“I’m not your pastor.” Refuting racial pessimism in “Between the World and Me”

Ta-Nehisi Coates at University of Virginia during the MLK Celebration 2015 (Photo by Eduardo Montes-Bradley)

After journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates published Between the World and Me in the summer of 2015, reviews of the moving and provocative book flooded the internet. Amid news of atrocities like the Charleston Church shooting in which nine black churchgoers were killed by a white man in South Carolina, countless journalists and scholars had something to say about Coates and his letter to his 15-year-old son.

But not everyone agreed with Coates’ harsh portrayal of modern racism. Politico’s Rich Lowry claimed that Coates was a reductionist who gave his readers “a stunted version of America;” The New York Post’s Robert Cherry chastised universities who assigned Between the World and Me as common freshman reading; Michelle Alexander wrote in The New York Times that she was disappointed that “little hope is offered that freedom or equality will ever be a reality for black people in America.”

After the book’s release, it seemed that the nation’s critics, conservatives and liberals alike, could agree on one thing: the Malcolm X-quoting, Obama-criticizing, reparations-seeking Coates was undeniably and indisputably a racial pessimist keen on inhibiting any hope of racial progress in America.

On February 3, Coates came to the University of Oregon to deliver the annual Ruhl lecture, hosted by the School of Journalism and Communication. But first, he agreed to conduct a Q&A session with about 100 journalism students, myself included. Dressed in a navy-blue suit in Allen Hall, he politely declined a microphone offered by one of the professors. He told us to not be shy or “polite.” He wanted us to have a real, authentic conversation.

During that Friday afternoon, Coates answered inquiries ranging in topic from politicians to writing tips to racism in America’s history. He sat in front of us and spoke frankly, often cracking jokes and taking lengthy pauses to genuinely consider each question.

Midway through the hour-long session, I raised my hand. I had long been a fan of Coates’ work; I found that the way in which he described whiteness as not a label based on color but based on power spoke to a feeling that I have felt deep in my bones but had no words to adequately express.

At the time, I was working as a full-time reporter in addition to finishing my undergraduate degree, so I was accustomed to speaking up in press conferences and public meetings. But that day I was uncharacteristically nervous as I stood, gave my name, and asked Coates how he responded to that label of “racial pessimist.” He paused to consider my question; I sat down, holding my breath.

“I mean, I don’t really understand it, to be honest,” Coates said. A few students laughed. He paused again.

“There are a couple things about me that you have to understand,” Coates said. “Baltimore was a really violent place. I mean violent. Like, when I was 12 years old, five boys jumped off a bus and stomped my head into the ground. When I was 17, I got hit over the head with a steel trash can. I got jumped for the first time when I was nine. When I was 11 or maybe 10, I saw a kid pull out a gun. That delivers you messages about the world. Do you understand?”

I told him I understood, that my family is from the Southwest Side of Chicago. My parents had told me similar stories about living in that same fear, accustomed to acts of brutality and seemingly-senseless violence around every corner. Coates nodded and continued.

“Whenever people say that (his ideas are pessimistic), I always wonder how many history books they read and how many historians they’ve ever talked to,” Coates said. “You go ask like a historian of, say, slavery in this country (if) they think white supremacy will ever be purged out of this country, and I guarantee you eight out of ten of them will say no.”

Coates echoed those points later that evening, addressing thousands of people packed into the Matthew Knight Arena. He gave the audience of predominantly white attendees a truncated history of racism in America, explaining his view of the world through a lens in which “white” meant powerful and “black” meant oppressed. He had to stop a few times mid-sentence to accommodate applause from the mostly white audience. I grew impatient and wished they would just let him speak; they could clap all they want, but were they truly listening?

As he was answering my question during that intimate discussion with journalism students, Coates shared that he does not know what to do with the label of “pessimist” or “racial pessimist” that he has acquired.

“I’m always puzzled by this notion that black writers need to be hopeful,” Coates said to me. “I don’t go to literature, anybody’s literature, for hope.”

