Chain Letter: Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin & Alain Mabanckou

Bennett Baumer Nov 11, 2015

Between the World and Me
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau, 2015

Letter to Jimmy
By Alain Mabanckou
Translated by Sara Meli Ansari
Soft Skull Press, 2014

The Black Lives Matter movement offers a scathing, clear-eyed assessment of racism, unjust policing and mass incarceration in the United States. This should be welcomed. However, when two movement activists disrupted a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle in August, a largely white progressive crowd hissed and booed and weeks of furious debates followed on social media.

To those who booed or found themselves shaking their heads at Black Lives Matter tactics: read journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. 

Between the World and Me is an open letter to Coates’ adolescent son about the nature of America’s social relations and a deeply personal engaging work. The left utilizes the phrase “institutional racism” to describe systemic racial discrimination and denial of opportunity that is ongoing and destructive — Coates crystallizes the jargon and uses the word “plunder.” Coates writes that his young son has not yet “discovered the plunder everywhere around us,” and then goes on to trace it, from slavery through bad schools to present-day police killings of Black Americans.

What Black Lives Matter and Coates say is unfortunately not new. The Confederate flag symbolizes white supremacy and the South’s support of chattel slavery. Educational disparities encompass everything from Black students getting disciplined more often to higher dropout rates and lower school funding. Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white males and a Black baby born in 1991 has a 30 percent chance of going to prison someday. 

Between the World and Me is unique because of Coates’ tone. Coates does not evoke the Black church and is not religious. “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice,” he writes. “The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history.” 

Between the World and Me has its tender moments but overall is not a particularly uplifting book. A sharp critic of President Obama, Coates is not buying hope and change. Surveying the United States’s racist past and present , he warns his son to expect more of the same even if the future comes branded as being “post-racial.”

“Dreamers are pillaging Ferguson for municipal governance,” he writes, flipping the script on the American Dream à la Malcolm X. “Dreamers are quoting Martin Luther King and exulting nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong.”

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has compared Coates’ unflinching writing on the subject of race to that of James Baldwin. Like Coates, Baldwin also had a gift for writing essays in letter form, as he did with “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” And now Baldwin is the posthumous recipient of a trove of imagined letters from Congolese expat writer Alain Mabanckou.

In Letter to Jimmy, recently translated from French to English, Mabanckou, who lives in Paris and California, ponders Baldwin’s place and time, including his religious upbringing and subsequent rejection of Christianity and choice to flee the United States’s pervasive racism to live in Paris and embrace his homosexuality. 

“You saw how churches operated, whether they were white or black churches. You saw that certain ministers became rich at the expense of the faithful, who are always asked to give more … everything is squeezed out, down to the last cent.”

Published in 1963, Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was panned as extreme and anti-white by many white liberals, while Between the World and Me has generated mostly praise, though it too refuses to genuflect before white sensibilities. Both authors know race is a social construct but that no one can wish it away with broad proclamations of a post-racial society or the dim-witted “All Lives Matter” slogan. 

Black Lives Matter is a dynamic force for racial justice, though Coates is bearish on this country’s ability to transcend its racist history. Baldwin participated in the March on Washington and aligned himself with various civil rights groups, though he disavowed being a civil rights activist and later in life described the movement as “the latest slave rebellion.” Writing to Baldwin across the decades, Mabanckou sums up his adopted home like this: “America is no fool: it has heard your message. But can it follow your lead?”

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