To Witness with White Eyes: A Review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

October 7, 2015

By Andrew J. Pierce, Ph.D., Sacred Heart University

Who is the intended audience of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ provocative, haunting, and darkly beautiful reflections on race in Between the World and Me? In one sense, the answer is obvious. The book is written in the form of a letter to Coates’ son, a child of 15, roughly the same age as the ever-increasing number of black children whose blood is spilt daily across the back alleys of American cities and, increasingly, across the front pages of American newspapers. In another sense, the answer is more complex. On the one hand, the book can be interpreted in the tradition of moral suasion running from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, or perhaps (as Toni Morrison’s praise for the book notes) James Baldwin. Viewed in this way, the primary audience for the work would be white readers, presenting to them (us) a truth that most black and brown people already know – that American racism is not a matter of beliefs or ideas, not a matter of “prejudice,” but is rather a “visceral experience” that “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” (10). That it is a form of control over black bodies. On the other hand, the book could be viewed as directed to a black audience – not just of sons and daughters, but of mothers and fathers like Coates, a public representation of the private “Talk” that so many black parents must have with their sons and daughters about the possibly fatal consequences of what, to other children, might be just a minor misstep. This interpretation would locate Coates’ work in a rather different tradition, the tradition in which he immersed himself in his studies at Howard University, the tradition that writes to, for, and about black people.

But why should the question of audience matter? Or, more precisely, why should the question of audience figure along racial lines? It is certainly true of Coates’ book that any person, regardless of race, who is not empathically deficient or maliciously intent on denying the truth of his words would be hard pressed not to be moved by them. Coates writes with all of the rhetorical force of a Douglass, King, or Baldwin. His description of the profound corporeal violence that constitutes the black experience, and the fear from which that violence arises “like smoke from a fire” evokes universally understandable human (and parental) emotions. And yet, this experience is one that white people seem intent on denying, reinterpreting, or explaining away: “But white people suffer too!” “Racial analyses divide the people!” “Black-on-black crime!” These are responses that need to be addressed, not primarily because of the kernel of truth contained in them (as Coates is more than willing to admit), but rather because of the way that this kernel of truth gets distorted into rationalization, justification, and thereby erasure of the very experience Coates presents so compellingly. In this respect, it would seem to matter greatly on which side of the “color line” – that great chasm which Du Bois defined as the problem of the 20th century – the reader falls.

Before addressing these reactions, I would like to point out that the question of audience is also important because it points to a more fundamental question, a question central to the history of black political thought, and to Coates’ work. Understanding the book as directed to a white audience locates it, as I have already noted, in relation to the liberal, nonviolent, moral suasionism of Douglass and King. Understanding the book as directed to a black audience on the other hand, suggests rather the militant, “by any means necessary” nationalism of Martin Delaney, Malcolm X, and Coates’ own father. Near the beginning of the book, Coates’ reflections seem to favor the latter tradition. He clearly mocks the love-soaked nonviolence of the mainstream Civil Rights movement, and notes its ideological convenience. The heroes of the well-worn Civil Rights story “seemed to love the worst things in life – love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets” (32). “How,” he wonders, “could the schools valorize men and women whose values society actively scorned? How could they send us into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all that they were, and then speak of nonviolence?” The ritualistic presentation of the “heroes of February” appear in these early experiences as merely another means of disciplining the body, of assuring that the black population, in embracing nonviolence, would continue to be vulnerable to the kind of structural violence that Coates describes as America’s “heritage.”


Editor’s Note: As frequently mentioned here, global learning does not require crossing a national border. Indeed, engaging thoughtfully across cultures is sometimes even more challenging at home, where biases and assumptions are entrenched over lifetimes and generations. The 2014-15 academic year began with Ferguson and ended with Baltimore, then Charleston. At globalsl, we find it more important than ever to include a focus on domestic cross-cultural cooperation, learning, and community-driven development.


 

Somewhat predictably, Malcolm X and Black Nationalist thought appear as the counterpoint to this rejected ideology. Here Coates finds an honesty and a truth that seems more human, and more relatable to his West Baltimore youth in which violence represented a kind of currency, a social capital that traded on fear and intimidation. Here he finds an approach that is concerned not with persuading white people through superhuman acts of vulnerability, love, and forgiveness, but with the valorization of blackness to and for its own people, “a declaration of equality rooted not in our better angels or the intangible spirit but in the sanctity of the black body” (35).

And yet, he relays that his experiences at Howard University called this simple opposition into question, presenting not a “trophy room” of the indisputable accomplishments of black civilization, nor “a coherent tradition marching lockstep, but factions, and factions within factions,” but a living discourse with no easy answers (47). This significantly complicates his earlier estimation of both the Civil Rights movement and Black Nationalism (the legacy of which is also bound up, in complex ways, with Coates’ relationship with his father, and the constitutive role of violence in that relationship). This formative period seems to have offered Coates the opportunity to interact with black people on terms not dictated primarily by violence and fear, and develop relationships that would ultimately lead him to characterize love as “an act of heroism” (61).

