Between the World and Me: a review

Dear Hannah,

Fear is the basis of this book.  Fear of the streets, fear of the schools, fear of the police -- fear of losing control of one's body, and one's life, and one's family.  Lots of men have lived it, but few have been able to eloquently explain it.  Ta-Nehisi Coates took the task upon himself and did it admirably here.  Between the World and Me is a painful search through race and history to understand the suffering of the black American.  Like most Americans, Coates quickly finds the reason for the suffering.  Like most of our Democrats, his cure is worse than the cancer.

You can't blame Coates for getting angry at an ugly situation; but like the judge sentencing the junkie in Trainspotting, Coates's answer helps explain black behavior better than excuse it.  Centuries of almost unspeakable abuse, of systematic torture, rape, and indignity in general, and then being redlined into an insufferable ghetto and persecuted by Jim Crow eventually had an effect on a people -- a people ruined not for their grades or their manners or their crimes, but for their color.  Whether redlining and segregation and lynch mobs are now illegal is beside the point.  The point is they've had their effect.  The point is that generations of life without liberty ruins a people for generations, and divorces the concept of morality from the concept of prosperity.  That whites expect anything more than bedlam in the black community proves our unfairness.  That blacks expect whites to make friends with this madhouse proves many of our activists are stupid.

What can't be denied after reading this book is that the biggest problem black people face today in America is other black people.  Mr. Coates's terrifying description of Baltimore creates sympathy for good blacks in bad places.  On the other hand it also justifies the worst of white prejudices.  The purpose of this book is understanding the barrier that kept him stuck in the ghetto.  He could have found the answer by making a white friend and asking him kindly.  The reason was, is, and will be fear.  White fear of the same things Mr. Coates is afraid of.  Fear of robberies and rapes and broken ribs; of street fighters and armed bandits chasing you on the streets; of dead children and devastated parents; and losing the one thing our entire bodies were engineered to not lose, which is our life.  The fact that things are going swimmingly in white neighborhoods doesn't mean white people have nothing to fear.  It only means that we're afraid someone's going to ruin all of it.

In some parts of the book he admits it implicitly.  If he wanted to describe the barrier between himself and the white world, he did the best job of it when explaining the barrier between himself and the well-to-do blacks.   The existence of the middle-class, black-owned, black-run, and oftentimes black-policed Prince George County (as described in his own book) is proof not only that exceptional blacks can in fact succeed in America, but also that lower class blacks can't even get along with middle-class blacks.  A long and sordid history of black encounters with the PG police, culminating but not ending in the murder of Coates's acquaintance Prince Jones, proves that even the blacks who've escaped from the ghetto are terrified of it, and beyond this are willing to profile in order to protect themselves from it.  Yet Coates blames whites supremacy when black men are shot even by black cops.  To Mr. Coates and Black Lives Matter, whites are guilty if we did it, guilty if we didn't.  He complains of being profiled right before he joins the ranks of the profilers -- and saddles every white man with a crime indisputably committed by a black.

This hypocrisy could have been too much for any author, but Mr. Coates seems to have an insatiable lust for double-dealing.  Aside from refusing to let others protect themselves from the same things he's terrified of, he requires a black history without wondering whether the same thing that makes him want a black history makes other people want a white history.  He says black is beautiful without giving anyone the right to say white is beautiful.  He says the American Dream is the enemy while trying to escape into the world that's living it.  He says white America got rich plundering innocent blacks while supporting the plunder of innocent whites. He says that hate gives identity, not only without admitting it's impossible to live without positive and negative generalizations, but while calling whites those who think of themselves as white.  He calls us liars for having failed our ideals, not only without giving us a better ideal, but while not even trying to keep his.  In short, the entire book is him being the thing that he hates.  We can't really blame him for being upset with us.  But we wonder how he can do the same things as us and not be upset with himself.

So maybe we want Mr. Coates out of the ghetto, the same way we wanted James Baldwin out of post-war Harlem.  But I hate to admit that Coates, whose Between the World and Me seems an unworthy successor to Baldwin's The Fire Next Timeis Baldwin's inferior in humanity.  While we could see in Baldwin's philosophy glimmers of the Whig Macaulay and even the conservative Edmund Burke, Coates's bleak existential struggle reminds us of Nietzsche and Darwin; and while men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Baldwin give us the impression we could possibly be friends, Coates leaves us with the impression he could never take us as anything more than an enemy.

Coates isn't a criminal or a gangster or a brute.  You can look at his picture and see in his honest eyes and kind smile the face of a friend.  His face alone makes you immediately regret that things have gone wrong between you.  But no sane white man could possibly want Coates anywhere near his family.  Coates won't defend our names.  He won't defend our property.  He won't allow us to defend or distinguish ourselves from thugs or illegals or even fight against terrorists (if this sounds insane, read the book).  He won't allow us to love as we really love, to fear as we really fear, to judge with good judgment and to trust who we trust.  In other words he wants us as slaves.  If anything bad happens he'll side by his color over the facts and by persons rather than principles.  He makes rules for us and then breaks them all himself, and then asks us what the barrier between himself and the world is.  Yesterday we'd say it was Jim Crow.  Today we'd ask him to place himself in our shoes, and then ask the question again.

Your father,


  1. Jeremy:
    my long years of human observation suggests that the American Black in poverty suffers from a common impediment to happiness. He is afraid to try to move past his ingrained scapegoat, despite many, many public support efforts (Head Start, subsidized housing, affirmative action, etc.) and the notion that somebody else needs to recognize his insecurities and salve every multi-generational wound. There is also a perennial strain of indignation for crimes against his forefathers, but of course, it is general human nature that power by force is in civilization's past, and his own ancestors subjugated rivals by force (and never paid reparations to others for these historical crimes).

    I think that your analysis is thoughtful and on point, in rebuttal to a young black writer's view of his world and the world outside his ghetto. The prison walls are those placed inside his own mind by irrational emotion that apparently squelches the desire to escape. It is out there, young black person, if you will only listen to your inner optimism and wall out the baiters.


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