When I First Read Coates
At first blush, I usually find the greatest works of art to be disappointing. The more profound the writer’s message, the less prepared I will be to accept it. The artist has to share their insights in digestible fragments, teasing deeper meanings, drawing me deeper into their outlook until I put down the book and look upon the world with new eyes.
One dramatic reversal in appreciation I experienced was with Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. This book grew out of a message Coates longed to convey to his son on matters of life, death, and injustice.
I read this book as a black man in my late 20s after studying black literature in college and engaging in anti-racism initiatives frequently since high school. While growing up in a safe and stable environment, I strove to sympathize with others while engaging in social justice work, but that work never pulled me all the way out of those circles of comfort and privilege; and oftentimes those circles were predominantly white. In contrast, Coates had devoted his life to understanding black thought, black literature, and black efforts towards racial equity. And this edification was built on a childhood in Baltimore’s black inner-city. His family had a rich history of participation in the black freedom struggle and so his parents pushed Coates to embrace this history as a part of his identity as a black man. When writing Between the World and Me, Coates was watching his dark-skinned son attain new levels of manhood and self-awareness, which forced Coates to bear witness to his harshly limited ability to protect his own child.
If I had been in Coates’s home then, I would have excused myself – embarrassed by the nakedness of Coates’ love and fear. These emotions were so intertwined, swirling together like water and ink, I could not separate them well enough to sympathize with either.
Encountering these emotions through Coate’s writing carried this intimacy through the safety of the page, and his penetrating insights made it all the more intriguing. The obstacle for me was that, by the time I cracked open the book, I had embraced religion as a part of my identity in a way that prevented me from appreciating Coates’ perspective.
Atheism permeated Coates’ worldview. His brand of atheism was common in liberal American culture, although it was incorporated into his arguments on race and politics with a clarity and urgency that was unique to Coates’ vision. When I first read this book, due to the shallowness of my assumptions, I dismissed his atheism as uninformed. I would have found it interesting if limited to a few passages where he argued for nonbelief in the compartmentalized manner that most people discuss faith; because that would leave it inconsequential. To take it or leave it. Instead, his beliefs on the nature of reality were used to round out his thinking and strengthen his arguments.
The implications of his atheism became clear in one passage in particular about how he parented his son. In it, Coates reflected on his own response to hearing his son crying after news broke that another racial injustice would go unpunished:
“I didn’t hug you. I didn’t comfort you. I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be ok. What I told you was what your grandparents tried to tell me. That this is your country, this is your world, that this is your body. And that you must find a way to be comfortable living within the all of it.”
After reading his works more closely, I now see how his atheism is remarkably pragmatic and compassionate. He feels compassion for generations of sufferers that he labored to understand through reading, writing, and arguing about them. That study required Coates to develop a pragmatic strategy of coping within a terrible world for which he saw a paltry likelihood of eventual reconciliation. Like my own, Coates’ blackness links him to generations of godless heartbreak. A godlessness we are reminded of constantly in art and life, past and present. The details are horrid if one cares to look. History can teach us about sweatboxes, castrations, or dying slowly in the darkened underbelly of a wooden prison rocking to and fro, sloshing dysentery and excrement across the floor, chained to strangers sobbing in foreign dialects. These and other human cruelties undergird American history.
Bring Thyself to Account
I was in high school when I first learned how sympathizing with the legacy of black suffering can open the heart to the continued suffering of others in an apathetic world. An honest reading of this reality might make you wonder how loveless and masochistic the gods must be to allow so much pain to persist.
I wasn’t so thoughtful the first time I read Coates. I thought that Coates was very smart, but wrong.
I understood my beliefs as rightfully hopeful while Coates was provocative, yet fatalistically flawed, rendering his ideas unimpressive. And I was comfortable in my conceit that woke America found tremendous insight in his work because they largely couldn’t see past his myopia.
I assumed I would set his book aside and forget about it. However, like the most skilled lyricist, Ta Nehisi Coates had written a refrain that I still cannot shake. His words looped in and out of my consciousness for years. Like any great chorus, these lyrics were profound in their simplicity; leading me to underestimate their power and import. Their repetition in my mind allowed the deeper significance to germinate. In Between the World and Me, Coates reduced himself and his son, my father and I, and generations of black men and women around us, to “black bodies” that can be “destroyed”. He repeatedly asserted that no individualized experience lies beyond the “black body” in order to emphasize how precious each physical life is, and then he spent over one hundred pages delineating how easily America allows those “black bodies” to be “destroyed”. Coates cautioned, warned, forebode that for a black man like me, there are people in this country “endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”
I was persuaded by his arguments that my body was at risk. His analysis of U.S. history and culture was so piercing and urgent that any debates about the existence of the soul or its cosmic significance would have missed the point. Yet, as I read this work for the first time I found this insistence on diminishing my being to a merely physical and therefore ephemeral body overdone and off-putting.
