Faculty Readers Respond
Feryaz Ocakli, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs Program faculty
Sarah Goodwin, Professor of English
Jenny Day, Assistant Professor of History
Robert Boyers, Professor of English
Megan DiMaio, Lecturer in Mathematics
Eunice S. Ferreira, Assistant Professor of Theater
Wendy Lee, Assistant Professor of English
David G. Cohen, Assistant Professor of Management & Business
Reading Between the World and Me was revealing, since I am an immigrant who always had trouble understanding what the official classifications of race and ethnicity on the American census exactly meant. Does the fact that I look white make me white, or is “whiteness” something else altogether? What race are people from the Middle East? More importantly, what is “race”? These categories lose some of their meaning when you step outside of North America. Other societies have defined racial and ethnic groups in different ways. As Coates makes clear throughout his book, race and ethnicity are social constructs. They do not exist in nature the way rocks, trees, and human hands do. They have acquired meaning and significance in societies not only due to discernible physical and cultural differences (in language, color, religion, region of origin etc.), but also through historically unequal power relations. Coates writes of the “invention of racecraft” (page 56), and that he is “black because of history and heritage” (page 55). This does not make the experience of race and ethnicity any less real to those who are born into these societies. Social facts are facts of life; individuals by themselves can do little to change the structures that uphold these categorizations.
The structures of inequality that came to define racial categories in the United States impose themselves in different ways on people who happen to be born to different families. Coates gives a powerful account of how he experienced being black. He describes the fear of being exposed to a system which does not value black bodies the same way it values white bodies. His book, then, is as much an exploration of how power permeates society as it is the story of an individual.
As a political scientist, I study the ways in which power operates within and across societies. Between the World and Me provides a unique perspective on the construction and workings of race in the United States. I think its insights could also help us better to understand how ethnicity and race relations have worked in other parts of the world. For example, the making of a general category of whites out of peoples who previously defined themselves according to their places of origin in Europe required policies of integration that excluded African slaves and their descendants. As Coates writes, “[T]he history of civilization is littered with dead ‘races’ (Frankish, Italian, German, Irish) later abandoned because they no longer serve their purpose – the organization of people beneath, and beyond, the umbrella of rights” (page 115). Similarly, the making of African Americans out of the diverse peoples coerced into slavery from different sections of the African continent also required policies backed by power – an array of institutions that regulated markets, the conditions of bondage and formal emancipation, and the policing of the color line. Once these institutions were established, they reinforced vested interests, persisted, and structured social life in significant ways for future generations. Coates’ insightful description of his experience with race gives us an important starting point from which we can ask new questions about power and inequality in America and the rest of the world.
-Feryaz Ocakli, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs
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Between the World and Me opens with one word, “Son,” that signals this book is a letter. If we read it as a work of non-fiction, this is Ta-Nehisi Coates writing to his son. The book contains photographs of Coates with his son: as a young boy, as an older boy. Throughout the book, Coates returns to his son again and again. At the end of it, he writes, “And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom” (151). We understand that “you” refers to Samori, his son.
And yet Coates admires poetry, which deliberately exploits the nuances of words. Hence a literary scholar might well ask, what if we read this book as if it were a poem? In that case, who is the “you” to whom it is addressed? These questions might seem ridiculous. But what if Coates is playing with the elasticity of language, the ways that the written “you” can apply to infinite numbers of readers?
Who is Coates writing to, really?
There are signs throughout the book that he knows his text can work in different ways for different readers. For his son, and for young black men and women like him, it can work as a field guide to living. But Coates is clearly also aiming for a much broader readership.
One of the recurrent ideas in Between the World and Me is the notion of the Dream and of Dreamers. He never assigns the Dream a race, but we recognize it as middle-class life: “I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. … The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts.” He writes too that “the Dream rests on our backs … [and] persists by warring with the known world” (11). Much of his book describes the world he knew growing up in West Baltimore, light-years away from the Dream.
The Dream is not just a fantasy of middle-class comfort. It is also, Coates says, “the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing” (50). Coates contrasts the Dream with writing, with poetry, or “the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth…” (51).
If we read this book as poetry, we can see that it is not just a letter to his son, but also a carefully crafted work of literature for any other readers who have the ears to hear it: for Dreamers who are looking beyond the Dream, for example. It invites any reader to be moved by its metaphoric language and by the stories it weaves. Like all great literature, it nudges us not just to be moved but then also to think critically and ask hard questions.
