Existential America in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me


Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me has been rightly celebrated as a profound and thoughtful meditation on the problem of race* in America—a concept that, thankfully, Coates asterisks, with his frequent locutions of “those who believe themselves to be white,” instead of the ordinary, brain-dead parlance of “whites” and “blacks” and “race relations” that historian Barbara Fields has spent her entire career trying to debunk. It crackles with the intensity of a father talking to his son about matters of literal life and death. Coates marshals his own biography and a deep understanding of history to impart some kind of wisdom—anything, even, will do, as you sense the father’s desperation in the prose—to a child who, no matter what his family’s income or his parents’ education or privilege, could easily not come home any time he walks out the door. It is a sobering and instructive work, especially for those who have not lived with what Coates calls “the fear”—the opposite number (and conjoined twin of) “the Dream” that white America can enjoy in its untroubled naiveté of picket fences, credit scores, and big-wheel-strewn cul-de-sacs.

I’ll admit that the issues Coates discusses were not always readily apparent to me. Years of grad school let me know about redlining and restrictive covenants and mass incarceration, but all those were fairly abstract compared to the dead body of Mike Brown, rotting in the street for hours after he was murdered. In the early days of my own political awareness, names such as Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima bespoke grotesque injustice, but in the past decade evidence that once seemed like a leaky faucet became a flash flood. Drip, drip, drip. A killing of an unarmed black man in New York? It’s at least possible that someone made a mistake in a high-pressure situation. The torture of a suspect in custody? Maybe there are some bad eggs on the police force, who should be dealt with appropriately. Even liberal activists could find themselves thinking of issues of police brutality and racial profiling in a haphazard, anecdotal way—knowing the problems are “out there” somewhere in the abstract, but not fully coming to grips with what it means in a physical, corporeal, and—for many of our fellow citizens—altogether inescapable sense.

Renisha, Trayvon, Tamir, Mike, Eric—the names go on and on. The time for accidents and mistakes is long since past, if that conceit ever made any sense in the first place. So Between the World and Me came at the right time, when a centuries-old pattern of racist violence was finally beginning to intrude into the consciousness of non-black America. (On this score, I can’t hype enough Danielle McGuire’s book At the Dark End of the Street, which explores the centrality of campaigns against sexual violence to the early civil rights movement.) One thing that Coates makes clear is the physical experience of fear—that one’s body is subject to extermination at the drop of a hat, in a (supposedly) random police stop or even in line for a movie on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Though I find Coates’s habit of describing people as “bodies” a bit heavy-handed as a literary or intellectual choice—discussing people as if they’re just stuff seems to accept and recapitulate the dehumanizing force of a system that once trafficked in people as property, which remains an unfortunate academic fad—he still masterfully conveys the sensation of being in constant fear of losing control of your physical self to the police and other authorities.

Having said all this, I found much in Between the World and Me that was at least somewhat familiar. Growing up among mostly poor people in the South, I learned early on to act as hostile and aggressive as possible toward others in order to head off conflict.  If you don’t put up a good front then you’re going to get steamrolled by other, stronger people.  (This habit of mind has not served me well in adult life!) When Coates talks about the fear and anxiety that stalked him as a youth in West Baltimore, the parents who believed that a stern hand at home was the best defense against threats outside, the suspicion of authority figures that was always married with the need to behave and be proper and respectable—all of this resonated with my life.

My own experience is unique, of course, as everyone’s is. As an Arab-American I was inculcated with the idea very early on that I was marked as a potential threat—as W.E.B. DuBois so brilliantly put it, how it feels to be a problem. My grandparents and other relatives assured me that I could definitely pass for white, as Italian or Greek, for instance, like it was a compliment, or some kind of fortuitous force field to protect me. But any time anything blows up in America my Mom is on the phone, worried that implications will be bad for “us.” I know what it’s like to be profile—to not be able to take a photograph in a public place without being hassled as security guards, or to be detained in an airport because I look a little suspicious and travel to Pakistan too much, facing questions about my level of military training and knowledge of Arabic. (My level of military training, I assured the Department of Homeland Security, is hilarious.)

To be clear, this experience of being Arab or Muslim or brown or just bearded and kinky-haired in America does not in any way approach the disadvantage that Ta-Nehisi Coates’s son has to contend with any time he gets behind the wheel or goes to buy a Sun-Drop and Skittles. I don’t mean to make a false equivalence or diminish the genuine terror that must comes with raising a black boy or girl in this country—of having to have “the talk” that white parents never think about. But I did see much in Coates’s account that reflected back to me. The opening of his own world mirrored my own—leaving what was really a small, provincial, limited world to see the possibilities of higher education and international travel, getting a passport and realizing that places like Paris aren’t just elusive, abstract, unapproachable ideas. Surely many working-class Americans, black, white, and brown, have seen the world unfurl in front of them in much the same way, greeting it with the same disbelieving and even skeptical stare that Coates once did.

The author’s own lack of faith or even hope for a God makes all this more poignant. If others nourish themselves on necessary fantasies of afterlives and ultimate justice, Coates isn’t having any of it—indeed, can’t have any of it. One senses that he wishes he could. The kind of upward struggle and success that has made his life possible, and perhaps allows his son to have a less damaged, more optimistic trajectory—the author can’t escape the thought that all of it’s a soap bubble, easily burst and extinguished without a thought. In that regard, Between the World and Me may be the finest treatise on existentialism in our still-young century.