Today, over five years later, his somber assertions on the risks to my body have stuck with me more than any comparable summation of black mortality since Billie Holiday sang of strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. And Holiday’s rendition was aided by the haunt and majesty of her timeless voice. Coates implanted his ideas inside my heart with the sheer force of argument and the lyrical nature of his prose.
As my appreciation grew, so did my concern for my own possible contradictions. His knowledge and understanding of American history towered over mine; and his atheism was inextricable from his reading of the world. How could I embrace so much of his social analysis and dismiss his atheism so confidently? To this day, I believe that Coates is one of the most trenchant chroniclers of race in America for my generation, and I also believe in God as elucidated in the Bahá’í writings – a God that is indivisible, a source of boundless love, and accessible to my daily needs while also transcendental and essentially unknowable. At least by implication, Coates’ works demand a believer ask himself if it is all a fantasy distracting from the urgency of the world’s immeasurable physical injustice.
Ere Thou Art Summoned to a Reckoning
In Between the World and Me, Coates also discussed how he grew as a person by using the practice of writing to interrogate his own beliefs. This further motivated me to put my beliefs on trial. Not only to reconcile my disagreement with his views but in pursuit of truth as the worthiest of goals, to purge my heart and mind of inconsistencies and contradictions.
After interrogating myself in this manner, it became clear that my main questions about his work weren’t about God’s existence as much as humanity’s capacity to better itself. After a person decides how they want to live in the world, the human mind is powerful enough to bend god to support that decision, even take a few religious quotes out of context to confirm it. I suspected the source of any disagreement I have with Coates was not in a debate over the existence of God, but in our beliefs about the likelihood of humanity to triumph over the most persistent evils. That is, a long history of evils that Coates knows better than I. Where did my beliefs originate?
The good news is, before I began to investigate this question, Coates completed much of the work of answering them. This question of hope was one of the most common issues raised around Coates’ book. He was not the first black person to challenge America’s hopes. Many black people have spoken of their fears around bringing a black child into a world that will never love them. Coates reintroduced this subject in a way that helped many aggrieved Americans to better understand these fears.
By contrast, I feel a hopefulness that might seem irreconcilable with Coates’ realism. One famous and influential figure advocated for and personified a version of optimism for this country so dramatically that Coates explored these questions in a series of interviews and think pieces for the Atlantic. That is, Coates interviewed Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, the first Black President to be elected in the last Western nation to outlaw domestic slavery. After Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President, effectively as a refutation of Obama’s most cherished ideals, President Obama still had the audacity (or naivete?) to call himself “optimistic” about his country’s future.
After the 2016 Presidential election, Coates wrote for the Atlantic reflecting on his interviews with President Obama. In this article, Coates explored the origins of the President’s optimism and contrasted it with his own disposition.
“Victim in the system like a raindrop in the ocean” — Meek Mill
Coates highlighted that Obama was raised principally by his kind-hearted white mother and her parents who “loved him ferociously, supported him emotionally, and encouraged him intellectually.” In Obama’s own writing, the President repeatedly emphasized how his mother created a nurturing and edifying home environment. Additionally, Obama was raised in Hawaii, with a short stint in Indonesia, and grew up around racial and cultural diversity. To put a finer point on it, Coates argued that Obama was born at a time when the birth of a mixed-race child would have garnered threats of violence from many Americans. But, he was apparently born in a relative multicultural haven in Hawaii.
When Coates was a child in Baltimore, everyone he knew was black. While Obama was raised by three loving white people in his mother and her parents, Coates wouldn’t develop dynamic relationships with whites until he left home and began his career as a writer. Additionally, Coates’ neighborhood was violent. His home life encouraged his intellectual potential, but the threats to Coates’ body in Baltimore were palpable, the violence in his community saturated his every-day life outside the home, seeped into his psyche, and shaped his instincts.