He gave us an example. “My favorite book is The Great Gatsby,” he said. “I didn’t finish The Great Gatsby and feel like it was this great, wonderful love tale. There are very few books I love that I feel that way about.”

Coates paused, considering how to conclude his answer to my question. His atheistic views that are prevalent in Between the World and Me presented themselves in his final words. “I think (people who expect him to be hopeful) are people who need to go to church more, and not read literature,” he told me. “Make a choice. If (you) come to me like I’m your pastor — I’m not your pastor. I’m a writer, and I’m doing what writers have always done.”

“There’s nothing particularly pessimistic about me when you consider me next to other writers,” he finished. “But if you consider me next to some image of what you feel like black public figures have a responsibility to do, maybe you feel a little different.”

Coates’ answer left my thoughts racing over the next several days. I had never considered Coates a “racial pessimist” as his critics did, but a “racial realist.” James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, published in the early 1960s during the civil rights movement, was a source of inspiration to Coates as he embarked on the project that would become Between the World and Me. Some critics such as The New York Times’ Alexander said they were disappointed that Coates’ novel was not a modern-day version of The Fire Next Time, that it preached fatalistic views instead of hope. However, upon further analysis and critical thought, it becomes clear that Coates’ book is in fact a modern version of Baldwin’s book in the purpose it serves to the generation of Americans reading it, to the America in which it is published.

In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin — who is addressing his 15-year-old nephew, similar to Coates’ writing to his son Samori — writes of the pain and turmoil that has plagued the lives of African Americans due to white supremacy and of the need for young black men to believe in the possibility of change regarding race relations in America.

Between the World and Me makes no such plea. Instead, Coates urges his son to remember the causes and consequences of the American dream — “the Dream,” as he calls it, that perpetuates white supremacy throughout our country’s history — and to understand that, no matter what he was told on the news or by pundits on TV, racism is still alive and well in America.

At first glance, Coates’ writing may not be very uplifting and may be misconstrued as fatalistic or pessimistic, but at its heart Coates’ realism and his refusal to sugarcoat the experiences of black Americans is the only possible path toward true racial reconciliation. For readers who are not black, it is impossible to understand Coates as a racial realist without delving deeper into his work in Between The World and Me and understanding the realities of black America at the time of his writing.

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey on race relations in America in 2016, collecting data from February to May in the year following the Charleston Church shootings, in which researchers found that white and black Americans had radically different views on the experience of African Americans in the Unites States today. The survey reported that an “overwhelming majority” of African Americans, 88 percent of those involved with the national survey, said that the United States still needs to make changes for black Americans to have equal rights. In comparison, only 53 percent of white Americans held that view, and 38 percent of white Americans think that enough changes have been made already.

There is no doubt that Coates would be a part of that majority if polled about the state of racism in America, and this data shows that Coates is not alone in his drab view of racial equality in America. He speaks to this reality for black Americans in more eloquent ways, characterizing the white experience and the Dream as a reality entirely separate from his own life in poverty-stricken Baltimore:

“In the evenings I would sit before this television bearing witness to the dispatches from this other world. There were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak. That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice-cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and endless lawns.”

This Dream, Coates explains, did not appear out of nowhere; racists were not suddenly born sometime in the 1960s. These modern realities of black America are inextricably linked to America’s racist history a few short centuries ago. Coates understands, unlike those white Dreamers, that the narrative that blacks suffered to achieve the “freedom” that they enjoy today simply does not add up.

It is not pessimism to reiterate the truth, to write that in the United States “it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” Uncomfortable truths they may be, they are still the foundation upon which America was built. As hard as Coates’ words about the American legacy of slavery are to read, they are not his negative opinion or fatalistic views of racism past, but hard-to-swallow fact of what enslavement truly entailed for Coates’ ancestors — the “casual wrath and random manglings … rape so regular as to be industrial.”

Coates also acknowledges that “there is no uplifting way to say this,” and that final sentence is the crux of the criticism he faces from white readers who dismiss his work as “pessimistic.” These readers want a pat on the back for the progress that has been made in their lifetime and the lifetimes of their parents and grandparents. They don’t want a reminder of the part their people played in the destruction of Coates’ ancestors, the atrocities that stain their family trees. These readers want a happy ending.

