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Thoughts, Take 1: On Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me

I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, Between the World and Me, and I'm moved to meditate and write. Coates' writing is direct, concise, and...hard. There are no soft edges because he doesn't seek to offer a salve. What he has on offer is truth distilled. His writing is to Seeing White as David Simon's The Wire is to CSI: Miami. There's no exposition. Rather, the reader is dropped directly into the fray and left to scramble to catch up. 

The book spans a dense 176 pages and follows in the spiritual, if not structural, path forged by James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, a book that has forever changed me (many thanks to Nia for lending me her copy). In 1963 Baldwin wrote a letter to his nephew and told a story of race and America that could've been told yesterday. Coates directs his message to his 14-year-old son, Samori, saying things that could've been told just as accurately and poignantly 50 years ago. In a world in which the stories of Black people are erased, marginalized and/or told by everyone but Us, Coates' book is a cold glass of water after a long day in the Sun, an elixir that sends a jolt to the system making you understand what's been missing. As Toni Morrison wrote: "I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died."
James Baldwin. Image from Google Images with no attribution
In this series I'll go back over the some of the passages I highlighted as I read on my Kindle and share my thoughts. My primary audience is a 43-year-old man named Professor Johnson, a man who has not lived yet. Once he is realized, he will have climbed an exponential learning curve and advanced in his understanding far from this point. But knowing 38-year-old Professor Johnson as well as I do, I expect that my future self will appreciate this mile marker, and will no doubt need it in his darker moments. For dark moments are on their way as they have always been for those with dark skin in this peculiar country of ours. But I will endure, I will struggle, as We always have...provided I still have my body.

Excerpt 1:

Response 1:

I love this notion of "new...people who...believe that they are white." This harkens directly back to Baldwin's 1984 Essay "On Being White...And Other Lies" and eloquently confronts the illusion of race. Race is not a biological reality. There exists no genetic sequence possessed by one race that is not possessed by another. Further, there is an order-of-magnitude greater variation among the genetic makeup of people belonging to one racial group as there is from one racial group to another, no matter how one wishes to define "racial group" (Leeuwin 1976, Barbujani & Colonna 2011). In short, race is make-believe of the highest order, otherwise known as a social construct. 

But in saying this, it is important to acknowledge both the authors and motivation for this construction. Race was invented by a distinct group of people, for distinct aims. These people called themselves "white," and they did so in order to acquire wealth, land and power. If it were possible to remove oneself from the construct of race, it would be difficult not to shake one's head in wonder and awe at how well these people who call themselves white have succeeded in their aims. Indeed, they built the most powerful nation in the world on this simple yet powerful concept.

All business ventures require investment capital, and even once profits are earned, a portion must be reinvested to maintain the enterprise, and wages paid to workers typically represent the largest expense. The clever invention of race allowed those who call themselves white to sidestep these inconvenient overheads by dividing humans by "hue and hair" and dehumanize those with the darker of these attributes. The operative word here is "dehumanize." Do not believe the myth of the benevolent slave holder. No human who owns another human, and their children, and their children's children (i.e. the unique American institution of chattel slavery) can be called benevolent. Slavery was a business enterprise with profit the primary concern. As bluntly put by Baptiste in The Half That Has Never Been Told, "Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity." (See this excerpt at

This arrangement gave birth to racism. Without the made-up notion of race, there cannot exist racism or race-based slavery. This is not to say that slavery didn't previously exist in human history. But what sets the American brand of slavery apart is its racial foundation. Egyptians and Romans had no concept of race. Not that they couldn't have made use of it, but they didn't invent it before America did. Race is an American invention. The same holds for chattel slavery, by which slaves and their offspring are owned like cattle and horses. Slaves of past societies were usually considered the spoils of war or subjects of societal punishment and they were allowed to retain their names and their children were generally not born into slavery. In other words, they were considered humans. Slaves in America were not considered humans on the basis of their "lower" race. As such were beaten if they did not respond to the names given to them by their masters, and their children were the property of their masters, to be sold at a whim and thereby stripped from their mother's hands. How's that for benevolence?

I saw this horrifying engraving from 1862 reposted in American Slavery, American Freedom, and I will be haunted until the day I die. Imagine what it was like to witness this scene and then laboriously engrave it onto a piece of wood. How did the engravers live with themselves after these sorts of tasks? How did white people live with themselves? Is it any wonder that they seek to downplay the horrors of slavery to this day?

A baby torn from its mother's arms by slave traders. (1862) Source: Slavery in South Carolina
and the ex-slaves; or, The Port Royal Mission. By Austa Malinda
Thus, race was invented to justify the institution of chattel slavery, which was then used as the engine to build a new nation on the stolen, destroyed bodies of Black people. As Coates points out, "At the outset of the Civil War our bodies were worth

But if nothing else, American slavery is special because it's our history. We are not Romans nor Egyptians. We are Americans, and slavery is central to our story. The facts described by Coates are our nation's historical facts. It is therefore not hyperbole when Coates writes, "In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage." As it was in the fields of Charles Ball in Congaree, SC in the early 19th century, so too was it for Rekia Boyd in 21st centry Chicago, IL.

