Between the World and Me has been received with great fanfare. It won the National Book Award in nonfiction for 2015, and its author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, was recently awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Our liberal establishment is aflutter, hailing Coates as his generation’s spokesman for racial justice, a courageous voice speaking truth to power. He’s today’s James Baldwin, and Between the World and Me is The Fire Next Time for the twenty-first century.
I began Between the World and Me with those thoughts in mind, but finished with a very different assessment. Ta-Nehisi Coates has a lot more in common with Allen Tate than James Baldwin. Like I’ll Take My Stand, the manifesto Tate and his friends wrote to defend white Southern culture against absorption into the soulless materialism of Northern prosperity, Between the World and Me should be read as a nostalgic hymn to the writer’s culture—black America’s solidarity in fear and wisdom in suffering. It’s also a defense of that culture against the seductions of middle-class success.
Coates certainly condemns racial injustice. On many occasions he recounts the names of young black men killed by police. He often states that the oppression of black people, or in his terms, “black bodies,” is woven into the fabric of America. Civilization is “secured and ruled by savage means.” The United States is “authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility.” The American dream requires the destruction of black bodies. America “was built on looting and plunder.”
It is a mistake to read these and other sharply worded judgments as social commentary, however. Between the World and Me does not take the form of a treatise or manifesto addressed to white Americans. It’s an extended letter to Coates’s son, Samori, named after Samori Touré, the nineteenth-century West African military commander who resisted French colonialism. Coates wants to pass along to Samori the black self-consciousness he cherishes. The indictments of America (of which there are many) get aired again and again because they are an integral part of his distinctive Afrocentric mythology, just as in Tate’s generation, a certain mythology about Northern aggression was part of a white Southerner’s heritage.
Like Tate and his friends, Coates has a long lineage on this continent. He is descended from ancestors who were brought to North America well before all the hyphenated Americans came in the many waves of immigration during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His father was a Black Panther, making Coates something of a Black Power aristocrat, heir to “authentic” black identity that has not “sold out” to the false promises of integration. He grew up in Baltimore, a still segregated city, and then attended Howard University, the storied, historically black university in Washington, D.C.
Given this background, in an important sense, Coates is a self-consciously traditional black man of his generation, deeply proud of his family and fiercely loyal to his father’s Afrocentric tradition. He writes of being “haunted by the shadow of my father’s generation.” Malcolm X presides over his life in the way Robert E. Lee did for generations of Southerners, a symbol of dignified resistance and a refusal to allow defeat and subjugation to have the final word.
The emotional center of the book is a loving remembrance of Coates’s years at Howard, which he reprises in the final sections. His father worked there, and many of his cousins attended. It’s his family’s place—his place. It was in “the Yard” that Coates, the young man from gritty Baltimore, found the wider black world in its global fullness. He recalls his induction into important debates about black identity: “Hurston battled Hughes, Du Bois warred with Garvey, Harold Cruse fought everyone.” He found adulthood at Howard, and love, and ultimately the terrible pain of loss. “My only Mecca was, is, and always shall be Howard University.”
Yet Coates is aware of the fragility of his heritage. He’s an increasingly successful writer. His wife’s cosmopolitan outlook took their family to New York, and then to Paris, where he now lives. He admits to his son, “I have no desire to make you ‘tough’ or ‘street.’” He wants him to be more trusting of others, to have a broader experience of life. These are a loving father’s normal hopes. But in these new circumstances, will he be able to transmit “authentic” black identity to his son? Will his ghetto-hardened sensibility, his Black Power and Afrocentric commitments, have relevance for his son? How can Howard University be the one and only Mecca for Samori Coates?
Coates never articulates these questions, but they aren’t far from the surface. He recalls going to a playground with his son. He and his wife had recently moved to Brooklyn. Samori, just a small child, rushed to play with the other kids: black, brown, yellow, and every other hue in the racial mixture of New York. Coates is honest enough to report his misgivings. He wanted to pull his son back to protect him. Against what? Danger, perhaps, but also—and Coates can’t quite say this out loud—absorption into a multicultural world where being black isn’t so special anymore.
To some extent, that world is already here. Nearly 15 percent of the people residing in the United States were not born here. Add the relative youth and fertility of immigrants, as well as rising rates of intermarriage, and we get an emerging social reality as threatening to the black heritage cherished by Ta-Nehisi Coates as to the culture dear to the Daughters of the Confederacy: One out of every four children born today has one parent not born in America.
