Must Read: Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’ve been hearing buzz about Ta-Nehisi (pronounced Tah Neh-hah-see) Coates’s work for a few months now, so I decided to “read” his book Between the World and Me (2015) by listening to it while driving to and from school. It is a heavy book, one that I wish I had been able to take notes on and markup, but because I was driving I couldn’t. I had to settle for sighing and thinking and guilt and compassion bubbling up inside of me all at the same time. I even felt a little anger.

coates cover

Between the World and Me is an indictment of the myth of the American Dream, and Coates wrote it as a letter to his teenage son. Through the writing, he explains to his son the complicated nature of race relations, particularly from an African American perspective. He explores what it means to be an American and just how much we have to work on as a nation in order to assuage marginalization, racism, class warfare, and hatred.

I was most moved by his idea that the “American Dream” has been built on the backs of black people. He’s right. If I examine my privilege, as a middle class, educated white woman, I have much to feel guilty about in terms of using the bodies of others, without regard or notice, to gain and maintain my position in society. I like his ideas of bodies as central to domination, as the research I do from a feminist and gender studies position often examines how power relationships usually involve controlling women’s bodies. My dissertation is about women’s experiences in the workplace, and as I attempt to revise the chapter on power and the system of the workplace, I realized that what we learn about power is that it attempts to control bodies; for women in the workplace, this looks like sexual harassment, comments about the pregnant body, a lack of promotions for women simply because they “might” have children, and treating maternity as a sickness. I have much work to do on this particular chapter, but as I read Coates’s work, I realized just how important bodies are when it comes to influencing and controlling others.

Coates examines this through the penal system. His observations about this reminded me of Foucault‘s theories about power and the history of the prison. I have a friend in a Ph.D. program at Clemson who is focusing his research on prisons, so I’ve instructed him that Between the World and Me is a must-read. While I said this because of his research interests, I will reiterate that this book is a must-read for everybody. I see it as especially important for those of us with an abundance of privilege, those of us who “think” we are white, as Coates would say, as we have much to think about when it comes to struggling for equality and including those who are different from us.

coates quote

I felt moments of guilt and anger while reading this book. The anger was cathartic, and only reaffirmed to me just how much work I have do to in terms of accepting and loving those who are different from me. It reminded me how much work I have to do in shattering the illusion that I am somehow white, and that such whiteness somehow makes me better than others. It doesn’t. If you need to check your privilege, read this book.

A large portion of the book is devoted to describing the killing of Prince Jones Junior, a young black college student who was shot for “driving while black.” Coates details the story in detail, and visits Jones’s mother to learn more of the story. It is heartbreaking, and guiltily, part of this quality stems from the fact that Prince Jones was educated from educated and wealthy parents. However, such killings should be just as mourned when the young dead black man is uneducated or not socioeconomically advantaged. Coates mentions some of the other recent incidents, such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner. He is outraged by the environment that has led to the fear of and killing of black men.

As others have noticed, Coates is the James Baldwin of our day. He is direct. He is piercing. He is honest. He is sharp. He is smart. He tells it like it is. He doesn’t waver. He isn’t careful of others’ feelings. He’s strong. He’s real.

I’m better for having read this book. I need to read more.

32 thoughts on “Must Read: Ta-Nehisi Coates

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  1. I have watched you evolve over time from a commonsense woman into a typical creature of the academic left, drunk on French theory and increasingly remote from the ordinary interests and concerns of ordinary people. And now you are buying into the BlackLivesMatter hysteria, a left-wing effort at further dissolving the traditional American beliefs in an ordered society governed by enforceable laws. This way lies chaos and social collapse, and anyone outside the soap bubble of academia knows this. Having seen you go this far off the rails, any further interest on my part in your surrender to the intellectual fashions of the day is ended. Take me off your list, please.

  2. (Ouch.)
    Humans will always struggle with I — not I, with we — they, self — other; it’s the way we’re made . . . But we also always strive for a greater truth, a more honest reconciliation, a new peace. It’s always relative, it’s always partial, always imperfect. We strive to know ourselves, then to do our best for the world around us.

