Why Ta-Nehisi Coates Isn’t Our James Baldwin

Ta-Nehisi Coates. Photo: Lyle Ashton Harris

By now, the designation of The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates as heir to — or the “next,” or “today’s” — James Baldwin feels inevitable: Coates himself, in what amounted to an origin story for his new book, Between the World and Me, described rereading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and calling his editor to ask whether anyone dared to write that way anymore. Then, before anyone had a chance to review Between, Toni Morrison had anointed the younger writer, via blurb, as having finally filled the “intellectual void” left behind by Baldwin.

There’s much beyond this brand of public relations to link Between the World and Me and The Fire Next Time — after all, the books share a perennially important theme: the abiding problem of the color line, and the cost of that problem to black and white Americans alike. But the differences between the two (leaving aside any tedious descent into which is better, a conversation better left to some middlebrow barbershop) are actually more revealing than the similarities. Despite Coates’s stated desire to write in Baldwin’s inimitable “way,” the two men actually deploy opposing styles — Coates the rapper, Baldwin the reverend — in a manner that has something to tell us about how the rhetoric and attitude of the fight for freedom have changed in the last 50 years.

The thing to remember about Baldwin is that he was always — at least since adolescence — a skillful, if sometimes unbelieving, preacher. Indeed, religion — the hypocrisy of Western Christianity, the moral and logical limits of black nationalist Islam — is one of the great themes of The Fire Next Time, beginning with Baldwin’s time as as a popular “Young Minister” in Harlem. He describes the ecstasy he sometimes felt before the congregation: “Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, ‘the Word’ — when the church and I were one.”

Talk of this kind of unifying self-transcendence is as old as America itself, from John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards down through Whitman, Emerson, and, later, Melville, who, under the thrall of a kind of nationalist paganism, created the language and philosophical outlook that informed — and continues to inform — our particular American religion. That religion, despite claims to the contrary, is not Christianity, not really. Instead, it’s a hybrid mix of Puritan-descended certainties regarding causality — good fortune as indicative of virtue, hard work as guarantee of future spoils — and a potent, if basically insane, belief in the power of self invention. That belief has often found expression in long, wavelike sentences, built with short, frank Germanic words, forming a topography of the American self-image: compulsively — almost unwittingly — forthcoming, searching to and fro and to again for an identity that might match our endless capacity for growth.

James Baldwin Photo: Buhs/Remmler/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The Baldwin who loves these American transcendentalists is the Baldwin who sometimes sounds like an earnest but pragmatic exceptionalist, who writes sentences like these: “If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

The source of another species of long Baldwin sentence (by contemporary standards, almost all of Baldwin’s sentences are long) is Henry James. In his wide-ranging “Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review, Baldwin admitted to having learned narratorial control from James: “This is where Henry James helped me,” he said, recounting the process of writing his debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, “with his whole idea about the center of consciousness and using a single intelligence to tell the story.” That intelligence, in Baldwin as well as in James, is uncannily precise, and often unsparing on the topic of its country and those who make it up.

Baldwin’s Jamesian sentences are long, but long because they are almost legal in intent: Each dependent clause hedges, qualifies, clarifies, and eliminates room for specious readings. (Coates recently tweeted his admiration of these rhetorical feats.) When Baldwin finally hits the period, his meaning is bare, and the only option left to the reader is to decide whether to agree.

The sum of these influences is the quintessential Baldwin — hot in the heart but cold in the eye, fully American while also fully aware of America, simultaneously observer and observed.

Coates, an avowed and lifelong atheist, is the Native Tongues–era emcee to Baldwin’s preacher. In Between the World and Me, there is no sanctuary, literal or figurative, but there’s always a mic somewhere close at hand. When he admits to his son that “[f]ear ruled everything around me,” he is, sure, relaying a set of facts about his life in Baltimore, but he is also echoing the song that laid bare the essentials of capitalism for an entire generation. The highly stylized — even mythologized — evocations of the violence of Coates’s youth read like prose renditions of songs from Nas’s Illmatic. And, like the rappers of his youth, Coates writes downhill, rolling toward punch lines. Here he is, for example, on murderous police: “The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.” And, again, on the diaspora as witnessed at Howard: “I remember those days like an OutKast song, painted in lust and joy.” And on watching his future wife smoke a blunt: “I was lost and running and wondering what it must be to embrace her, to be exhaled by her, to return to her, and leave her high.” Each the kind of line one designs to shut down the cipher. Great rap albums create and then employ new languages, languages which, upon relistening, echo from bar to bar and track to track. Hence Coates’s repeated intonations of “the Dreamers” and “the people who believe that they are white” (a Baldwinism), of “plunder” and, especially, the body.