In one passage, Coates reminds his son of their visits to Civil War battlefields. He fumes as the tour guides speak only about military tactics and not slavery. He digresses in order to skewer “Faulkner’s Southern boys” who live as though they might somehow refight lost battles and emerge victorious. Don’t they see the “corrupt and unspeakable core” of their nostalgia for the Old South? I can understand the frustration and anger. Yet a more sober look at American society suggests a larger reality. Kids who make the school trip to Gettysburg in 2025 may take an interest in the Civil War, but it won’t be a living reality for them, as it was for Faulkner’s “Southern boys”—as it is for Coates.
Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates writes as if our entire national consciousness revolves around the oppression of black Americans. That may be true for blacks and whites of a certain generation, but it’s not true for Hasidic Jews in Rockland County outside of New York; recent Chinese immigrants in Flushing, Queens; or illegal Central American migrants in Tucson, Arizona. Our society is changing. The same trends that stir up anti-immigrant anxieties among white Americans also displace the descendants of slaves from their central role in our cultural politics. A great deal of America’s political future depends on Hispanic voters, people entirely invisible in Coates’s black and white world.
These pressures and others threatening to dissolve Coates’s traditional black American identity explain the sweeping pronouncements about race in Between the World and Me. They are not meant to diagnose social reality. They serve to reinforce his Afrocentric heritage. Again, I’m reminded of Tate and his friends. They wanted to preserve a Southern heritage: amiable manners, codes of honor, loyalty to the land, and the capacity for a supernatural faith. As part of this effort, they often demonized “the North”—the cold, soulless, mercantile realm that threatens all that is humane and decent.
Tate wrote, “The South to this day finds its most perfect contrast in the North.” The best of Southern culture was “strangled in the cradle,” first by King Cotton’s money-making, then by Union armies, and now, in the era in which Tate wrote, by a new Northern invasion of mass culture, soulless industrialism, and the corrupting “cash nexus.” “My hatred of the Yankees,” he wrote to a friend, “is only personal in the most extreme sense—that is, I hate the force that destroyed the background of my family and ultimately set me adrift in the world.”
And I think of Lost Cause Southerners. For them, devastating defeat became the paradoxical center of cultural self-affirmation. Listen to The Band’s song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It’s a lament sung as an anthem. Defeat, suffering, and injustices steel resolve and renew loyalty.
Coates uses the same techniques. In 2016, the Black Power heritage that Coates inherited from his father makes less and less sense, just as Tate’s idealized “South” offered little in the way of guidance to him or his generation. The threads of tradition come unraveled for everybody, including men like Coates raised in the ghettos of Baltimore. Afrocentric pieties certainly offer no answers to the three hundred murders in Baltimore last year, nearly all of which involved young black men killing young black men. They’re irrelevant to the black parent whose daughter marries a medical student from India, or whose son was killed by an IED in Iraq. To fend off this irrelevance and reknit the threads for his son, Coates encircles everything with an all-encompassing, all-explaining racism.
As the book draws to a close, Coates intensifies his exhortations. “The Dream of acting white, of talking white, of being white” is deadly. “Do not accept the lie. Do not drink the poison.” Don’t be deceived by appeals to forgiveness and Christian charity. Don’t believe in the possibility of change. Don’t believe you can escape your history. As Coates says at one juncture, the central truth of black identity is “the actual injury done.” Thus, to sustain black identity, one must live and relive the injury. To be authentically black requires a kind of negative faith, one that believes in the ongoing, perpetual, eternal injury of racism.
hich is why Between the World and Me is, finally, an extended effort to keep the wounds of racism open. Coates is not glad for the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner or the other black men killed in recent years. But he cherishes their martyrdom. They preside over Between the World and Me as angels of solidarity. They guide his son toward feelings of vulnerability that join him in solidarity with his father and his Black Panther grandfather, uniting all “black bodies,” a formulation Coates uses throughout. Their deaths play the same role for Coates that “the War of Yankee Aggression” played for generations of Southerners, which was to reinforce their solidarity as victims.
It is ironic that Coates derides Faulkner for his fictional depictions of white Southerners who live as though Civil War battles are contemporary events. For Coates also lives in the past. His rhetoric of remembrance is very strong. It is as if the Middle Passage happened only yesterday, if not this morning. Perhaps this is the condition of any vital heritage. Faulkner himself wrote, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” Coates wants that to be true for his son. “Remember that you and I are brothers, are the children of the trans-Atlantic rape.” Never forget. Never forget. As Coates repeats this refrain again, I could hear in my mind the words of that other tenacious, desperate American effort to resurrect the past: “The South will rise again!”
