Book review: Ta-Nehisi Coates is forceful if not always persuasive in Between the World and Me

The black American writer strikes a tone of aspirational gravitas in his dissection of race in America

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 October, 2015, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 October, 2015, 12:00pm

Ever since 1976, when the United States government officially recognised Black History Month, February has been a time - especially in US schools - to celebrate the emancipatory struggles of Black Americans and to acknowledge their history of oppression.

For the young Ta-Nehisi Coates, growing up in Baltimore, it was also a time of mystification and shame. Watching newsreel footage of the civil rights movement, he got the impression that "the black people in these films 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 firehouses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into their streets".

These days, Coates is a prominent journalist for The Atlantic, where his tendency to puncture sunny-side-up political platitudes has not abated. Last year he published "The Case for Reparations", a lengthy and widely debated essay in which he argued that reparations would mean "a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratiser with the facts of our history".

It is understandable, then, that there has been a lot of fanfare for Between the World and Me. It appears at a moment when, thanks to mobile phones and social media, the ghastly spectacle of black Americans - many of them young and unarmed - being strangled, clubbed or shot by police officers has created a cacophony calling for change. #BlackTwitter, Black Lives Matter, hashtag activism: it is a marvellous noise, an Occupy-style swarm energy that, for older generations used to traditional media, can appear befuddling.

Those seeking a guide could certainly do a lot worse than Coates, who recently won a prestigious MacArthur "genius" award.

A self-conscious step back from a present whose crimes and bloodiness it sees as consistent with American history, the volume is a rather strange blend of epistolary non-fiction, autobiography and political theory that has at its heart a simple message: "In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body - it is heritage." It's a forceful claim, which Coates pairs with vivid recollections of growing up in gang-ridden Baltimore.

Coates describes his time at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington which he calls "a place of self discovery and self invention … for African people". The book consistently carries a tone of aspirational gravitas.

A comparison with Coates's previous book, a 2008 memoir entitled The Beautiful Struggle, is telling. There he also wrote about structural racism and enforced underdevelopment, but he described those forces in less portentous language than in Between the World and Me. In 2015, Coates is a more exalted writer, but his prose seems increasingly ventriloquised and his insistence on African-American exceptionalism a kind of parochialism.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coats (Spiegel & Grau)

The Guardian