– Alex Sayf Cummings

According the Ta-Nehisi Coates, he never studied Camus and one can draw from that statement that he never really engaged existentialism and its various components. However, when one looks at African American literature in the twentieth century, one detects a strain of Dostoevsky in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Richard Wright’s Native Son. The main character in Ellison’s work goes unnamed throughout the novel, and when we first meet him, he resides in a secret subterranean apartment, drawing free electricity from the local municipality, talking much like Dostoevsky’s protagonist from Notes from Underground. Likewise, Wright’s Bigger Thomas exists as a product of his time and the racist structure that governed the lives of Chicago’s black community. Whatever one thought of Thomas, a fearsome character that Wright conjured up in a moment of true bravery, he represented the sum total of society in which he lived. Wright’s insights into the psychology of Thomas felt Dostoevskian, arguably a more understandable Rasklnikov from Crime and Punishment.

What does this have to do with Coates? Reading Coates’s soon to be classic Between the World and Me reveals a writer who expressed little faith in a higher power but displays the stubborn resiliency of latter-day existential characters like Mersault from Camus’s The Stranger: one must live for something regardless of the ultimate futility of it all.  In fact, the book’s title is taken from a Richard Wright poem of the same name.

“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have and you come to us endangered,” he laments to his son. “I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is the philosophy of the disembodied of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.”[1] On one hand, his observation reminds readers of enslaved mothers who on occasion killed their sons and daughters rather than subject them to the horrors or slavery and on the other, those African Americans that persisted and built families despite the rapes, torture, and terrorism of slavery and the Jim Crow America that followed. “They made us into a race,” he writes later in the book. “We made ourselves a people.”[2]

As one moves through the book, Coates provides a laundry list of Black America’s contributions to United States culture from, intellectuals such as Manning Marable, Eric Williams, and Sonia Sanchez to baleful crooners like Billie Holiday, joyous R & B artists like Adina Howard, and cutting rap gurus like Ghostface Killah, Mobb Deep, Ice Cube, and Nas among numerous others; all this culture and personhood in the face of structural racism. “Disembodiment is a kind of terrorism, and the threat of it alters our lives, and like terrorism, this distortion is intentional,” he argues.[3] Unsurprisingly, this purposely induced existential fear carries with it ramifications. “[T]error was communicated to our children” while parents of his son’s white counterparts conveyed boldness: “I saw mastery communicated to theirs.”[4]

I know most people have compared Coates’s to James Baldwin, and this is completely accurate, but it would also seem that the book channels existential dread and resilience simultaneously. He worries for his son, physically and emotionally, but also hopes to imbue in him a different outcome: “I wanted you to have your own life apart from fear – even apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.”[5]

Robin D.G. Kelly once wrote an influential review essay about the rise of transnational history for the Journal of American History (JAH) in which he documented how, due to, colonialism, imperialism, and racism, African American historians had embraced transnational perspectives earlier than their white counterparts because citizenship in their various nations promised little, whites had forced blacks into a sort of international solidarity and racial awareness. While fighting for citizenship within their own nations, they looked beyond national borders to establish a broader but no less legitimate sense of community. Think of W.E.B. Dubois in 1919 Paris. With WWI ended, DuBois hoped to connect the hundreds of thousands of colonized peoples who had fought in the war with their African American counterparts. The first annual Pan-African Congress in 1919 proved a small affair but by mid-century would be a incubator for black nationalism and African independence movements. In this way, black historians viewed history more transnationally—so when the field adopted this lens in the late twentieth century, African American writers had been there for decades. Again, as Coates points out: “They made us into a race. We made ourselves a people.”[6]

In a similar fashion, the sheer futility of life for black Americans in the United States forced them to struggle in the face of the political, cultural, and economic abyss. “Most of us are forced to drink our travesties straight and smile about it,” writes Coates.[7] Existentialism may not be much of a life philosophy or ideology; its practitioners were too diffuse to boil it down to one set of ideals or beliefs, but those figures like Dostoevsky and Camus understood the psychology of those persons crushed by burgeoning bureaucracies, industrialization, and militarization that marked the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Black Americans, whether engaged with such writers or not, understood these processes all too well; yet clung stubbornly to ideas of citizenship and fought for equality even when the cultural tide overwhelmingly opposed them.

Near the end of Between the World and Me, Coates recounts looking at pictures of civil rights protesters of the 1960s. “The faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. They betray almost no emotion,” he reflects. “They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe.” Coates, perhaps ulike the majority of African Americans, eschews any belief in the God of Abraham – be it Yahweh, Christ, or Allah – which in some ways furthers the existential connection as many of Existentialism’s leading lights either struggled with religion or rejected out of hand. However, Coates continues, “but, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real. Or perhaps it is not armor at all. Perhaps it is life extension, a kind of loan allowing you to take the assaults heaped upon you now and pay down the debt later.”[8] It is this unwavering effort, no matter the odds, to a larger purpose even if one knows it will fail that seems to cement the connection. Sure it’s not exactly existentialism but it’s not too far off. One must live for something in the face of nothing.

As an anti-slavery protagonist from Cloud Atlas realizes at the end of the novel, the battle will be endless and his family will suffer; the world is an ocean of water filled with hostility to his cause. “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” Coates has provided a mighty big drop.

– Ryan Reft

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (New York: Spiegel and Gray, 2015), 82.

[2] Coates, Between the World and Me, 149.

[3] Coates, Between the World and Me, 114

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me, 89.

[5] Coates, Between the World and Me, 125.

[6] Coates, Between the World and Me, 149.

[7] Coates, Between the World and Me, 83.

[8] Coates, Between the World and Me, 142.

Next Up: Adam Gallagher and Evan Thomas-Arnold share their thoughts on the book.