I first read Allen Tate and other early twentieth-century defenders of the South more than thirty years ago. Although there’s little about the South that I wished to make my own, I was moved by their love of their culture, place, and history. They taught me the nobility of that kind of love: not the bragging, blustering, we’re-the-best mentality, but a quiet, sincere, and lasting loyalty to where one is from. And I was moved by their spirit of resistance, their stubborn defense of their Southern heritage, however flawed it might be, against the encroachments of the arrogant, rich, and self-righteous North, against the lure of wealth, and against the numbing sameness of mass culture.
I feel the same way about Between the World and Me. It’s written with a strong, determined spirit of resistance to the dissolving forces at work in the twenty-first century. As a fellow American, I share his skepticism about our dominant American mentality. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in a spirit not so dissimilar from Coates’s, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” And I admire his loyalty to where he’s from and who he is. It’s a noble thing to give your children a thick identity rather than leaving them naked before the careless powers of advertising and mass media, and the therapeutic mindlessness of our educational system.
I’m afraid, however, that Coates may end up a preservationist, a rhetorical reenactor of sorts, and thus just another figure in America’s heritage industry. He seems nostalgic not just for Howard and the fullness of the black experience, but also for the once sharp distinctions between black and white that were enforced by an overt racism. Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates puts Prince George’s County, the suburban mecca for Washington’s black middle class, on the other side of his racial divide. The black people living there have betrayed their heritage. They’re among the “Americans who believe that they are white.” It seems Coates must police the boundaries of authentic black identity, because Jim Crow no longer obliges. This policing indicates that Coates’s outlook has become artificial rather than living, conjured rather than real.
Tate came to recognize that he and his friends had made an idol of the South. It was an imagined heritage, at least in part, rather than a living one. And the North wasn’t a reliable enemy, for like all human realities, it too had virtues as well as vices. But the Southern Agrarians weren’t wrong about the modern world and its drive toward rootlessness. Tate came to see that he needed a solid place to stand and resist. In his later years, he turned to Catholicism, a community far older than the Old South, and yet one that lives anew in each age, based on a soul-surrendering affirmation of God’s love in Christ.
Coates is forthright about his rejection of Christianity. A man is entitled to his unbelief, but I fear it makes him vulnerable to the temptation of idol making. The saddest moments of Between the World and Me are when he swings incense before the altar of injury, insisting that plunder and domination are the high gods of human history.
hile I respect Ta-Nehisi Coates for his desire to pass on his family’s legacy to his son, I have contempt for the white elites who have heaped praise on Between the World and Me. They are what Langston Hughes called the “overearnest uplifters,” reassured by the familiar script of black rage. The machinery of “inclusion” gets into gear. The awards, grants, generous speaking fees, and other perquisites allow our white-dominated liberal establishment to coopt anyone who threatens its carefully managed monopoly on multicultural moralism.
Contrary to what many conservatives think, this behavior is not motivated today by white guilt or elite self-hatred. White liberals have an important investment in racism. They consistently position themselves as indispensable (and morally superior) promoters and protectors of “diversity.” Charges of racism buttress them in this position rather than threatening them, which is why white college and university presidents have welcomed and affirmed, rather than resisted and denied, the recent round of student protests charging their institutions with an ongoing racism. America needs a perpetual crisis of exclusion to sustain the moral mission of “inclusion.”
This is not to say that racism isn’t real in some quarters. It’s only to remind us that the rhetoric of racism has an important role in contemporary liberal culture. I doubt there’s a single elite prep school in America—nearly all of which are overwhelmingly white and dominated by liberal teachers and administrators—that wouldn’t eagerly welcome a black speaker whose primary message is that American society remains fundamentally racist. It allows for a therapeutic mea culpa, yes, but it also trains young, elite whites in their roles as “agents of inclusion” and managers of “diversity.”
There’s a further benefit as well. It allows the liberal establishment to denounce any white challengers to its moral right to rule—and conservative whites remain its only serious challengers in contemporary American cultural politics—as racists. Not a month goes by without an article diagnosing grass-roots conservative voters as motivated by racial animus or some other moral pathology.
I’ll be interested to see how Coates’s career unfolds. I would not be at all surprised if Coates winds up at Yale, hired and celebrated as part of Yale President Peter Salovey’s $50 million pledge to do better in making Yale more “welcoming to diversity.” Allen Tate ended up at Princeton, and then the University of Minnesota, hardly a sign of Southern loyalty, which is perhaps why he rethought the basis for his intellectual life and moral loyalties. Should Coates end up at Yale, I wonder if the same will be true for him. I hope so. At the very least, “keeping it real” means coming to grips with reality.
Gaudium et Spes
ast month I traveled to St. John the Beloved Church in McLean, Virginia, to make a presentation on Gaudium et Spes. It’s the final document of the Second Vatican Council and something unprecedented in conciliar history: a pastoral constitution designed to make good on John XXIII’s call for a “pastoral council.” Long thought to be one of the foundational statements of “progressive” Catholicism, as I reread Gaudium et Spes and thought about its role in the years after the council, I came to the conclusion that it is best understood as an effort to turn back the clock and restore the Catholic Church to her former role as the conscience of Europe.