But Coates is not here to provide a happy ending. He is not your pastor. He is here to deliver the truth to those who need to hear it in the only way he can — through his writing.

In doing so, Coates shows his readers the consequences of the Dream without coddling or comforting them. He uses visceral language to describe the instinctive fear that dominated his life in Baltimore, filled with “guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” In fact, Coates argues that the word “racism” and all its variations — those that even I am guilty of using in this essay — mask the true brutality and violence of the black American experience. Racism, he writes “dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” Never does Coates mince words or fall to euphemisms that would conceal the truth of the matter, the reality of racism in America then and now.

In his dissection of the Dream and the future of black America, Coates does not tell his son it is up to him to defeat white supremacy or that it is even possible. Some critics read this as a fatalistic view of the future, or a way for Coates to absolve himself and other black Americans of any heavy lifting in terms of improving race relations in our country.

But that is not what Coates is doing. Coates is rightfully handing the responsibility of the fate of racial reconciliation back to the white “Dreamers,” those who actively perpetuate white supremacy or passively allow its continuation into the 21st century by ignoring the fact that its roots are firmly planted in the foundation of our democracy.

If Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was the message of hope and possibility of change that black youth needed in 1960, Coates’ message is tailored for today’s black youth. Coates does not try to give the same advice to a new generation that finds itself in different circumstances with different needs. Today’s young black men do not need blind, vague hope, the “hope” that now leads to sweeping generalizations and false assertions that racism is over and dead in America, creating cognitive dissonance as these men continue to suffer under racist institutions. Coates gives them assurance that their experiences are valid and that the struggle is not over; in this same vein, he gives some whites a much-needed wake-up call. In Between the World and Me, Coates gives these young black men the knowledge and ammunition to continue the struggle.

Coates’ hope for the future lies in his son, Samori. But over the course of his novel Coates does not try to comfort his son because to comfort him would be irresponsible and dangerous:

“You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.”

These are not fatalistic statements but facts that cannot be ignored by Samori or his young black peers if they hope to find racial progress. But nowhere does Coates tell his son to give up, to resign himself to a life dictated by those who believe themselves to be white, to give up his body to the Dream. Coates tells him to struggle against the Dreamers, but that they “must ultimately stop themselves.” This plea is not defeatist; it is born from love and care for his son. Coates cannot let his son believe that the future of race in America is his burden to bear, as it could lead to a feeling of failure that is undeserved.

“I am not a cynic,” Coates tells his son a few pages later. “I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover.” This admission is consistent with the Coates I know, the Coates I met in Allen Hall and the Coates I heard speak in Matthew Knight Arena. But I cannot help but wonder what his critics, those who labeled him as a “racial pessimist,” made of this passage. Did they think it was an out-of-character aside, or did they breeze right past it without thinking?

If they failed to catch it the first time, Coates echoes the sentiment later in the novel, writing “If my life ended today, I would tell you it was a happy life — that I drew great joy from the study … a rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to, when you have rejected the Dream.”

These two passages are fundamental to understanding Coates as a realist rather than a pessimist. On that day in February, Coates said that white supremacy might never be purged from this country. That assertion is based on historical fact; those ideas run deep in our country’s veins. But that does not mean that there is not hope or happiness to be found in the struggle for a better world, regardless of whether it comes to fruition.

Coates ends his novel in a way readers may not expect — not with a conclusion that brings some feeling of resolution, but with this poignant passage:

“Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos — the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, and crumbling housing — and I felt the old fear. Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets.”

Here Coates shows that his experience — of the violence of the streets of Baltimore, the racism he has faced, the fear he feels deep in his bones — is not one of the past but of the present. That rain that Coates describes represents the struggle that he is passing on to his son, the violence and injustice that he may face at the hands of Dreamers. And that rain will keep coming down on us all, relentless and ice-cold, until those Dreamers wake up.

Francesca Fontana is a writer based in New York. She can be reached at francescamariefontana@gmail.com