    1. Well said. I don’t think I can add anything to this! We are all doing our best to make sense of confusing contexts, experiences, surroundings, and others.

  3. Yes, absolutely to everything in this post. I read this book a few months ago, and I struggled with whether and how to write about it. You’ve done such a great job of basically saying everything that I was thinking as well. I was left frustrated by this book, mainly because it made me feel so angry and helpless without offering any solutions. After a few months of thinking and reading about it, I think that was exactly Ta-Nehisi’s point – I think he wanted to spark a conversation instead of offering a one-size-fits-all-solution because frankly life is never as neatly concluded as I wish it were! Thank you for sharing this, it was exactly what I needed to read on a Monday morning.

    I’m currently reading The New Jim Crow, and I have added James Baldwin to my list as well. Are there any other books that you are reading right now?

    1. I’m not reading anything related to this right now, but I just finished Ambient Rhetoric. It was a strange and interesting argument about allowing objects to have agency. I’m not sure how convinced me, or my colleagues who discussed it with me last week, are by it.

      I struggled about how to write about this one as well. Especially since my anger was directed at Coates and some of his ideas, especially his interpretation of 9/11. I had to realize that it wasn’t personal and I had to check my own emotions and privilege to be able to listen to what he was saying and to be able to join the conversation. Like you said, it really is an ongoing conversation. There isn’t one side or the other. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Hmm, I agree that things have been looking worse for African-Americans lately, and I have been shocked and appalled by all of the shootings and people being arrested and assaulted for trivial things, many of them African-American. But I don’t know about the American dream being built on the backs of African Americans. Do you really think so? That doesn’t make sense to me. Almost all of my ancestors came to this country after slavery was already abolished or were fighting on the Northern side of the Civil War. I think we owed the freed slaves a much better start than they got. We just freed them and let them fend for themselves, many uneducated and unprepared to support themselves. But we’re more than 150 years past that time. I think the “American Dream” is about succeeding for yourself, and there are a lot of things wrong with it, including that most people can’t reach it anymore. But it also seems like it is still something people can aspire to, if it’s their idea of something to aspire to. But I guess I would have to read the book before I could understand what he meant by that statement. At some point, isn’t it more healthy to stop looking back and look forward, and isn’t that what the “American Dream” means, that you can shed your background, whatever it is, and start afresh? And aren’t you more likely to achieve the “American Dream” if you are looking forward instead of back? And what the heck is the American Dream, anyway (to confuse issues even further)? I made some guesses, but I’m not sure I know. I know what it was in the 1950’s, but I’m not sure I know what it is now.

    1. Well said. What IS that dream? What does it mean? I think you’ll get a better sense of his contemporary perspective on this by reading the book. He connects it to the prison system, and like you, I have the perspective of the past being in the past. It is hard to see how he and many others are still affected by the great wrongs perpetrated then, but the legacy continues. I appreciate your exploration of this, especially since I had some similar thoughts while reading. I ultimately had to listen to Coates and allow him to tell me what HIS experiences were, since I really don’t know anything about being African American.

  5. Great review Emily. Thank you so much. I agree with you on every point. I was born in the south, a genuine baby boomer, and that geo-social fact guaranteed my racism. It’s complicated. And yet, so simple. My relatives, neighbors, friends, all viewed black folks as something to be seen as little as possible and never heard. I grew up in that world. I breathed the air of that world. I assimilated.

    After getting my masters in English, I applied for tons of jobs. Nothing. Finally a black university, Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, sent me a letter and my friends, everyone, told me “don’t go there. It’s a black school. They hate white people.” I tore the ap up. After a few more dozen rejections, I received another possible opening at Alcorn A & M College in Mississippi. I told no one. I got the job.

    I taught black students at Alcorn for thirty plus years. After my first eighteen years of teaching, I became chairman of the English Department. I absolutely loved my job. But here is an interesting story. Sorry for being so long-winded.

    My first year, I got to know my colleagues, white and black. One white guy in theater would leave the room the second I entered. He was an intelligent man, a extremely talented theater director, and he had a great sense of humor. I was dumbfounded as to why he shunned my company. I asked another white friend who warned me of the answer. “What?” I asked.