Between the World and Me, the book’s title, refers to the poem by Richard Wright that Coates quotes as an epigraph: implicitly, the violent deaths of young black men create a gulf for Coates between himself and the world. Wright’s poem in turn also alludes to the opening sentence of W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk: “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question . . . How does it feel to be a problem?” Like DuBois, Coates is writing into that void of the space between.
Who is he writing to? All of us: “And still I urge you to struggle.”
-Sarah Goodwin, Professor of English
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In the summer of 1966, many middle and high school students in China spontaneously identified themselves as children of revolution and joined the Red Guards. These were militant, propagandist, and hyper-activist groups aimed at destroying all remnants of a society they deemed capitalist, bureaucratic, backward, and “imperialist” (i.e., contaminated by Western culture). One of their targets were their classmates whom they deemed as “Black Fives,” children from families of suspicious political background, such as business owners, writers, musicians, and party bureaucrats. These events became known as the Chinese Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which lasted ten years and resulted in the murder, torture, and madness of tens of millions. No one was left alone; even the millions of Red Guards, though initially victorious, ended up being dispatched to labor in the wilderness for many years. Most of them were teenagers when they were sent away.
It might be hard to imagine this. My father, then ten years old, lived with the words “scion of a Japanese collaborator” etched on his soul. For him, this was more than a life-sentence: it was understood as a trait he would pass on to his children, and thus proto-biological. Then there is the harder truth. This massive movement happened without a clear explanation or agency: nobody could have foreseen this in the summer of 1964.
What Coates describes in Between the World and Me makes tangible so much of what is inconceivable in history. As I was absorbed in the trenchant critique so devastatingly articulated in the book, I thought about how history is known: how it is excavated, given meaning, turned into thoughts and actions, scattered into tears, forgotten, and then remembered again. This history of Black suffering, as offered by Coates, is meant to be read by people everywhere – not just those who live in countries with racial or ethnic conflict, but those who imagine their heritage to be culturally homogeneous, or where clearly-identified agencies have been called upon to explain history.
We must summon all our imagination and empathy to understand the past in all its faces, and we must remember this: our own best tools – the stories that we tell and the words we use – are also our worst enemies. The seen and the unseen, the spoken and the unspeakable, the magnificent and the macabre, are bound up in numerous magical ways like neurons in the brain, and there are many connected paths we have never seen. The quest of history can never achieve a final victory, even as truths continue to be revealed.
Before history is history, it is imagination and the action that imagination makes inevitable. What do you do when oppression appropriates the language of love and freedom? How do you act deliberately when it monopolizes the language of deliberation? Coates decisively unsettles our comfortable illusions. We at Skidmore need to hear this as a call to thought and creativity, to keep open the incision that Coates has made, and to allow the black experience in America to speak to everything we are learning about the world.
-Jenny Day, Assistant Professor of History
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What to make of the delirious reception accorded to the book by Ta Nehisi Coates? Certainly there is nothing optimistic or uplifting in his depiction of the current American scene. Neither is there any sign of a desire on his part to seek common ground with those he disparages. Coates speaks in the accent of a man deeply wounded and aggrieved, a man seething with an improbable combination of love and rage, a man determined not to be seduced by comfortable platitudes or pieties. He takes himself to be an unillusioned truth teller, and he has found a readership more than willing to take him at his word and to ascribe to him the virtues of a completely honest man. Of course his gifts as a writer of burning, eloquent sentences account in part for his appeal, and no one will dispute the fact that he has offered a punishing and relentlessly gripping depiction of American race relations and an intimate, moving portrayal of his own relations with his son. And yet it is puzzling, and troubling, that the readership drawn to the book has been largely unwilling to accord to it the serious attention we associate with genuine criticism. Confronted with a work that is obviously tendentious, most readers have taken it to heart by yielding to it as if they had found little or nothing in its pages to challenge or resist.
Of course the subject of race is not easy for most Americans to talk about with any degree of candor. On college campuses especially people are told, on the one hand, that race is a subject not to be ignored or avoided, even as they are told that it is necessary to be very careful when attempting to talk about something that inevitably arouses very strong feelings. Thus the discussion of race is governed by what the African-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah calls a “racial etiquette” designed to ensure that no one will be offended by what is said, though the etiquette mainly ensures that people pretend to take on the difficult issues while actually side-stepping much that demands their attention.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Coates book should be embraced by people who are reluctant to challenge its investment in the more than dubious concept of race—a concept, moreover, that Coates himself regards as having generated tragic consequences. Neither is it surprising that people are reluctant to engage closely with its more disturbing passages, such as the one in which Coates writes that “I could see no difference between the officer who killed [Coates’s friend] Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died [trying to save people at the World Trade Center on 9/11]. They were not human to me.” Easy, too easy, to ignore the implications of such a passage by dwelling on the pain it reflects, or the courage it must have taken to compose such a sentence. It is to be hoped that those who are asked to read and discuss the Coates book will overcome their reluctance to look closely at what it says.
