by Robert Burton-Harris
Like the Wu-Tang Clan, America’s particular style of racism "aint nuthin to fuck wit”. Our unwavering belief in the inferiority of black people has resulted in civil war, mass incarceration, terrorism, and the-list-goes-on-and-on until every major American institution is mired in culpability. This is not a secret nor even debatable (confirmation is only a Google search away). And refreshing America’s collective memory, putting it mildly, has become quite tedious. In Between the World and Me (BTWAM) Ta-Nehisi Coates uses beautiful prose as a weapon to get his point across. After he’s done, he leaves you searching for your teeth and gasping for air. He does not help you get up.
BTWAM comes from a place of helplessness, truth, frustration, passion, history, beauty, and struggle. During his National Book Award acceptance speech, Coates reflects on the death of Prince Jones--another victim of police cowardice--and his inability to give Jones’s family any real justice. "I'm a Black man in America, I can't punish that officer," he says. It’s in this space that BTWAM is forged.
BTWAM has received a wide range of criticism. Some critics, quite obviously, did not read the book; while others responded with a petulant "nuh-uh!". The most common criticism has been directed at the book’s lack of (the ever amorphous) hope. I can only attribute this complaint to our collective need to believe that “we shall overcome”--so long as it’s peaceful and non disruptive-- and that we are marching toward progress. Well, I’m sorry, folks, but history is not hopeful nor does it naturally bend toward justice. And that is also true for our current state of affairs. Indeed, experts who study the Black-American experience are far less hopeful than Coates. But let’s assume, arguendo, that hope, whatever the term means, is, in fact, the book’s missing ingredient and Coates adds a hopeful conclusion to future editions. What should black folks do with that? Did hope compel Governor Snyder of Michigan to act with an iota of humanity or decency in regards to the basic needs of his constituents? Did hope prevent a staggering number of Chicago police from purposely sabotaging their dash-cams or operating a Guantánamo right here, in good ol’ America? Hope may be useful but not in the context of articulating the nature of our enemy or exploring the depths of their depravity. He encourages his son to never look away from the realities of this country’s past or present. Bear witness to America’s on-going shame; to the exoneration of murderous cops; to the economic exploitation of Ferguson residents; to it all. Because drowning ourselves in hope provides them with the comfort of absolution without the pain of contrition.
Likewise, readers have complained about the lack of a tangible “roadmap to freedom”. On what basis could he accomplish this? Coates is not a prophet and does not believe in them (*he is an athiest). He is dealing with the here and now despite how bleak the present feels. Besides, even our most sacred civil rights victories are not safe from plunder. How could he possibly know the exact treatment for our race-based schizophrenia?
BTWAM exists only because it must. No one wants to live in fear of their homeland. We will never become accustomed to it and it negatively affects us (and you) in every way imaginable. Furthermore, if you genuinely believe that black folks only need a writer’s articulation of a clear path to success to obtain true equality, you are miles behind and all your work remains ahead of you.
BTWAM does not bring any new ideas to the table (Coates never claims that it does) but it gives every reader an uncomfortable reminder that the struggle continues and nothing guarantees our victory. That is not a cause for sadness; it’s a case for diligence.