I was inspired and challenged by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ public lecture this week at the University of Detroit Mercy. Based on his most recent book Between the World and Me, winner of the 2015 National Book Award, Coates presented an efficient and highly effective argument that America is based on a false idea of race and built on the plunder of black bodies. Implicit in this living lie and ongoing injustice is “the Dream” – Coates’ recasting of the American Dream as a propagated myth that immorally ignores the reality of its human toll. And it boils down to the plunder of millions of black bodies for centuries, before and after 1864.
Coates laid much of this out in his 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic). Between the World and Me is more personal, written in the form of a letter from the father to his teenage son. Coates presents the horror of plundering black bodies to many white readers through the lens of parents powerless to protect their children from a brutal system. Take, as just one example, his Howard University classmate Prince Jones. Prince came from a professional and relatively well-off family, one it seemed was living proof of an American Dream for all. Then Prince was shot to death in northern Virginia by a Maryland police officer. Shot several times, unarmed, for no reason at all, with no justice to ease the pain. Mistaken identity, a risk common to black men. But Coates challenges us to see this as even more than the plunder of another young man that was shot down:
And the plunder was not just of Prince alone. Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of all the time spent regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference checks on babysitters. Think of World Book and Childcraft. Think of checks written for family photos. Think of credit cards charged for vacations. Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks, and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth. [Between the World and Me 81-82]
This plunder, in all its forms and mechanisms, was America’s economic fuel, while the denial of this plunder fuels the Dream. We must fix both the monetary and moral ongoing injustice to be right as a nation. This is Coates’ core intellectual point supporting his case for reparations. But in the last pages of Between the World and Me, Coates introduces plunder of the earth as the inevitable sequel to the plunder of black bodies. Like a franchise movie that ends with the hint of a more deadly villain next time, Coates warns of a looming environmental apocalypse as we do to nature what we have done to people:
Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.
Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. [Between the World and Me 150]
No disrespect to Thoreau and Leopold and Al Gore, but Coates nails it for me with a simple truth of human nature, American political capitalism, and fossil fuel addiction. Put him in the environmental writer canon, top shelf.
And for now, Coates leaves his readers with just this. No solutions or recommendations or 10-point-plans. His story of Prince Jones does not end with justice or reform or any silver lining. The idea of “race” is like a devilish invisible hand that inoculates individuals of any specific responsibility:
[My mother] knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race,” imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws. [Between the World and Me 83.]
At the lecture in Detroit, questions from the audience pressed Coates for solutions but he came only with the truth of how things are now. Professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, was similarly frustrated by Coates’ stated fatalism in her New York Times Sunday Book Review: "I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral; we must believe it is possible. Believing in this possibility — no matter how slim — and dedicating oneself to playing a meaningful role in the struggle to make it a reality focuses one’s energy...."
I understand Alexander’s frustration, but this is a book from a parent to a child, and you don’t teach (well) by having all the answers. Instead, Coates challenges us to work for it, for the sake of doing the work itself: "History is not solely in our hands. And you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life." [Between the World and Me 97.] Amen.
I don’t know if Coates has already put more of his thoughts and intellect on plunder, v 2.0 – the Earth. He’s spot-on in seeing it with all of its ugliness, power, and destruction. And perhaps he sees the failings of the mainstream environmental movement to face injustice, as detailed by his colleague at The Atlantic, law professor Jedidiah Purdy. As Purdy writes, environmentalism needs to become a social justice movement for all. And perhaps if social justice creates a new environmentalism, we can write a different sequel.