    “You use the N word too much,” he said. I was stunned. I denied it. He shrugged. “You do,” he said. I started listening to myself. I had not done so before. He was right.

    From that point on, I took charge of my own illness: racism. I consider it an illness, no different from alcoholism. Once you have it, you never ever lose it. What you can do is to recognize it and consciously control it.

    I learned so much teaching at Alcorn. It was an experience that made me a better person. I also remember walking to class with some African American students. Ahead of us, a car stopped and an obese white woman got out of the car. The girl walking next to me said, “Oh, Mr. Broome, look at that big white woman.” then the girl threw her hand over her mouth and said, “Oops, I forgot you were white!”

    Well, it was the greatest compliment I had received from a black person. On occasion our friendship, our trust, our human bond, pushed us beyond the fog of race and we saw each other as–human.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. It sounds like you have learned a lot over the years. I think we are all ill with thinking that our own contexts, experiences, and “people” are better than others, but it simply is not true. What a neat experience for you to teach at that college and to learn so much. I envy this, and I hope that as I continue to learn and grow I’ll too be cured of the racism I’ve been raised to accept. I loved reading your comment!

  6. Thanks for having the courage to post this review on your blog (The angry comment at the top of the comment section is I hope the only such response you will receive) . Race is such a difficult conversation, and I wish it wasn’t. But I appreciate that my European heritage gives me a history of 2000 years of privilege and abuse that has allowed me the limited successes I have had in my life. I’m not sure what to do with that, but I’ll put this book on my reading list.

    1. I guess I’m naive in posting this and not expecting to hurt or offend people. I try to focus my reviews on what the author says and give my sparing reaction to it, but sometimes I’m moved or excited about a book, even if it changes the way I’ve always thought about something. It really is a difficult conversation. I hope we can all be civilized in having it. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Great review, Emily! I do plan to read this book sometime. Your review and some of the comments had me wondering about the differences between the US and Canada. Of course, we have many of the same problems with racism and intolerance as you, but do they have the same origins? Do they manifest themselves the same way? I suspect they do, but it would be an interesting (although sad and frustrating) topic to read about. I wouldn’t even know where to begin…
    One thing is for sure, these are the kinds of books people should be reading.

    1. That would be interesting to compare this issue across countries. I agree, that we need to read books that make us uncomfortable or that challenge our own comfort. It is hard, but I was ultimately glad that I did.

  8. Emily, thank you for providing a forum for discussion of a topic that, while it is definitely not comfortable for everyone to discuss, demonstrates exactly why we need to. Race issues in this country are not going to disappear until everyone has had a chance to be heard, until everyone is accountable for his or her own contribution to the race issue. There is still an unconscionable amount of racism from whites toward blacks. There is also what is called “reverse racism” – assumptions and reactions to racism that are not fair to all whites, especially those who want our society to become truly fair. I offered The New Jim Crow to my AP students last year and the discussions about it were heartening and heartbreaking at the same time. My class, predominantly white, wants its generation to change the world for the better. They aren’t racist – they are outraged by, appreciate, and internalize the struggles of people of color, Coates and Baldwin (“A Talk to Teachers”) included. That’s one reason why it’s so painful for me to read Coates’ message. I refuse to accept that they and I, by virtue of the color of our skin, are conspirators in the racism that exists in this country, and I have a very difficult time accepting that his narrative applies to white and black people everywhere.

    And yet. I put myself (as much as I can) in his shoes when I read the excerpt “Letter to My Son” who is the same age as one of my own sons. And I feel the sadness and fear that he has, quite understandably, that his son will find himself in the wrong area of town or make a move in front of the wrong person that will put him in danger. But I wonder if Mr. Coates realizes that there are places in this country where my sons’ lives are just as endangered as his son’s simply because of race, and that, in this narrow way, I can identify with him, even though what bothers me the most is that one of his embedded claims is that, because I am white, I cannot. It makes me angry and sad. It makes me defensive and indignant. And it forces me to admit that we still have so far to go as a society. Despite these reactions, I still have to keep talking about it and consider the validity of such perspectives, and there is always more of that for all of us to do. This book offers us that opportunity.

