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Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I do not believe we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos. (p. 151)

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, has written an elegant and eloquent open letter to his son. Intentionally echoing Richard Wright, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and other great African American writers, he tells his son that he must learn to live in a country where he cannot expect justice, where he must look out for himself at all times, where no matter how successful he may become, he is an instant away from violent death. Those who think they are white (the Dreamers) have built a dream society on the backs of African Americans. They cannot be persuaded otherwise.

And yet, Coates keeps trying. He has written for The Atlantic for years, including articles like “The Case for Reparations,” that is evidently intended to convince the educated whites who are that magazine’s readers. His son, Samori, will certainly find this book compelling reading, but it’s really directed at whites (or, as he puts it, those who think they are white). Even as he makes a compelling case that we are incorrigible, it is to us that he is speaking. He does not believe that we will understand, and certainly doesn’t believe that we will change. Hence his advice to Samori. And yet he hopes.

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In these times of racial tensions around repeated police killings of unarmed blacks, it is easy to see why Coates is pessimistic, and hard to understand why he continues to have enough hope to keep on writing to a white audience.

In these times of racial tensions around repeated police killings of unarmed blacks, it is easy to see why Coates is pessimistic, and hard to understand why he continues to have enough hope to keep on writing to a white audience. While white conservatives like to celebrate our graduation to a colorblind society, African Americans remain consistently poorer than whites, remain largely locked into black ghettos (except for those few who have had enough economic success to get out). The war on drugs since 1980 has locked up huge numbers of African American men for mostly nonviolent offenses such as possession of small amounts of illegal drugs (especially crack cocaine). This is, as Michelle Alexander has argued, “the new Jim Crow.” Our society remains systematically stacked against African Americans, but with the drug war, we no longer have to be conscious of it.

Can we change? Will Coates’ hope triumph over his pessimism? I doubt that our society will achieve the kind of radical cultural transformation that he hopes for (but doesn’t believe in). Fifty years since the Civil Rights movement’s successes, one hundred fifty years since the end of slavery, the continued oppression of African Americans must tell us that racism is deeply embedded in our cultural DNA.

We, whites, must accept that. We need to struggle against this heritage, for the sake of our own integrity as well as for justice for African Americans. We will probably not achieve a complete transfiguration. Coates’ advice to his son is valid.

john peeler

Yet as each of us struggles to understand, and to act, we can at least make it better.

John Peeler