The fire this time (5)

In the first week of its publication Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me entered the New York Times nonfiction best seller list at number 1. The book is dreadful, but Coates knows his audience and he has hit it with this book. I think conservatives would be well advised to pay attention. In this series I have tried to give conservatives unlikely to read the book a rounded picture of what Coates has wrought. It’s not a pretty sight.

It is also a somewhat strange one. As Coates winds up the book’s middle section, he inserts an account of a visit to Paris with his wife and son. Meditating on their Paris interlude, Coates draws these lessons for his son (128):

Remember your name [Samori]. Remember that you and I are brothers, are the children of trans-Atlantic rape. Remember the broader consciousness that comes with that. Remember that this consciousness can never ultimately be racial; it must be cosmic. Remember the Roma you saw begging with their children in the street, and the venom with which they were addressed. Remember the Algerian cab driver, speaking openly of his hatred of Paris, then looking at your mother and me and insisting that we were all united under Africa. Remember the rumbling we all felt under Paris, as though the city had been built in abeyance of Pompeii. Remember the feeling that the great public gardens, the long lunches, might all be undone by a physics, cousin to our rules and the reckoning of our own country, that we do not fully comprehend.

If Coates doesn’t fully comprehend, I’m afraid I don’t either, and I doubt that I am alone.

Coates’s recommendation of “cosmic consciousness” strikes a discordant note with almost everything else in the book, but it foreshadows Coates’s destination. In the book’s conclusion, Coates’s jeremiad takes an environmental turn. He condemns “the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.” As I said in the introduction to the series, Coates is pitching this book to an upscale market.

That’s the only explanation I have for the note on which Coates essentially ends the book. In the book’s penultimate paragraph Coates returns to, and expands on, his critique of the “Dream” at the heart of the America that Coates hates (150-151):

Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and the by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved the have improved themselves, and the damning 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. And its vengeance is not fire in the cities but fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind.. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately the Dreamers themselves.

Coates’s manifesto is not just an updated racial hustle, though it is certainly that. It is also a throwback to the environmental movement circa 1969. Recognizing the upscale market of readers for whom Coates has produced this dreadful book is perhaps the only way it can readily be understood.


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