Coates argued that, for Obama’s generation, the more common Black American experience would have been growing up in communities populated mostly by Blacks and where segregation would have been more painful. Inhabitants of those environments developed a culture of black pride to cope with the harsh environments. After growing up in a more integrated and comfortable community, Obama decided to seek out this black culture, to find his identity through it. As a young community organizer, Obama dug deep into distressed Black communities in Chicago’s south side, but he never lost touch with an unburdening multiculturalism of his youth. In fact, Coates argued that Obama’s unusual background granted him a unique vision and hope for change that carried him all the way to the White House.
How Religion Did Not Shape Us
Obama was not raised religious, but his mother taught him to understand and respect many faith traditions, often with the spirit of an anthropologist. He received more spiritual direction from how she exemplified generosity, kindness, and similar values in her daily life. As an adult, he was inspired by the civil rights tradition of the black church and the moral teachings of Jesus, and he eventually embraced Christianity as his own. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote eloquently of his spiritual beliefs, but they were placed in the context of arguments on how beliefs can wisely inform political action. In this book, it is clear that he has read and thought deeply about the Bible, but he spoke with greater reverence about the U.S. Constitution.
While Coates was growing up, his father found many occasions to state plainly that God does not exist. Involvement in religious holidays or traditions was dismissed as folly, and finding hope or solace in spirituality was perceived as intellectual weakness. When Coates raised questions about religious belief to his parents he was taught to question relentlessly, to read more, and think critically, and to develop his own conclusions. That framework strengthened Coates’ atheism as he moved into adulthood.
Obama internalized the loving and supportive environment of his childhood and then surveyed American history to find a beautiful struggle inching forward, a slow and steady march towards peace and justice. Coates internalized the unforgiving and dangerous surroundings of his childhood, then surveyed American history to find glaring injustices persisting to the present time. Coates gives credit to the varied efforts towards peace in which Obama found inspiration, but for Coates the resulting progress appears tenuous because unjust and corrosive fundamentals of the system have never been addressed.
Coates and President Obama share an attraction to pragmatism, although they apply it differently. Obama sees a profound capacity for good in all humanity. He acknowledges that the founders of the United States allowed for the marginalization, enslavement, or murder of most of their country’s early inhabitants - yet Obama sees genius in the founders’ design of a political system that can evolve and eventually actualize the inherent good in humanity. He looks at his own life as “a skinny kid with a funny name” who was fathered by an immigrant and raised by a single mom and then grew up to become President, and he attributes much of that success to the quality of America’s political mechanisms. He believes that countless Americans have the capacity to exemplify even greater genius than the founding fathers in continuing to make the country better for everyone through civic action.
On the other hand, Coates points out how the selfish and misguided intentions that led the founders to mistreat their fellow Americans have been restrained but never expelled from the American political system or its rulers. In his varied writings, he identified distressing examples of how the progress that America brags about obscures its regressions - but those regressions carry tremendous weight. Coates argued persuasively that political aspirants like President Obama genuinely believe in the redemption of America, and they win elections because Americans want to believe in redemption, too. Yet, Coates argues that a more critical eye will find that such redemption has not yet come, and he soberly suggests that it likely never will.
Obama believes America’s political system offers the only realistic, pragmatic, and effective tools to make his hopes a reality. Coates argues that, since Americans have shown so little interest in racial equity in the past and present, a truly pragmatic approach would demand detachment from such hopes.
After studying things in this light, I found Coates’ and Obama’s beliefs to be natural extensions of their respective backgrounds. It doesn’t seem like their faith in God or country are based on superior knowledge of history as much as by-products of their divergent upbringing. I no longer felt like my disagreements with them implied that I was hypocritical - even though I still find their knowledge and insight on matters of race, history, and politics overwhelms my own.
When contrasting Obama’s and Coates’ beliefs with my own, I see them as two separate poles, but I do not fall in between them. I borrow from both, and then adopt a vision for the future chiefly delineated by Bahá’í teachings.
One Way That Privilege Leads To Power
Like President Obama, I grew up in a safe community. I was raised by a consistent, hard-working, and kind black father and a nurturing, devoted, and conscientious white mother in a predominantly white town in the Northern Midwest. My neighborhood was not multicultural like Obama’s, but like him I had examples of benevolent interracial relationships around me. Plus, I was raised a couple decades after Obama, once multiculturalism had integrated deeper into the American mainstream. While I sometimes felt ostracized by my white neighbors and classmates, I was able to affirm my blackness by playing with black children on the other side of town when I was in middle school. I developed greater comfort with my identity with the overtly multicultural Hip Hop culture that some of my white peers and all of my black peers embraced when I reached high school.