Perhaps this marks a shift away from his earlier views on the “heroes of February,” or perhaps it is an attempt to deny that love is the exclusive dominion of that tradition, claiming it also for a tradition in which black people love themselves first, and thereby refuse to throw their bodies on the altar of white moral improvement. Either way, Coates’ experience at “the Mecca” (where he also met his wife, the mother of the son to whom the book is addressed) seems to have softened his view toward the tradition of nonviolence he earlier derides. In the final pages of the book, when he visits the mother of Prince Jones, a Howard friend who was murdered by police years earlier, he compares her face to those immortalized in Civil Rights imagery. “The faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. They betray almost no emotion.” (142) He sees the same “noble and vacuous” look in the face of Mabel Jones, who “held so much under her control, and I was sure the days since her [son] was plundered, since her lineage was robbed, demanded nothing less” (143).

In the end then, Coates’ work is not easily molded into the pre-established categories of black political thought, and the question of audience is not easily answered. If anything, Coates’ conclusion seems closest to neither Martin Luther King nor Malcolm X, but to the “racial realism” of Derrick Bell, who insisted that racism is a permanent feature of the American political landscape. Coates does not go quite that far, but he does express a similar skepticism about “solving” American racism, emphasizing instead that “the struggle, in and of itself, has meaning” (69); that the very vulnerability to violence “brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe themselves white divides them from it” (107).

This brings us back to the question of audience. I will resist the temptation to reflect further on what this book might mean to black readers. I have never lost a child to violence, a father to incarceration, nor do I live each day under the ominous shadow that these threats cast. I will focus instead on what it means for white readers like myself, attempting to address some of the predictable reactions noted above.

I will not dignify the attempt to shift the blame onto blacks themselves for the regular violence they must endure with a response. The attempt to blame the victim is an old strategy of avoidance, and the fact that systems of oppression almost always coerce, entice, and blackmail the oppressed themselves into taking on some proximate role in their own oppression actually makes that oppression more tragic, not less. I would like to address the frequently encountered and frequently paired responses that giving voice to racial injustice somehow divides rather than unites, and that white people also suffer from police brutality, poverty, and disenfranchisement. The “me too” reaction represented by this latter response is often puzzling in the way that it is deployed. For it is of course true that some white people suffer from these evils in some form, though proportionately far less than black people. Still, one might assume that a commonality of experience would lead to empathy and solidarity. Yet, the “me too” response is most often employed as a means of denying this kind of support, as if to say “we face this too, but we’re not making a big deal about it.” This is probably best understood as evidence that those who voice this criticism really haven’t experienced the violence and indignity in question, so much as they are vaguely aware of cases of violence against whites, an awareness more likely to be gained from Facebook than the grief-stricken faces of cousins, neighbors, and friends. Still, the kernel of truth present in this response points not to over-reaction on the part of blacks, but under-reaction on the part of whites. Coates acknowledges of whites that “despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable” (107). This is a lesson that, despite the wielding of white suffering as a shield to deflect black opposition, white people have not yet truly grasped. Only when we realize that injustice is a threat to our own livelihood as well, and that the relative privileges we accept as part of the great racial bribe of whiteness actually subsidize a deeper kind of exploitation, will we be prepared to stand in solidarity with the victims of racial terrorism, not merely as “allies” but as true partners in struggle.

This line of argument veers dangerously close to the other response that I have mentioned, the favored response of many white liberals and progressives who respond to reports of racial injustice by claiming that talking about race drives a wedge between people who actually share a common interest; that focusing on race is a way of distracting attention away from the “real” issue. There is some truth to this, though it must be acknowledged that it is not the talk of racism that does the dividing, but the racism itself. We do not blame a fire on the people who called it in (unless there is some deep, abiding suspicion that they are really criminals intent upon deceiving us). Still, racism does disempower by division, and has been employed historically by powerful whites to exploit less powerful whites and blacks alike. The entire history of the United States, from slavery to the present, bears the mark of this grand hoax. But it can never be forgotten that in America, this “wedge” lands in different ways depending on one’s racial location. For white people, the wedge separates us from power, alienates us from meaning, and makes us vulnerable to a kind of exploitation that often requires theoretical unpacking. For black people, the wedge lands on skin and bones. It severs spinal cords and cuts off airways. Its brutal corporeality requires little abstraction to grasp. This is not equality. My side of the wedge is a relatively comfortable place. Alienation is not death. Disenfranchisement is not dismemberment. These differences cannot be overlooked in the call for inter-racial resistance to injustice in all of its forms. To do so is to continue to sacrifice the black body on the altar of abstract ideals that – we promise – will one day improve black lives as well as white. To do so is to carry on the “heritage” of American racial violence, a heritage whose brutal implications any reader of Coates’ book is compelled to acknowledge in all of its concrete materiality.


Andrew J. Pierce is Lecturer in Philosophy at Sacred Heart University. His specialization is in social and political philosophy broadly conceived, with special interests in critical theory and philosophy of race. He has published articles on conceptions of racism, the politics of racial identity, and a book entitled Collective Identity, Oppression, and the Right to Self-Ascription (2012).

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