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General News    H4'ed 8/21/15

Ta-Nehisi Coates' BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME (Review Essay)

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.A deeper black: Race in America. with Ta-Nehisi Coates
.A deeper black: Race in America. with Ta-Nehisi Coates
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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) August 21, 2015: Recently I have been re-reading and writing about the American Jesuit cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong's book about the Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), HOPKINS, THE SELF, AND GOD (1986), the expanded published version of Ong's 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto.

Hopkins' poetry was published posthumously in 1918. As the title of Ong's book indicates, his study of Hopkins centers on Hopkins' writings about the self, not just on Hopkins' poetry.

Now, in the title of Ta-Nehisi Coates' short book BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME (2015), the author announces that he is writing about his sense of his self. Coates writes his autobiographical book as a letter to his 15-year old son, whose first name honors Samori Toure (page 68). So Coates is telling his son the story of his (the son's) father's upbringing and how his father met his mother and more.

Coates (born in 1975) is an African American who grew up in West Baltimore. Fear dominated his life (page 29). His candid discussion of fear in his life leads him to say of himself as an adult that he is wounded (page 125). No doubt he is wounded. But how many Americans are not wounded? It strikes me that being wounded is part of the human condition.

But Coates sees fear as the source of his being wounded, and he sees fear as pervading the lives of all African Americans. But his meditation on fear is his own life and the lives of African Americans does not stop there, as I will explain momentarily.

As a young man, Coates attended Howard University, which he repeatedly refers to as "The Mecca" (both words capitalized) because it was such a moving and expansive experience for him. However, he left Howard before completing an undergraduate degree there.

Before Coates went to Howard, he had become enamored with Malcolm X and certain other black heroes (pages 34-37; references to Malcolm X are scattered throughout the book). But at Howard, his African American history teachers disabused him of certain false notions he had picked up from some of his intellectual heroes (pages 53-55).

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not and is not one of Coates' heroes (page 131). At least in part, this is due to the fact that Coates does not believe in God. But he also has other quarrels with Dr. King's approach to the civil rights struggle. Coates appears to allude to Dr. King's remark about the arc of history, but without explicitly referring to Dr. King (page 28).

Disclosure: On Monday, October 12, 1964, I listened to Dr. King deliver a speech to a packed gym at Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri. Later, Fr. Jerome Marchetti, S.J., told me that it had been the first time in world history that a Baptist minister had been allowed to speak publicly at a Jesuit university. On March 25, 1965, I joined the end of Dr. King's march on Montgomery, Alabama, and once again listened to him speak. Subsequently, I devoted ten years of my life to teaching inner-city black youth in open admissions postsecondary education in St. Louis and New York City.

At Howard, Coates met and became friends with another African American student named Prince Carmen Jones (pages 63-64). Tragically, he was shot and killed in Northern Virginia by an African American police officer from Prince George's County (pages 75-85) -- in what I might charitably interpret as a case of mistaken identity. To this day, Coates is haunted by Jones' killing.

The most moving part of Coates' book is his account of his visit with Prince Jones' mother, Dr. Mabel Jones, years after her son's death (pages 135-146).

Now, at one juncture, Coates refers to "the system" (page 18). In plain English, the system refers to American culture as a whole and how it operates.

At another juncture, Coates refers to "the brutality of my country" (page 12). C. G. Jung notes that brutality accompanies sentimentality. In Coates' effort to be honest with himself and with his son, Coates for the most part eschews sentimentality. He even mocks what he sees as sentimentality (page 43). But Coates says, "Surely I am biased by nostalgia and tradition" (page 39). Nostalgia is a form of sentimentality.

Throughout the book, Coates refers repeatedly to "the Dream" and "Dreamers" (usually capitalized terms). As he uses these two capitalized terms, they are polysemous. In other words, he does not give an operational definition to each of these two terms, and then use each term in a univocal way.

Because Dr. King is famous for a speech known as "I Have a Dream," Coates' terms "the Dream" and "Dreamer" seem to include Dr. King.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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