I sought out people of color during my formative years. Like Obama, hanging out with black kids on the basketball court and volunteering at anti-racism initiatives were choices I made, because that made me feel more accepted and made life more meaningful. This was especially true after my white elementary school peers who saw themselves as white persistently pointed out my blackness. I was driven deeper into blackness by the ignorance of my white classmates, much like what has occurred since the 2016 election as political parties and subcultures find themselves increasingly entrenched. Despite these racialized complexities in my childhood psychology and whatever implications this had for my self-worth, my parents instilled in me a solid assurance that I could choose to grow up, go to college, to have a career and a happy life. Reading Coates’ makes me wonder if these confidences would have set me apart from many Black children.
In my youth, I had confidence not only in my ability to live happy and healthy, but to affect the world around me, likely through politics. Racism made itself known in my childhood in many ways - often painfully. Yet, I never feared serious danger, even playground scuffles were rare. The physical danger that Coates recounts would have been unrelatable to me. Despite countless encounters with ignorance, I did not fully appreciate the mortal threat to my body until adulthood.
My youth felt so safe that I escaped boredom through simulated violence in video games and movies. Like most of the white people I have known, violence is mostly a fantasy that I engage in on a screen to the extent that I find it entertaining. As a kid, I could turn it off at will and rest in the protection that my parents laid out for me in a quiet middle-America neighborhood.
Aside from some compassion for inner-city struggles that I developed through music and politics, I was ignorant of the perils that black boys faced in Coates’ inner city Baltimore. I was as far removed from that violence as a mixed-race child growing up in small-town Minnesota, Hawaii, or Mars.
My Confidence that Racism Will End
Considering my upbringing in comparison to Obama’s and Coates’, racism did not appear to me as an impossible barrier, but simply the most worthy challenge of my life. In this way, my blackness awakened my soul to a longing to be of service to humanity. The experience prepared me to find truth in spiritual or religious teachings that affirmed this conception of racism: a challenge of grave importance and one that humanity is destined to overcome. After going off to college and finding many flaws in the political system, I was deeply and pleasantly surprised to find religious teachings that reflected my assumptions. In this light, my embrace of the Bahá’í Faith was quite natural. For me, it did not begin with God as much as with a determined belief in humanity’s capacity for transformative justice.
Obama demonstrated a similar belief. He is right to believe in humanity’s capacity to do better. I am grateful for the way he promulgated his vision of a march towards justice to such a broad audience. I suspect it reawakened many souls to labor for equity because Obama helped them to feel it was attainable. I am equally grateful for Coates’s courage in doubting Obama’s confidence. In many ways, Obama’s hope is reminiscent of countless religious and political leaders who espouse hope and prayer when the tools and strategies chosen for social change are not working. While I agree that victory awaits in the future, when the spiritual leader cannot describe a path forward, their platitudes about hope and prayer bore me.
Coates exemplified a devotion to truthfulness as a spiritual attribute that can appropriately temper unrealistic hopes; spiritual attributes like truth, hope, and justice must moderate one another because no one single attribute can singularly carry humanity forward to realize its potential. I believe Coates’ approach is instructive in understanding how deeply the disease of prejudice has infected this country - and the world at large. From this, I learned not to place as much faith in the incremental political processes that Obama recommends. Coates helps readers to pull themselves away from what the Bahá’í teachings refer to as “vague and pious hope”, to avoid complacency where injustice still festers, and to continue to labor more methodically and analytically in identifying problems and solutions.
There is a quotation in the Bahá’í writings that Bahá’ís love to draw upon as an example of their faith’s commitment to fighting racism: “As to racial prejudice, the corrosion of which, for well-nigh a century, has bitten into the fiber, and attacked the whole social structure of American society, it should be regarded as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Bahá’í community at the present stage of its evolution.” Bahá’ís especially love to repeat the part about the “most vital and challenging issue”. After reading Coates, I am more intrigued by the “corrosion” which has “bitten into the fiber, and attacked the whole social structure of American society.” There is something more diagnostic and actionable about the first half of that quotation. I overlooked it until after Coates’s message sunk in. Despite Obama’s confidence in political processes and civic action, I’m afraid that the depth of the prejudices in this world require something much greater - something that will transform Americans and their institutions.
Coates has another essay about reparations being paid to African American descendants of slaves in the United States, but the article is not about the money as much as the significance of the country recognizing that a debt is owed. He stated in part, “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” Since the man doesn’t believe in anything “spiritual”, I have many questions about what he meant there. Yet, using my own definition of the term, I could not agree more.