Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me takes its title from a Richard Wright poem, but its more direct inspiration is James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. Coates’ book is in the form of a message to his son, Samori—but his prose throughout is also inspired by Baldwin’s rhythms, and sometimes even by Baldwin’s turns of phrase. “…the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and distinct sadness well up in me. The answer to the question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.” The construction “those Americans who believe that they are white” comes from Baldwin; the Chuch cadence of that repeated “The answer” comes from Baldwin, the way that careful qualification becomes emphasis and exhoration is Baldwin. For Baldwin fans, to read Coates’ prose is to experience a delightful recognition; here is someone who loves the same person you do.
Coates takes a risk drawing such a strong comparison with America’s greatest essayist. In trying to capture Baldwin’s power, for example, he sometimes resorts to repetitive capitalized portentous abstractions —”the Dream” or “the Mecca.” The strain is visible and distracting; a reminder that Coates (like just about everyone else) isn’t as sure-footed as his model.
But Coates isn’t using Baldwin to demonstrate his own sure-footedness. Literary influence is often seen in the context of anxiety; Melville throwing his spear into the eye of Shakespeare, or Baldwin wrestling with Richard Wright. Coates, though, rejects that vision of adulthood via beating your parents. He recalls his grandmother telling him that his son would “one day try to ‘test me'”. He responds, “I would regard that day, should it comes, as the total failure of fatherhood because if all I had over you were my hands, then I really had nothing at all.” Fatherhood is about love, not testing—and that’s Coates’ relationship with Baldwin as well.
And not just with Baldwin.
Though The Fire Next Time may be the most obvious blueprint for Coates’ work, Between the World and Me is filled with other fathers and mothers. The schools he attended in Baltimore were “concerned with compliance”, not teaching, Coates says, but despite his dismal experience with public education, he developed a lifelong passion for learning. He listened to Malcolm X’s speeches over and over, “because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality…I loved him because he made it plain.” He played Ice Cube’s Death Certificate “almost every day.” He went to Howard where he hoped to find a coherent Black nationalism and instead was gifted with “a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.” And from his wife he learned, among other things, how to raise a child without the belt his father used. “Your mother,” he tells Samori, in a quietly heart-breaking passage, “had to teach me how to love you.”
Most reviews, positive and negative, have focused on the heartbreak in Coates’ writing, and there’s good reason for that. Between the World and Me is a painful book. It starts with Samori crying in his room when he learns Michael Brown’s killer won’t be indicted; it closes with Coates talking to the mother of one of his Howard friends, Prince Jones, who was murdered by a policeman who was never held accountable. These aren’t isolated incidents, Coates’ book makes clear. They’re part of a pattern of terrorism and violence stretching back to slavery, through Jim Crow and redlining, and on up through the neglected, violent streets of Coates’ Baltimore childhood. Police brutality isn’t an accident, or a few bad men acting recklessly. Rather, police, Coates says, are “enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.” In order to keep thinking of themselves as white, Americans who think of themselves as white kill black people. So it has been, and so, Coates suggests, it shall be, if not for always, then at least as far into the future as you can see from here.
Mainstream reviews at the Economist and The New York Times were quick to chastise Coates for his refusal to acknowledge How Much Better Things Have Gotten, and his lack of hope. And Coates certainly doesn’t have much hope that white people will give up pretending to be white, or that they’ll start treating black people as human beings.
Coates doesn’t offer absolution to white people for the crimes they’ve committed, or, more importantly, for the crimes they’re continuing to commit. But that doesn’t mean his is a hopeless book, or even, for all its hurt, a sad one. On the contrary, Between the World and Me is filled with love—for Coates’ son, first of all, but also, in its language and structure, for Baldwin, as a particular mentor, and as an iconic representative of black heritage and struggle.
“…black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors,” Coates writes. He’s not a Christian, and mentions many times throughout the book that (like Baldwin) he does not find the comfort in God that many black people have. But he finds comfort, and strength, in black people themselves. “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors,” he tells his son. “Struggle for wisdom… Struggle for your gradmother and grandfather, for your name.” The cadences are still Baldwin’s, because Baldwin is Coates’, just as Coates is Samori’s. “We have made something down here,” Coates says, and what he, and his son, and his teachers have made is struggle and love.
Between the World and Me isn’t just a letter, It’s a tradition and a community, a set of tools and voices which Coates found, and which he’s passing on. The book is a gift, and you’d have to be in the grip of a particularly bleak delusion to think that it’s given in despair, rather than in joy.