Between the World and Me

Tanehisi Coates, rightly, places this book right after his earlier memoir The Beautiful Struggle and smack dab in the middle of the canon of black literature with an homage to James Baldwin. In Struggle, Coates described his childhood and adolescence and the influence of his father. In Between the World and Me, he picks up as a young adult and young father.

Every time I’ve seen Coates interviewed or brought on for a talking-head media appearance, before he can even complete his point, he’s inevitably asked, “so then what’s the answer? If America is so wrong in all these ways, how do we fix it?” And this is where I see Coates’ spirit dampen. I think he’s sick of trying to answer this question. Partially because he hasn’t come up with an answer he believes in yet. And partially because he doesn’t think it’s his job. As a country, we haven’t even agreed on the problem, or that there is a problem, how are we supposed to jump to a solution? In fact, solutionism sometimes is harmful. Trying to duct-tape together some theory of hope or change without actually coming to consensus on what is ailing America is unlikely to help.

If you’ve ever been to therapy, you might be familiar with this approach. You can walk into a therapist’s office and say “I’m in a bad place, tell me what to do and I’ll do it. How can I fix this?” A therapist, if they’re a good one at least, will likely deny you that satisfaction. Maybe they’ll give you some quick fixes to help you deal with an emergency, but they’ll also advocate for deep, long, introspection. A study of your entire life. Until you deeply understand fundamental truths about how you got to where you are, long lasting change is not possible. America is interested in a quick fix, when she needs long lasting change.

If it isn’t a question about a solution, or sometimes in addition to this question, his interlocutor might ask “is it hopeless? Should we give up hope on fixing any of this?” His response here, again, is instructive. Coates, and I’m paraphrasing, says “no, giving up isn’t an option. No one before us gave up, it is upon us now to carry this fight for the generations that will come after us.” And in this way, he models hope better than most people having this conversation. He loves this country, he wants to see it work. Coates isn’t, and I’m not, a religious man, but this is (Christian) grace personified.

He isn’t right about everything. He isn’t right to hit his son. He isn’t right to gloss over the experience of black women, to lump the particular types of violence leveled against them with all violence. But he learned to say “I love you” to his son. Maybe he’ll learn to listen to and amplify black women’s experience as its own distinct violence. And maybe America, too, will learn and change.