Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn talks with the best-selling author of “Between the World and Me,” now in its 12th printing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” a dark, angry and eloquent meditation on the state of being black in America, would seem a highly unlikely candidate for best-sellerdom.
And yet — since it was published in July, this slim book (Spiegel & Grau, 150 pp., $24) has gone through 12 reprintings, its visibility fueled by the country’s agonized debate over a succession of deaths of black people at the hands of police forces all over America. Coates, a senior correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, just won a MacArthur “genius” grant, worth $625,000, and the $50,000 Kirkus Prize. The book is a National Book Award finalist in nonfiction.
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By phone, he answered questions about his sudden fame and his evolving relationship with America since his youth in Baltimore’s dangerous neighborhoods. Here’s an edited version of that interview.
Q: Congratulations on your MacArthur. I loved (PBS NewsHour host) Gwen Ifill’s tweet to you: “Brilliance rewarded: Congratulations: Now, get back to work.”
A: (Laughs). Yes, that’s the best advice.
Q: Did you expect the reaction you got to the book?
A: No. I don’t quite know what to make of it. I had no anticipation of the kind of the success it’s experienced. It just happened that the conversation (about the subject) was boiling. You can’t know what the conversation is going to be.
Q: I’ve read that the format and tone of this book was inspired by James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” which was written in the form of a letter to his nephew. Yours is a letter to your teenaged son Samori.
A: I was inspired by “The Fire Next Time,” more by its gravity than anything. I thought — why don’t people write short, powerful books like this, a singular, hundred-page essay? I had a memory of myself as a young person, sitting in the Founder’s Library at Howard University, and reading Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” cover to cover. I wanted a book that a young person could do that with. I wrote it three or four times before I came up with the idea of a letter to my son.
Q: What does your son think about the book’s success?
A: He’s very happy with it. We’re not living in the country right now. He did not do any of the publicity, he did not come to any of the events. But he knows it’s doing well.
Q: In the book you use the construct “The Dream.” People who believe in it are “The Dreamers.” The Dreamers have signed on, either actively or passively, to complicity in everything from police shootings to real estate redlining, which crowds blacks into substandard housing in dangerous neighborhoods.
For those who haven’t read the book, can you explain what that means?
A: The Dream is about the totality of white supremacy in American history and its cumulative weight on African Americans, and how one attempts to live with that. The (Dreamers are the) people who buy into … that somehow America is all icing and birthday cake, and that we (Americans) differ in (in the belief) that our founding was somehow more noble than that of other states.
Q: You talk about how new immigrants to this country “were something else before they were white — Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish”, but that “the process of washing the disparate tribes white” … was achieved “through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land.”
This fascinated me. Why would people be willingly lumped, or lump themselves, into being “white”?
A: I think it’s about national identity … I don’t think whiteness is supportable, quite frankly. In this country, white is receiving the full privileges of the state.
To be part of that, you have to make some sort of choice. Most immigrant groups have had to make a choice to participate in this country … they lose that other tag to become what’s called white.
Q: The British newspaper the Guardian published a piece saying that you left social class out of the equation.
A: That’s somebody else’s book. If you go to “The Fire Next Time” to find out what America was like in the 1960s, you couldn’t get it from that book. If you read “Between the World and Me” … I hope people will expand their reading.
Q: What should they read?
A: The great history of the Civil War, James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom.” Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns.” I think that book is incredible.
Q: This year has seen an explosion of police violence against young black men. It’s also seen an explosion of gun violence, period. Do you think they are related? If so, in what way? If not, why not?
A: Probably. One thing I have noticed from living outside the country, is that guns are widely available (in America) — there’s the high availability of lethal violence in the country. … and the police fear that there are so many guns in this country.
Q: In the book you say that your upbringing in dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore gave you a “stunted imagination” compared to your more sophisticated friends at Howard University. I might make the opposite case, that your upbringing and your trajectory into a different way of life is one thing that gives your writing its propulsive power.
A: That’s very true. The confrontation with how much you don’t know about the world, it can be bracing.
Q: In the book you describe your mother’s practice of making your write about your troubles at school, and how that helped you. You write that “She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing — myself.”
A: My mom was a teacher (special education), and she was very insistent that we be good readers and good writers. The best thing I got from that was introspection. The how, the why and what not to do again.
Q: In your accounts of your youth you expressed frustration and anger with the philosophy of nonviolence practiced by the civil-rights activists, but by the end of the book you seem to have come to another opinion. Can you elaborate?
A: Because I came up outside of the church, I never understood it, I wasn’t raised in it. (But) violence simply isn’t an option, no matter what … it’s important for you to realize. You are an American. That’s the first thing you have to understand.
It’s your country. I think that’s what I came to believe. The strain of black power (the Black Power movement) that looked at us as colonies — we were in fact Americans. Even when you feel like other folks are not doing their part, you are tied to it. You have a responsibility to participate in the political system without going to guns.
Q: I thought your book was very powerful, but I was left with an overwhelming feeling that things are bleak and not likely to get better.
A: I don’t think it will change in my lifetime or my child’s lifetime. But my feeling is that this is a work of literature, and it’s not the job of literature to make people feel great about themselves. It’s not even the job to inspire people.
One of my favorite pieces of art is (the HBO series) “The Wire.” I don’t read Joan Didion to feel better about the world. That is really the burden that people put on African-American writers. I ask to be judged by the same standards of any other work of art and literature.