-Robert Boyers, Professor of English
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During my early twenties books were my salvation. I knew I was gay, but had told very few people. I had applied to graduate school and wanted to teach but I didn’t know if anyone would allow me around their children. I read endlessly, searching for my people.
Ta-Nahesi Coates describes finding his sense of meaning in the diverse opinions and illustrious history of Howard University and the Mecca it formed for him. I found it in James Baldwin and his Notes of a Native Son - a collection of pieces about his experiences as a black man in the U.S. in the forties and fifties. Although the essays never mention it directly, Baldwin was gay, and I read between the lines for hints as to how I might live. His essays remain for me the most beautifully written ones that I’ve ever read. The most meaningful quote for me, one I memorized as a shield, comes from an essay he wrote about Native Son:
Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human, and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult--that is, accept it.
The idea that I could define the terms by which I related to the world, that I need not be defensive or apologetic for who I was, helped me enormously.
I continued to look, but never found anyone else like James Baldwin until years later, when I heard Ta-Nahesi Coates speak at Skidmore and felt a little shock of recognition. He considers the same kinds of issues as Baldwin, eloquently, with intelligence and anger. Between the World and Me is structured as a letter to his young son, Samori, and Coates describes the tension between the caution he knows he must teach Samori to keep him safe and the confidence and openness that has let his son take part in pieces of life he himself missed. My wife is Indian-American, and ever since we decided to have a baby I’ve been thinking about how I, as a white woman, can help my son to be secure and to understand the history of his country. He is still a baby, too young to understand either the American Dream or the terrible price Coates describes that some have paid so that others could have that peace and success. As he gets older, though, just as Notes of a Native Son helped me to learn how to be myself in the world, Coates’s book will help me talk to my son as he becomes himself.
-Megan DiMaio, Lecturer in Mathematics
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On June 15, Ta-Nehisi Coates engaged in a public conversation on “Art and Social Justice” with Nobel prize-winner Toni Morrison and poet/social activist Sonia Sanchez at Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre. In closing, Morrison cautioned that “Art is dangerous…You have to know it before you start, and do it under those circumstances, because it is one of the most important things that human beings do.”
As a theater scholar-artist, I appreciate that this multigenerational gathering took place on a stage with Coates seated in between two legendary writers whose works have been adapted to stage and film. My research interests align with Coates’ storytelling style and his unapologetic “center stage” placement of black bodies. In “Black Theater” and the new FYE course “Mixed Race on Stage and Film,” students investigate texts and analyze the implications of performative bodies. Coates cites Amiri Baraka (leading playwright of the Black Arts Movement) and calls upon the spirit of playwright James Baldwin in adopting the letter format of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time as a model for Between the World and Me. Where Baldwin addresses his nephew, Coates writes a letter to Samori, his own teenage son. It is a private conversation published for a mass audience. Stage realism functions in a similar way. We witness intimate exchanges between characters who do not notice we are there but they (actors) know that we are watching. We willingly suspend our disbelief (that they are actors) in order to immerse ourselves in the unfolding drama. We laugh, nod, smile, fume or cry.
Like a riveting play, Coates’ book has also garnered an array of responses that are emotional-intellectual (a term I hyphenate to suggest that the words are not mutually exclusive). He has been criticized for being too angry, too negative and too void of hope. Is his book possibly “too dangerous,” affirming Morrison’s claims about the nature of art? As an artist, it is his prerogative to tell his own story, in his own way, to his own son and to whoever else wishes to pick up his book. I admit being crushed by the emotional weight of his writing and seeming despair, but I am challenged by his critique of education and the implications for my own discipline. Just as Coates repeatedly exhorts us to analyze social injustice in light of the country’s racist history, artists and educators must also interrogate how structural racism has limited access to the arts, training and professional opportunities. In spite of black theater’s rich history and the diverse casts of this Broadway season’s successful shows, the racist caricatures of minstrelsy and cultural stereotypes remain intact for all actors of color.
