In 1965, James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. participated in a public debate at Cambridge University. Under discussion was the question of whether “the American Dream has been achieved at the expense of the American Negro.” What became clear during the debate is that Baldwin and Buckley largely agreed upon the facts about the status of blacks in America. Both parties agreed that black people had achieved some modest social and material advances since Reconstruction, but that, despite these gains, they were still subject to institutionalized discrimination, segregation and both officially sanctioned and vigilante forms of white terror.
What the two men were really debating was the significance of these facts. Did they suggest that the very promise embodied by the Dream was premised upon the exploitation of black lives, black labor and black bodies? For Baldwin, but not for Buckley, the answer was yes.
A cursory glance at contemporary discussions of race in America shows that the debate is far from settled. Baldwin and Buckley both have their modern proponents. In many ways, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s painful and deeply truthful Between the World and Me is an extended articulation and update of Baldwin’s conviction that the domination of blacks is endemic to the American Dream, that “the Dream” sustains itself insofar as it rests “on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies,” as Coates writes. Written as a letter to his 14-year-old son, Samori, Coates’s text is a rich analysis of the mechanisms that ensure that the Dream fulfills its principal function: to elevate the Dreamers—“those who believe themselves white”—over black bodies in a way that masks this domination from the Dreamers themselves but renders it all too obvious to those in “the struggle.”
Between the World and Me is written from the perspective of one possible “black identity,” the perspective of one particular black, male, heterosexual atheist. The narrative spans Coates’s upbringing in one of the most impoverished and violent neighborhoods of Baltimore, his becoming “conscious” at “The Mecca” of Howard University and, finally, his ongoing attempt to articulate the depth of his fears and hopes for Samori, born into a relatively privileged existence, in which he need not fear the violence of the drug corner but the police officer, the white crowd and the skittish gun-toting citizen: “There is no real distance between you and Trayvon Martin, and thus Trayvon Martin must terrify you in a way he could never terrify me.”
Despite their different “worlds,” Coates insists that he, Samori and all black people are engaged in “the beautiful struggle” (the title of Coates’s 2008 autobiography). Yet despite whatever aesthetic beauty the struggle offers, it comes at a high cost. What those in the struggle know is that black people in the United States are and always have been threatened with “the loss of their bodies.” From the horrors of chattel slavery (“the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children”) to the “plunder” of black life, liberty and capital embodied in urban redlining and “the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects,” those in the struggle know that the Dream is not for them.
They are the surplus that the Dream cannot help but plunder, and the very norms of the Dream even demand this plunder. As Coates puts it in one of the book’s most devastating lines, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Coates’s notion of “violence” is fundamentally a visceral, materialistic one. Whatever more metaphorical forms of “violence” circulate within the ideological economy of the Dream must ultimately be meted out within the brute economy of flesh, blood and bone. The social debts incurred by anti-black racism, for instance, must be paid for by black people at the level of “visceral experience,” which “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”
This is a powerful and grounding social vision. While more “academic” approaches to racism can quickly allow their theories to lose touch with the details of the everyday lives that those theories are ultimately about, Coates insists that racism always comes to collect its debt of flesh and blood—in Michael Brown’s shooting, Eric Garner’s strangling, the murder of poor, young black men by other poor, young black men, the rape of black prisoners or the grief of mothers, sisters and wives. The Dream maintains itself through obscuring the violence upon which its existence depends, ushers it into urban ghettos and sinking schools, all while stridently maintaining its innocence, absolving itself from responsibility for the violence that it simultaneously feeds upon and propagates.
Coates is adamant that the problems engendered by the Dream cannot be addressed by appeal to religion—“I rejected magic in all its forms.” “I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible…and the soul did not escape. The spirit did not fly away on gospel wings.” Despite this unsentimental atheism, Coates betrays a grand, almost Wagnerian fascination with “the struggle” against everything that makes the Dream possible, even when the pervasiveness of the Dream makes hope impossible.
One cannot help but be reminded of the very Catholic precept that suffering itself is redemptive, when Coates claims that “the struggle, in and of itself, has meaning.” He assures his son that “your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe themselves white divides them from it.” For Coates, this vulnerability is something that black people must cherish. In contrast to the Dreamers, whose “name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power,” the struggle breeds “a kind of understanding that illuminates the Galaxy in all its truest colors” among the strugglers. Even the contentless Dreamers know it and are envious of it—after all, even for them, “it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying.”
There are moments when Coates’s treatment of the nature of racism is not fully satisfying. For instance, he speaks of racism not as a moral problem born of human failings, but as a necessary law of a properly functioning natural order:
My mother knew that the galaxy itself could kill me…and no one would be brought to account for this destruction because my death would not be the fault of any human, but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race” imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of [Howard classmate] Prince Jones back to his work [as a police officer] because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.
In these cases, it is unclear whether Coates is describing a particular black first-person perspective on what racism feels like or whether, objectively, racism really is a permanent force of nature, as impossible to resist as a tornado, hurricane or other natural disaster. If we ought to understand him in the former sense, we ought to accept Coates’s claims at face value—surely, if racism seems like a crushingly inevitable force to Coates, other African-Americans and non-black people of color, then no one, especially if he or she is white, has any business saying that it does not. But if we understand this claim as an analysis of what anti-black racism actually is, Coates might very well be wrong about the supposedly inevitable nature of racism (several black activist traditions would argue that he is).
Moreover, if Coates is wrong about this, the falsity of the claim is not of merely academic interest. If racism isn’t just evil, but evil and inevitable, one might think that resistance (“the struggle”) has merely aesthetic value at best, in the same way Ahab’s mythic tangle with the White Whale is beautiful, powerful and devastating but ultimately doomed. But shouldn’t the struggle change the world? Shouldn’t it discredit the Dream? Coates’s own book is itself a powerful activist stand, but if he is claiming that racism is one of “our world’s physical laws,” anti-racists might be better served doing as he does, not as he preaches.
Nevertheless, it would be a shame to let these discrepancies obscure the importance and value of Between the World and Me. Fifty years after Baldwin and Buckley’s meeting at Cambridge, there is still a tendency in the national media to speak of racism as a specter of the past, as something that has a few kinks to be worked out, but is largely solved. Even when an average news week is filled with high-profile cases of police brutality against blacks and public bigotry against black protesters in disadvantaged, urban communities or on college campuses, we are frequently advised to treat these as unfortunate abnormalities, as exceptions rather than the rule. This is deeply misleading; even when it is not obvious, racism (and more particularly, anti-blackness) lives in the very cracks and fissures of our social structure, and it always has. Books like Between the World and Me pry at these fissures and confront us with a troubling but important truth: All of us keep dreaming at our peril.