Another huge, controlling influence on Coates is the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s. That short-lived burst of intellect and art, born of Black Power and various attempts at a working Afrocentrism, was led by poets like Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, both of whom provide section-leading epigraphs for Coates’s letter. Coates’s reminiscences of Howard University — or “The Mecca,” as he calls its spiritual alter-ego — are full of loving meditations on the infinite expressions of blackness, each a tender little catalogue of hues and styles and diasporic origins. This kind of unembarrassed racial wonder — and a correspondingly lush and deeply felt rendering of that wonder — is classic Black Arts. The lines from Baraka’s poem “Ka ’Ba,” which Coates quotes before BTWAM’s second section — “We are beautiful people / with african imagination / full of masks and dances and swelling chants / with african eyes, and noses, and arms, / though we sprawl in grey chains in a place / full of winters, / when what we want is sun” — are direct ancestors to lines like these, from Coates’s description of the Yard at Howard: “There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were the high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt … It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of ‘Redemption Song,’ each in a different color and key.” Where Baldwin directs his attention to what black Americans might mean — and therefore, what they might achieve, and, until achievement, be able to withstand — amid the larger American scheme, Coates’s interest, like Baraka’s, is on the beauty of black people alone, especially insofar as that beauty points to a contrast with the wider world, not a synthesis. Coates describes how, through the tough disillusioning work of his history professors at Howard, he shed the extreme black particularism of his youth — gained the honest way, from his ex-Panther father — but that impulse continues to nourish him aesthetically: BTWAM is, at least in part, a love letter to black people in America and abroad whose “dark energies” are Coates’s energies, too.

Hip-hop and Black Arts make Coates’s prose purpler than Baldwin’s, more lyrical and less precise — he has meaning to convey, but also a beat to keep. If Baldwin — in Fire and elsewhere — is an essentially argumentative writer, aiming, alternately, to exhort and cajole and remind and convince, Coates’s terrain is the experiential and emotional. Here is the feeling, says Coates, of a life lived within the parameters of terror; here is the sound of the percussion of the world against my life.

This, I think, is what we are really talking about when we talk about the matter of “hope,” especially with respect to Coates. So much of the criticism of his work returns to the question of whether he’s too negative, or warrantlessly fatalist, but this is a kind of category error. Baldwin, no doubt compelled on some level by the Christianity whose dogma he eventually rejected but whose air he breathed for too long to fully forget, felt a duty in his writing to stretch toward some better racial understanding, however asymptotically. Under no illusion as to the difficulty of the task, he shouldered it anyway: “I know that what I am asking is impossible,” he says toward the end of The Fire Next Time, “But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand — and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the possible.” Here Baldwin’s Emersonian streak reads as almost strategic. The rhetoric of illimitable potential makes way for the actual and the practical, no matter how painstakingly achieved.

Coates, with the benefit of having witnessed the almost 30 years of fits and false starts since Baldwin’s death, feels no such responsibility. His materialism — with so much repeated emphasis on the “body” — is more than a metaphysics: It is a guide for the conservation of precious energy. Because the body is finite, time is of the most urgent importance. Because the body is fragile, why weight it with impossible burdens? Coates is not opposed to protest or activism — he’s adamant on the necessity of “struggle” — but he refuses to expect transcendence, having witnessed none so far.

This obsession with corporeality — and, by extension, with limits — has a discomfiting salience to our time. The impetus behind the political moment that stretches roughly from Trayvon to today has been chiefly technological: Suddenly, via smartphone, we see lives turned to corpses on a seemingly endless loop. That this kind of rough and weirdly fetishizing visual evidence is what has been needed, finally, to bring police violence to the fore of the public consciousness is slightly depressing, and maybe indicative of the outer limits of rhetorical power in the 21st century.

The civil-rights movement that borrowed so much of Baldwin’s intellectual force was powered on ideas: Christian brotherhood, post-Enlightenment notions of freedom, the counter-Colonialism that swept Africa throughout the ’60s and put America to shame. Today it sometimes seems that ideas have lost that ability to charge and to chasten. It seems we need to see a body.

Why Ta-Nehisi Coates Isn’t Our James Baldwin