies, the fact that any claim to ourselves, to the hands that secured us, the spine that braced us, and the head that directed us, was contestable.” The body is one of the unifying themes of the book. It resonates well with our American ears because the hallmark of freedom is sovereign control over our bodies. This was the site on which slavery did its most destructive work: controlling the body to enslave the soul. We see the reconstitution of this logic in our present moment—the policing and imprisoning of black men and women. The reality of this colonizes not only the past and the present, but also the future. There can be no affirmative politics when race functions primarily as a wounded attachment—when our bodies are the visible reminders that we live at the arbitrary whim of another. But what of those young men and women in the streets of Ferguson, Chicago, New York, and Charleston—how ought we to read their efforts?
We come to understand Coates’s answer to this question in one of the pivotal and tragic moments of the book—the murder of a college friend, Prince Jones, at the hands of the police. As Coates says: “This entire episode took me from fear to a rage that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.” With his soul on fire, all his senses are directed to the pain white supremacy produces, the wounds it creates. This murder should not be read as a function of the actions of a police officer or even the logic of policing blacks in the United States. His account of this strikes a darker chord. What he tells us about the meaning of the death of Prince Jones, what we ought to understand, reveals the operating logic of the “universe”:
"She [referring to his mother] knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of ‘race,’ imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws."
But if we are all just helpless agents of physical laws, the question might emerge again: What does one do? Coates recommends interrogation and struggle. His love for books and his journey to Howard University, “Mecca,” as he calls it, serve as sites where he can question the world around him. But interrogation and struggle to what end? His answer is contained in his incessant preoccupation with natural disasters. We might say, at one time we thought the Gods were angry with us or that they were moving furniture around, thus causing earthquakes. Now we know earthquakes are the result of tectonic shifts. Okay, what do we do with that knowledge? Coates seems to say: Construct an early warning system—don’t misspend your energy trying to stop the earthquake itself.
There is a lesson in this: “Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen…And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory, but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” One’s response can be honorable because it emerges from a clear-sightedness that leaves one standing upright in the face of the truth of the matter—namely, that your white counterparts will never join you in raising your body to equality. “It is truly horrible,” Coates writes in one of the most disturbing sentences of the book, “to understand yourself as the essential below of your country.” Coates’s sentences are often pitched as frank speech; it is what it is. This produces a kind of sanity, he suggests, releasing one from a preoccupation with the world being other than what it is.
Herein lies the danger: Forget telling his son it will be okay. Coates cannot even muster a tentative response to his son; he cannot tell him that it may be okay. “The struggle is really all I have for you,” he tells his son, “because it is the only portion of this world under your control.” What a strange form of control. Black folks may control their place in the battle, but never with the possibility that they, and in turn the country to which they belong, may win.
Releasing the book at this moment—given all that is going on with black lives under public assault and black youth in particular attempting to imagine the world anew—seems the oddest thing to do. For all of the channeling of James Baldwin, Coates seems to have forgotten that black folks “can’t afford despair.” As Baldwin went on to say: “I can’t tell my nephew, my niece; you can’t tell the children there is no hope.” The reason why you can’t say this is not because you are living in a dream or selling a fantasy, but because there can be no certain knowledge of the future. Humility, borne out of our lack of knowledge of the future, justifies hope.
Much has been made of the comparison between Baldwin and Coates, owing largely to how the book is structured and because of Toni Morrison’s endorsement. But what this connection means seems to escape many commentators. In his 1955 non-fiction book titled Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin reflects on the wounds white supremacy left on his father: “I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.” Similar to Coates, Baldwin was wounded and so was Baldwin’s father. Yet Baldwin knew all too well that the wounded attachment if held on to would destroy not the plunderers of black life, but the ones who were plundered. “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” Baldwin’s father, as he understood him, was destroyed by hatred. Coates is less like Baldwin in this respect and, perhaps, more like Baldwin’s father. “I am wounded,” says Coates. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” The chains reach out to imprison not only his son, but you and I as well.
There is a profound sense of disappointment here. Disappointment because given the power of the book, Coates seems unable to linger in the conditions that have given life to the Ta-Neisha Coates that now occupies the public stage. Coates’s own engagement with the world—his very agency—has received social support. Throughout the book he often comments on the rich diversity of black beauty and on the power of love. His father, William Paul Coates, is the founder of Black Classic Press—a press with the explicit focus of revealing the richness of black life. His mother, Cheryl Waters, helped to financially support the family and provided young Coates with direction. And yet he seems to stand at a distance from the condition of possibility suggested by just those examples. One ought not to read these moments above as expressive of the very “Dream” he means to reject. Rather, the point is that black life is at once informed by, but not reducible to, the pain exacted on our bodies by this country. This eludes Coates. The wound is so intense he cannot direct his senses beyond the pain.