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The world between us

The atheism of Ta-Nehisi Coates gets in the way of real reconciliation

The world between us

Ta-Nehisi Coates (Anna Webber/Getty Images for The New Yorker )

In the midst of the Trayvon Martin case a few years back, I speculated in these pages about what it would take to move forward on race relations. Considering what’s happened since then—Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, Black Lives Matter, campus protests, and climbing murder rates—race relations have taken a big step backward. A little book published last summer has enlightened many readers as to why this might be so.

Between the World and Me, by Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, charged upon the literary scene waving ecstatic endorsements. “This is required reading,” said novelist Toni Morrison. Dozens of reviewers echoed Morrison’s pronouncement: required reading. The author, they agreed, was the literary heir of iconic black writer James Baldwin.

Coates grew up in Baltimore, the son of leftist parents with connections to the Black Panthers. His parents’ determination to live in the ghetto sentenced their bookish, sensitive son to a harrowing childhood where gunplay between 11-year-olds was not uncommon and most young black men of his acquaintance spent time in jail. Eventually the elder Coates accepted a librarian’s job at Howard University, described by his son as “Mecca.” Here Ta-Nehisi all but lived in the library, immersing himself in the texts of his people, both celebrated and obscure.

Though he never earned a college degree, the young man soaked up enough black history, poetry, apologetics, and literary style to launch a journalism career and publish a memoir. His first article for The Atlantic was a widely discussed critique of Bill Cosby’s “black conservatism.” “The Case for Reparations” set pundits buzzing from coast to coast.

Coates’ atheism misleads him: There’s no material compensation for spiritual harm. The greatest reparation was made on a cross.

Coates’ second book was supposed to be a collection of essays on the Civil War, but then Ferguson happened. He began a stream-of-consciousness letter addressed to his teenage son, which became Between the World and Me. In it the author mixes raw honesty—exposing some of the most painful episodes of his past—with broad-brush pessimism. None of the love, learning, and literary success he’s achieved outweighs the pain of living among “the residue of plunder,” in a system built upon the exploitation of the black body.

“Bodies” stand in for selves. As an atheist, Coates may not be able to conceive of any reality beyond the physical body, but it’s an odd formulation: Instead of “The white man is out to get me,” whites are always, consciously or not, angling for his body and the bodies of the brothers. The emotional core of his memoir is the death of a college friend, Prince Jones, in 2000. Jones was on the road late at night when he was mistaken for a wanted drug dealer and pursued by an undercover cop. It was not a racist incident—the officer was also black—but somehow this and other forms of violence in the community are due entirely to white plundering.

Black identity is bound up with suffering, whether intentional or collateral. The damage is great; the pain is real; the roots are long. But though Coates’ book is hailed as an important “conversation starter,” it does not invite conversation. He presents his feelings as the whole story. He adopts suffering as his identity, to which there’s no adequate answer except further suffering (while living off the substantial royalties of the most heralded book of 2015).

Whites are told that they must deal honestly with the tortured history of race relations in America. But by now that history is too tortured for either side to deal with honestly. As Jeremiah 17:9 asks, Who can understand the heart? Who can untangle the twisted motives and missed opportunities of almost 400 years?

If there were some way to make real reparations for slavery and bigotry, we should not hesitate to pay the cost, shake hands, and go forward. But Coates’ atheism misleads him: There’s no material compensation for spiritual harm. The greatest reparation was made on a cross. If he could meet me there, I would gladly ask his forgiveness for any perceived harm on my part, because that’s the only place he could forgive me. Otherwise, resolution seems forever out of reach.