Reading Coates Back-to-Back

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During the 24 Hour Read-a-thon I set out to read the end of Between the World and Me, which I followed up by reading The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, a Son, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. Along with Woman at Point Zero, it was an intense 24 hours. For those interested in Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Case for Reparations— my personal favorite of his– then these books are a logical investment.

Clearly, I read them in the wrong order, BTWAM being our November 2015 book club pick, and TBS a thrift store find a month or two later. Perhaps reading in the proper order would have told a different story, but reading the end of BTWAM before TBS provided a reminder of who Coates is today before seeing where he’d come from.

Miles Davis is quoted saying something along the lines of, “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” That, right there, is the relationship between these two books. 

CoatesBtWaMTBS, as its title implies, is about being a son. It’s the insight he gained being the offspring of Paul Coates, who was at times a scholar, or an activist, or a player– more commonly some fusion of the three. It’s a more conventional coming of age story, following Coates from his early childhood to his college acceptances. TBS is a great memoir that contextualizes much of what comes in the next book, but BTWAM is a different beast altogether.

In contrast, BTWAM is very much an indictment of racists and racism. The writing is different, as though Coates had aged enough in between the two books to put a bit if pass in his voice. Read both, and be shocked at how one man can chronicle the same life in two distinctly different voice. It forces readers to find the story of America within the story of one man. It’s a memoir in the style of Baldwin.

“You must put yourself in the skin of a black man…” wrote Baldwin back in 1963, writing to white readers in one of the two essays in The Fire Next Time. Coates doesn’t say that, so much as he provided the vehicle– the text, comprised of personal experience and analysis– for that to happen.

Coates New YorkBTWAM is structured as a letter from father to son, in contrast to TBS, which is laden with a son’s observations of his father. I wrote in an earlier post (What I’ve learned from the books I hated) about the letter format as a literary device– this book wasn’t written for his son. If I know anything about Black families, I know that the conversations this book forces one to have are conversations that happen in Black households far earlier. However, it’s use as a literary device allowed Coates to meet his audience halfway. It invites those who have never experienced anything similar to cringe alongside him as a white woman shoves his child in the subway. It forces them understand with the same urgency of parents forced to relay racial commentary to children hypersensitive to the names of black youth on the evening news.

Our majority Black book club found countless experiences in this book to empathize with, especially the men. Despite enjoying the book as a conversation piece that validated many personal thoughts, I didn’t find it without fault. The section on September 11th seemed written solely for shock value, but I’ve been a lone critic. I understand its purpose in a book about a man discussing how race influences his relationship with citizenship.  We also discussed the absence of women in the book, because they seemed to be merely on the peripheries (if present at all). Again, in a book posited as from father to son, it wasn’t surprising.

While they were wildly different in style, voice and purpose, both The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me were great. I gave explanatory and humane TBS a 3.5 out of 5, and the argumentative and exploratory BTWAM a 4.5 out of 5. Stylistically choosing between the two is easy, with BTWAM as a clear winner. It was fantastically problematic, making it a great choice for book clubs and discussions.

Have you read either of these books? Neither? Are you a Coates fan who hasn’t had the chance to make the transition from his work at The Atlantic to his published books? Let me know in the comments!

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14 Comments

  1. […] a heathen like myself. This isn’t a book you read once and give away– like Between the World and Me, Citizen, Salt, and Baldwin himself, The Fire This Time is an undaunted examination of […]

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  2. […] about. Some recommendations are Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (BB&GT review here), and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle […]

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  3. I was given Between The World And Me as a present. Looking forward to reading and reviewing it, i think his Atlantic articles are brilliant.

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    1. I really liked Between the world and me, but to be honest, I think he’s much better at doing long form journalism. I’m interested in his personal story because he’s so good at blending the nuances of his life with relevant policy and larger social issues, but his work for The Atlantic is much more captivating.

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      1. I see….I haven’t read any of his books yet so I can’t make that comparison but I do agree that he is brilliant as a journalist. I assumed it might translate to books but maybe he uses a different writing style than on The Atlantic? I will find out soon!

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  4. […] Reading Coates Back-to-Back […]

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  5. I’ve read Between the World and Me, and I realized that I really values a lot of what he said, but mostly because he made connections between black writers and thinkers from way back, and since I teach African American lit courses, I got what he was doing, but the references and connections may be lost on others, which can make this a challenging book.

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  6. Love the comparative angle! I haven’t read any of his works, but BTWAM has been on my list for so long and I’ll definitely read it this year. Not sure about TBS but I want to read The Case for Reparations, too. It would be great to explore more father-son relationship books, I tend to focus on sister and mother-daughter dynamics.

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  7. The comparison you draw is really helpful. Thanks!

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  8. Very nice comparison. I had just bought BTWAM a few months ago, and it’s on as soon as the craziness of the school-year dies down (I need my full attention/ brain to be available for processing…) I really like how you frame TBS and now I’m thinking it may be useful to know something of Coates’ experiences before BTWAM? If I wanted to read both do you have a recommended order?

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    1. I can see the merits to reading them in either order, but I think I’d say read TBS first. It’s the lesser of the two, so I’d rather read the BTWAM second, so I finish off with the most jarring one. If you plan on reading his articles, BTWAM is a great intro to how he thinks/writes

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  9. I’m a huge fan of Coates, and read BTWAM earlier this year. Would you recommend going back and reading TBS as well?

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    1. hm. It depends. I recommend it if you’d like to know more about his background, or perhaps about the ebbs and flows of Baltimore (which is about 30 minutes from where I was born and raised, so it held particular significance to me). But if you’re looking for that same fire? That intellectual discourse? I’d stick to his Atlantic longreads.

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      1. Good to know, thanks!

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