These facts seem to be of importance, at least in my view. But sadly, they are not considered so in the opinion of our school boards, which reflect the will of the general citizenry, the majority of whom are white. These facts are not widely known in our country, and for good reason: they do not paint a flattering picture of our so-called "Puritan work ethic." There is nothing pure nor ethical about the exploitation and destruction of tens of millions of bodies during the two and a half centuries of U.S. slavery. If this had happened in central Europe in the 1930's and 1940's, we'd be able to name it clearly and understand its historical consequences clearly.

I've heard it said that those who do not recall history are doomed to repeat it. At this point in my life, I don't understand the pejorative in this sentiment, at least when white people utter it. Forgetting history is another key aspect of American heritage. Those who forget history have the luxury of repeating it again and again under the guise of American Exceptionalism, with great profit in the immediate future. Of course, America's exceptional nature is not in the good it does. Far from it. I don't think I stand alone as an American capable of recognizing the evil our country has wrought in this world. It can be seen from Baghdad and our war of choice there to "Canfield neighborhood of Ferguson, Mo., where [Michael Brown's] bullet-riddled body lay for four and a half hour...[on] August 9, 2014" (Cooper 2015).

Many white people would like to see things change. The so-called progressives sense that something is very wrong. Hell, even the Tea Partiers know that all is not well in this country, even if they can't see it as clearly as they could. And herein lies the tragedy of the new people's desperate belief in their whiteness. They do not know their real history, and as a result, cannot find solutions. As Baldwin put it "To accept one's past—one's history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a drought."


Boris Yeltsin said…
One more comment John:

I fundamentally agree with your arguments, but I think they could be so much stronger if you understood more about how post-slavery America failed black people.

Please read about Reconstruction. It is the least understood aspect of US History, and explains the America we live in today, i.e. Civil War revisionism, Jim Crow laws, the KKK, monuments to the Confederacy, why black people migrated the North, and why America has still not achieved racial justice.

Begin with Eric Foner:

He also has a course online.

We have poor black communities not because of the horrors of slavery, but fundamentally as a result of government policy and white racism. This is the history no one talks about, not slavery. Understanding the horrors of slavery will do little to nothing in understanding why Ferguson (or Brownsville or Watts or Compton or Newark) exist today.
John Johnson said…
Thanks for your input, my Russian friend :) However, I find it curious that you assume A) That I'm not familiar with post-Reconstruction America, the Great Migration, Jim Crow, and the racist jousting policies that have created our current conditions despite having posted my reading lists in numerous past posts, and B) even though I identified my primary audience as someone other than someone like you or whomever you suppose it to be, that you think that my arguments could be "strengthened" by your specific recommendations. Strengthened in what way, for whom and to what end?

Further, I strongly disagree that slavery is properly taught in our schools, generally, and that slavery does not strongly affect our current conditions in this country. The origin of race and racism is directly traceable to America's peculiar institution, and the slaveholders who wrote our founding documents. Being the educator/historian you project in your comment, I'm sure you're familiar with DeGruy's Post Traumatic Slave Disorder and similar research/writing

Further, as I very clearly stated, my post was a response to Ta-Nahisi Coates' writing in general, and the specific highlighted portion of his new book. Did you miss this?

I don't mean to discourage you from giving feedback, but since your audience is me, as the author, you need check yourself and your assumptions about me, son. Stay tuned as I comment on other passages from Coates' book.
Boris Yeltsin said…
Dear Comrade Johnson:

A) I misspoke, I apologise. I meant to type "if you emphasized the least understood aspect of US history".

I don't know whether you've read Foner. It was on your "to-read list" previously. Most haven't.

B) I am making a political argument. Unfortunately, I think white people are far too aware of slavery. Consider the infamous Kennedy-Baldwin meeting of 1963, from wikipedia:

"Kennedy said that his family, immigrants from Ireland, suffered discrimination upon arriving in America but now had achieved the presidency. He told the group that the US might have a black president in 40 years. Baldwin observed that his family had been in the country far longer than Kennedy's yet had barely been permitted to climb out of poverty."

White people don't get it. "Yes", they say, "slavery was bad. Really bad! But, that was 150 years ago! Why are you still complaining?" Thus for decades publications like the New Republic wrote article upon article about how black people needed to improve, to pull themselves up from their bootstraps, to improve their culture, etc. If that wasn't possible, the "Bell Curve" provided an explanation for why black poverty existed.

The majority of Americans would (at least in the abstract) agree that slavery was terrible. True, I agree with you Comrade, we must teach how horrific slavery was.

But the majority of white majority (and all Americans) have no idea how it was government action and inaction that caused black suffering today, from poverty to overpolicing to lack of socioeconomic opportunity. I want to see that change. As a fellow traveller in the cause, I feel we must emphasize this history. This begins with Reconstruction, and how white people distorted this history to uphold Jim Crow and white supremacy. Obviously slavery affects every aspect of the US today---but things could have been different after 1865. There is a reason this period is (conveniently) the least understand aspect of US history.

I think teaching slavery is important. But the horrors of America's peculiar institution does not convince white people why wealthy inequality along racial lines still exist today. How government policies and laws caused this mess? This is the ignorance which cripples us today. Solutions exist for this. There are lessons from this history for today. This is how we fight the status quo, comrade.

PS: You're primary audience was not me? Why?

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