I know it’s already been praised to the skies, and endlessly opined about, and I’m pretty ambivalent about winding up as part of that “Why do white people like this so much?” meme or backlash or whatever exactly it is or was, but it happens to be a fact that the most deeply resonant and personally important book that I read this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, so I’m going to take a minute and try to say why I think that is.
The first thing — and for all that has been said about the book, this has not been said nearly enough — Coates is a marvelous stylist. Sentence by sentence, and thought by thought, the book is as formidable and rich in its aesthetics, in its range and command of information and emotion and idea, as in the particulars of the argument it advances. Some of my favorite passages were the descriptions of Coates’s first year in college — the explosion of friends, mentors, reference-points, ideas, identities — and of the halting, hard-traveled road to becoming a writer. Despite every circumstantial difference you can think of — our ages, our ancestries, where and how we each grew up, where we each chose to go to school, what we each eventually chose to write — Coates’s narrative of intellectual, artistic, and political coming-of-age resonated deeply with my own memories of that same era in my own life, and I hardly imagine I’m the only one. It was at least as instructive to learn what we had — and have — in common as it was to be reminded of what we didn’t, and still do not.
My very favorite part of Between the World and Me deals with Saul Bellow’s infamous question, “Who was the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” As someone who loves Bellow, who used a line from Herzog as an epigraph to his most recent book, it has caused me no small amount of pain and soul-searching over the years to try and reconcile the great man’s bountiful, messy, life-loving novels with his pinched, reactionary, often abhorrent cultural politics. Coates quotes the writer Ralph Wiley’s response: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, unless you find profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”
Of course this is true, and self-evidently true at that. The problem with Bellow’s question was never whether it could be answered, or what the answer might be; the problem was with the set of assumptions that caused it to be formulated in the first place, and the sneer with which it was then asked. If you want to know the limits of a man’s universe, just look at who he excludes from his notion of the universal. (You can start, if you like, with the default masculine pronoun deployed in the previous sentence.) For all my commitment to progressive politics (not that Democrat Party shit either — I mean actual progressive politics), for all my fluency in concepts of radical egalitarianism and liberation, for all my sense of myself as a leftist, I had never myself managed to arrive at Wiley’s devastatingly simple — even obvious — conclusion. (And of course I had never heard of Ralph Wiley before, much less read him; more’s the pity.) I had gone on the hunt for the short-circuit in Bellow’s humanity, but it hadn’t occurred to me to look for my own. It will surprise some of my readers more than others that I found them in the same place.
Once I understood what I’d been wrong about, it was remarkably easy to admit that I’d been wrong, and just how much. In fact, it felt pretty good. Being wrong is easier than being afraid of being wrong, because a person who is wrong and knows it can begin to imagine what rightness looks like, whereas a person who is afraid of being wrong can only dissemble or stay silent, hoping to make it through another day, another hour, with his fear intact.
Let’s be real clear here: I’m not claiming my work, or anyone’s work, is done. I don’t think this book gave me a racial-cultural exorcism. If anything, the narrowness of my own example suggests how much likely remains unaddressed, unaccounted for, as-yet-unimagined. This isn’t one of those essays where the white dude beats his chest and offers a putative mea culpa that sounds like a fraternity chant and actually doesn’t say anything except Pay more attention to me. I hate those fucking essays. In fact, I wasn’t sure whether I should write about Between the World and Me at all, but The Millions asked me to pick the book that meant the most to me this year, and this was the only honest answer I could give.
I’m going to end with a thought about Bellow, but not a defense or apology. He was who he was and he said what he said, and his reputation will stand or fall on the future’s willingness to endure him at his worst for what he offers at his best — that’s his problem, not mine. But since I said before that I loved him, I feel I ought to offer some inkling as to why. Since I’m almost done here, and this essay isn’t about him, I’ll keep this part short. One thing I love about Bellow is that he is unashamedly interested in the state of the human soul. He uses the word often, not in definitively religious terms, but not figuratively either. He believes in the soul, in its endless capacity for dilation and betterment. He believed, or wanted to believe, or his best work helps me believe, that we can be more than the sorrows our ancestors fled and inflicted; better than we ourselves were yesterday; better than we are right now. That line from Herzog that I used as my epigraph: “Oh, for a change of heart, a change of heart — a true change of heart!”
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