This is not to say that Gaudium et Spes was “conservative.” It put an exclamation mark on the council’s rejection of Catholicism’s long-term policy of stiff-arming modern Western culture. Instead of condemnation—Gaudium et Spes omitted even a condemnation of communism—the document’s watchword is “dialogue,” a term introduced earlier in the council by Paul VI.
Gaudium et Spes also ushered in an important change in how the Church reflected on social issues. Previously, papal encyclicals outlined fundamental principles and then applied them to pressing social realities. An early draft of the pastoral constitution had that structure, and to some extent it’s preserved in the final version, which has a first part that spells out pastoral principles, and then a second part that addresses specific social challenges. But Gaudium et Spes underlined the need to read “the signs of the times,” a formulation brought to the fore by John XXIII when he called the council. This notion encourages an inductive approach, one that “reads” first principles out of our particular historical moment.
Gaudium et Spes inspired many, but few thought it entirely satisfactory. That’s because there’s a tension that runs throughout. On the one hand, the document states that “nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo” in the hearts of the faithful. The Church is in solidarity with the world. This affirmation gives warrant to the inductive approach. One need not begin with the Church’s doctrines and traditions to arrive at genuinely Catholic conclusions. In solidarity with the world, one can draw theological meaning out of contemporary experience. On the other hand, something of the older insistence on the Church’s privileged status remains: “Only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” The Church is an expert in humanity, as John Paul II would put it. So the Church does not so much learn from its new “dialogue” with the world as teach anew the truth of Christ.
At a key juncture, Gaudium et Spes fudges the question of which takes priority: “The People of God and the human race in whose midst it lives render service to each other.” Over the course of the document, however, the first emphasis predominates. Modernity’s conceit about itself is uncritically affirmed: We are at a “new stage” in history. Some new possibilities are dark, of course. The bishops at the council were not naive about the modern world. But others are full of promise, and the Church must be docile in its dialogue with the world, learning new truths about freedom and human dignity.
This docility to the world is especially clear in the latter sections. At one point, the document speaks of the “development of culture” and the “right” of people to have a culture of their own. The context here is decolonization and the growing European awareness of the harms done by imperialism. At the same time, however, we see the modern Western conviction that we are “authors and artisans of culture,” a role we in the West now wish benevolently to extend to peoples throughout the world. The upshot is an incipient multiculturalism, a hall of mirrors in which what seem like principled arguments quickly become culturally relative. I don’t think the conciliar fathers intended that at all, but such are the dangers of basing social teaching on the signs of the times.
The Church’s docility to the world is even more evident in the way in which Gaudium et Spes addresses economic development and justice. The governing concepts are “rights” and “equality,” both distinctively modern in origin. Sidelined are the principles one finds in the modern tradition of Catholic social doctrine inaugurated by Leo XIII: solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good.
bring up these examples not to discredit Gaudium et Spes. It was undoubtedly a needed document in its time. But looking back, we can see in it the limitations of pastoral teaching based on the signs of the times. It’s understandable that the bishops gathered at Vatican II would be pulled in this direction. The council was dominated by European church leaders. In the two decades after World War II, Catholic politicians, intellectuals, and ideas had played an important role in the moral and political reconstruction of Western Europe. It’s understandable, therefore, that these bishops would seek to reclaim the Church’s central role in Europe’s spiritual and cultural destiny, which meant standing with (and within) the modern project.
Understandable in 1965, perhaps even desirable in the moment, but the restorationist project of Gaudium et Spes cannot but seem a fool’s errand today. The council fathers could not foresee that human-rights doctrine would be redefined in such a way as to condemn the Catholic Church. They did not anticipate the sexual revolution, which turned the Church into an enemy of a new and now ascendant view of human flourishing as liberation from all norms. And they were mistaken about the secular West. It did not turn out to be interested in “honest dialogue” with the Church. It preferred to ignore her instead.
It’s been fifty years since Vatican II. There are documents from the council that will continue to have decisive influence as the Church continues to work out their implications. One thinks of Dignitatis Humanae, the decree on religious liberty, and Nostra Aetate, the decree that fundamentally altered the terms of the Church’s engagement with Judaism. There are also the luminous documents on the Church and revelation. They will be read fifty years from now. Gaudium et Spes? The pastoral principles are enduring, but much of the document is already dated. I doubt it will be read in fifty years’ time, except by historians curious about the enthusiasms of mid-twentieth-century Catholicism.