In the beginning of this year, while drawing my tentative book list, I specially earmarked ‘Between the world and me’. The glowing tributes and the rave reviews the book got from the majority of literary doyens around the world enticed me to go for it. Ta-Nehisi Coates – a 40 year old American writer and journalist, also considered by many as one of America’s greatest writers – has helmed this book. Before I set out to read ‘Between the world and me’, the only thing I knew about the book was that it had something to do with the perennial oppression the black society had suffered for ages in America. I anticipated a meticulous study into the factors that drove black people to the periphery of society and how white people came to enjoy the fruits of others’ labor. It turns out that I wasn’t far off with my expectations, but only with a slight twist.
Ta-Nehisi Coates employs a literary device not often used in the non-fiction universe. The entire book is written in an epistolary fashion, an emotionally laden dispatch from an anxious father to his teenage son. The first few pages establish the somber tone that infuses the whole book. Coates, motivated by the pain and maltreatment of the fellow African-Americans, questions the integrity of the very foundations upon which the American society was built. The recent years’ incidents of police brutality against the black minorities further prove pivotal to the outburst of his deep-lying angst. He laments,”The destroyers (his reference to the white men) are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.”
I felt deeply moved by the injustice dealt out to so many black families. These were the people who apparently lost young men and women to the rage wielded by the white men. The rage for subjugation, the rage for torture, the rage for supremacy, wielded by those in authority – the white men. The rage against which Coates so furiously writes.
In his unbounded determination to expose the underlying rot, the grim reality of American society, of what has gone wrong on the inside as the American dream woos the world, Coates fills the reader with both agonizing and thought-provoking reflections. His writing evokes a sense of pathos in the reader. You empathize with him and relate to his perspective right up until the point he starts yammering like a giant flaming gasbag. As a reader from a former British colony, I felt and shared Coates’ gravitas. But then, as an optimist, I anticipated the silver lining, too. Sadly, there are no silver linings in Coates’ world. I am not sure if his publisher asked him to don this role or some vested party did. But the truth of the matter is that Coates’ acceptable scrutiny gradually turns into an overdone show of whining and accusing, a rather forced exercise in repetitiveness which is both futile and mind-jarring.
Coates goes overboard with his narrative, one time too many. He comes across as an opinionated grumbler, someone who is wearing an albatross around his neck for a long, long time, and no matter what, he would see the world with only his lens. Look, I am aware of the atrocities that ‘the white people’ unleashed on their captives on various points in the historical timeline. But Coates’ work paints every white American in the same corner; there is no glimmer of hope for black people in his view. He protests: “The power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons.” Sadly, the world of ‘Between the world and me’ is everything but optimistic. It’s a world where paranoia reigns supreme, where African-Americans have and will always be trampled upon, where the Jim Crow level of racism is still pervasive.
Coates’ ranting against the so-called white supremacy reaches boiling point when his pent-up anguish seems to get the better of him. So, from evoking thought-provoking reflections, he slips into unfurling the absurd. “I watched the ridiculous pageantry of flags, the machismo of firemen, the overwrought slogans…. I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones (Coates’ acquaintance) and the officers who died or the firefighters who died (during the September 11 attacks). They were not human to me. Black, white or whatever, they were the menaces of nature.“
All in all, ‘Between the World and Me’ left me disappointed and annoyed. Some of his thoughts (rants) are soul-stirring, rooted in reality while some border on the hyperbolic, soaked in unreason. Don’t get me wrong. I have no problems with someone writing something that shows a mirror to the society and the world at large. My problem here is an eternally-depressed author who wallows in a pool of self-pity and would love others to join him there. Sorry, I am not white, but I am not interested.