Moses gave us the Ten Commandments. Paul gave us the Epistles. And Ta-Nehisi gave us “Between the World and Me.”
The new book by Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the form of a letter to his son, has been greeted with a rapturous reception that brooks no dissent.
What everyone says about the literary merit of “Between the World and Me” is correct. But if you refuse to simply stare at the book in wonder, you will realize that it is profoundly silly at times, and morally blinkered throughout. It is a masterly little memoir wrapped in a toxic little philippic.
Coates evokes the terror of his upbringing in West Baltimore in the 1980s with a sickening immediacy. His father beat him. Other kids were a constant, perhaps mortal, threat. Coates lived in perpetual fear — although largely of other black people.
He argues — or asserts through a haze of lyricism — that all that other black people did to hurt or threaten him was ultimately the product of white racism.
Given how large race hatred looms in the world of Coates, I was surprised to find the worst thing that evidently happened to him directly at the hands of a white person is recounted beginning on Page 93 of the 152-page book. Coates took his son to a movie theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and when they were leaving and got off the crowded elevator, a white woman pushed his kid and said, “Come on!”
Coates interprets the incident as essentially the telescoping of hundreds of years of racism down to this woman invoking her “right over the body of my son.”
Yeah, maybe. It’s also possible that the woman was a jerk (there are at least a couple of them on the Upper West Side) and would have pushed anyone’s kid.
For all his subtle plumbing of his own thoughts and feelings and his occasional invocations of the importance of the individuality of the person, Coates has to reduce people to categories and actors in a pantomime of racial plunder to support his worldview. He must erase distinctions and reject complexity.
“’White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies,” he writes. What is this “white America”? Is it Nancy Pelosi or Ted Cruz? Is it Massachusetts, or is it Utah?
In a monstrous passage about 9/11, he writes of the police and firefighters who died trying to save people from getting obliterated into dust: “They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.”
Really? Firefighters go about shattering the bodies of black people without justification?
Coates objects especially to the cliche that blacks have to be “twice as good.” It’s closer to the truth that they, like all Americans, are in a much better position to succeed if they honor certain basic norms: graduate from high school; get a full-time job; don’t have a child before age 21 and get married before childbearing. Among the people who do these things, research from the Brookings Institution tells us, about 75 percent attain the middle class, broadly defined.
Maybe a writer of the skill and moral authority of Coates should let people in on this secret?
Even if we adopted the reparations that Coates has famously made the case for, it’s hard to imagine them being generous enough to make a transformative difference in the lives of individual blacks. For poor blacks to escape poverty, it would still require all the personal attributes that contribute to success, no matter what your race.
Coates reminds us of the shame of the American inner city and powerfully recounts this country’s history of slavery and racism. But his is a stunted version of America. Here’s hoping his son reads more widely.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.