    1. Yes! You have said it so eloquently. I had a similar reaction to particular parts where I felt angry and defensive and indignant as you said. But we have to keep having these conversations. We have to hear each other. I think it is one of the only ways we can eventually move forward. I’m glad to hear that you have been having these conversations with your students and that you are thinking about it yourself, just as I am. It sounds like we are in similar positions.

  9. I like the quote of Coates’ that you included above. It speaks to something I have been mulling in my head for a little while now. I wouldn’t say I have reached any conclusions yet so don’t hold me to the below! It’s just something I think about.

    The way I see it, we have been trying to fight racism without questioning the idea of race. In fact, if anything we have been further entrenching it. People commonly speak of racial pride: “I am proud to be a ____ person”. This is despite the fact that the very idea of human races has been scientifically discredited since at least 1950.

    It is one thing that separates racism from other forms of discrimination. When fighting sexism or homophobia, we are trying to destroy the differential treatment based on a perception; a perception that is attached to something that is real – a sexual orientation, a sex/gender. One of the difficulties in fighting sexism and homophobia is destroying that differential treatment while maintaining that behind it is something that is real. But racism is 100% perception, the differential treatment is based on something that isn’t even real! You would think that would make it easier. Maybe it should and maybe that is what we should start with.

    As I say, I haven’t reached a conclusion yet, but I am sceptical as to whether we can fight racism while maintaining the idea of race. I think both have to go.

    I like the story of journalist Guy Harrison:

    “One day in the 1980s, I sat in the front row in my first undergraduate anthropology class, eager to learn more about this bizarre and fascinating species I was born into. But I got more than I expected that day as I heard for the first time that biological races are not real. After hearing several perfectly sensible reasons why vast biological categories don’t work very well, I started to feel betrayed by my society. “Why am I just hearing this now? . . . Why didn’t somebody tell me this in elementary school?” . . . I never should have made it through twelve years of schooling before entering a university, without ever hearing the important news that most anthropologists reject the concept of biological races.”

    Sorry for the long comment.

    1. I love your long comment. It is so true that we should hear about the lack of biological differences in races before we get to college. I think your story is another example of how racism is learned and I think partly our categorization of each other is something we just do, because categorizing things makes it easier for us to make sense of them and to remember, but it certainly isn’t fair when it comes to people. I like your idea of destroying differences. Some multicultural feminist theories suggest that we accept and embrace difference, and I’ve heard that the mark of intelligence is being able to live with and accept ambiguity. I’m not sure what the answer is either, but I appreciate your thoughts.

  10. I just picked this book up from the library and can’t wait to read it. I heard his interview on NPR about the book and felt he made some important points. I hate that here you’ve got a great review of the book – which is thought provoking, just as the book is. And someone actually took the time to criticize you for falling into this trap of “liberalism” and “hysteria”. That’s so frustrating – because that’s exactly the type of person who should be reading this book!

    1. Right? I like reading about ideas, even if they aren’t my own. It doesn’t mean I’m falling into traps, it just means I’m considering others’ perspectives. I hope you enjoy your read of this one.

  11. I’ve had this book on my list too and I appreciate your review and all the comments. People are really thinking and talking about the issue of race and social injustice and that’s a good start I think. I, like others who commented, come from a background of exclusion of “others” and it’s humbling and enlightening to read different perspectives on our history and current events. It can only be a good thing to widen my reference points. I recently finished a novel – Welcome To Braggsville by T. Jeronimo Johnson- that similarly provoked and left me thinking and questioning race and privilege but without really having answers. I need to write a review on it for but haven’t really pulled all my thoughts together yet. Kudos on a good review of a complex and emotionally fraught topic.

    1. Thank you for your supportive comment! It really is a hard thing to think about, write about, talk about, etc. I’d like to see your review for the novel you mention. Send me a link!

  12. How interesting. Our last debate topic was on African American reparations and I remember citing the Coates card multiple times during round. Great review, very honest. Definitely adding this book to my list, examining injustice through the penal system sounds like an especially interesting framework.

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