Coates sounds like an acting teacher when he admonishes Samori to take on “the struggle,” advising him to choose “verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.” This emphasis on action is a backbone of actor-training and is integral to the intersection of art and social justice. College students across the country have created original performances rooted in #BlackLivesMatter, #ICan’tBreathe and #ITooAm movements. At Skidmore, students of color boldly make choices to place their own bodies center stage, enacting agency through performance, and in some cases, using their own stories to bear witness. They embrace the danger of art, believing with Morrison that art “is one of the most important things that human beings do.” While Coates warns that the “entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are,” these inspiring students employ performance as a counter-narrative and as a means to “be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
-Eunice S. Ferreira, Assistant Professor of Theater
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What is the relationship between contemporary literature, race, and U.S. history? This question is central to my academic discipline, multi-ethnic American literature. Thus, reading Coates’s book involved identifying its literary features and examining how such features help us to understand what the book suggests about current racial crisis and this nation’s history.
Like many readers, I was particularly struck by the book’s intertexuality, its condition of connecting itself to other literary sources. For example, Coates’s book borrows its title and its epigraph from Richard Wright’s 1935 poem “Between the World and Me.” Wright’s speaker recounts a time when he “stumbled upon” a grassy clearing where a lynching recently took place. The speaker not only witnesses the aftermath of violence, but in a fantastical moment that evokes time travel, also transforms into the victim moments before the lynching. In Wright’s poem, a history of violence against the black body fundamentally shapes the relationship “between the world and me” and between the American past and the American present.
Coates’s Between the World and Me extends these relationships forward in time. The violent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, and numerous others that Coates and his son Samori “stumble upon” in the early decades of the twenty-first century are not isolated incidents. Instead, these deaths exist in the shadow of past violence that Wright’s 1935 speaker stumbles upon. Coates also draws on the poem’s horrific transformation of the speaker from witness to victim of anti-black violence. As Coates explains to his son, to witness this brutal violence against black bodies is to stumble upon the knowledge that his own body may be subject to that same violence. The “world” of 2015 may seem for many readers to be distant, a world apart from the “sooty details of the scene” that Wright’s speaker encounters 80 years earlier. However, the intertextuality between Coates’s book and Wright’s poem makes a powerful suggestion. It frames the 2015 “world” of Between the World and Me as a continuation not only of the 1935 “world” of Wright’s poem, but also of the neglected history of American empire, slavery, and segregation that is the pre-condition of the gruesome scenes experienced by both Wright’s speaker in the past and Coates and Coates’s son in the present.
The differences between the two texts, too, can help us to understand the work that Coates’s Between the World Me does. Wright’s text is a poem that focuses on the perceptions of its first-person speaker and Coates’s book takes the form of a letter. While the letter is ostensibly addressed to Samori Coates, the letter’s prevailing use of “you” to address its recipient creates a kind of doubleness; it is addressed to both “you” Samori Coates and “you” the reader. This doubleness presents the charge of the book not as that of “solving” the breach between the world and me but instead as posing to each reader the challenging and difficult question of what is the relationship between the world of plundered black bodies and you.
-Wendy Lee, Assistant Professor of English
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I find engaging with Between the World and Me oddly difficult. Generally when reading, I don’t worry too much about the intentions of the author; the text is the thing and my reading of the text is not dependent upon the author. As Coates says in a much different context: “Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary.” And yet, because Coates writes in the first person, because the book is in the form of a letter to his son, and because the book is not addressed to me, I find it hard to shake the conviction that my reaction is irrelevant. In my imagining, I am like the Dreamers Coates writes about (who are they, by the way? Americans? Americans who think themselves white? Disembodied capitalism?) and the book is the plundered Earth (“The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us.”).
My difficulty engaging with the book is also odd because this semester I am teaching a Scribner Seminar on the ongoing influence of slavery on American government and culture. This is what much of the book is about. Coates deals directly with the core question motivating me to teach this course: what do we do with the fact that the very shape of our government is the result of a compromise with slavery? And, as Coates points out, to simply say “slavery” is to be disingenuous. Slavery is “the pillage of life, liberty, and land; … the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children….” If, as Coates does and I do, we take seriously the claims of American exceptionalism, how can we fail to subject the United States to an exceptional moral standard? How do we come to terms with the pact with the Devil that made America?
In the end, I find the book difficult--and even discouraging--because I have hope for my country that we can ….– And here I was about to write “overcome” and realized that I can’t possibly use that phrase in this context. I do not want to fully engage with Between the World and Me because Coates begins by denying that there is hope.
-David G. Cohen, Assistant Professor of Management & Business
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