Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me
Originally published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the California Caucus of College and University Ombuds 2016 edition, which was released in January 2017. In 2016, I was the organizational ombudsman of the University of North Dakota, and in 2017 I was the assistant organizational ombudsman of the University of California, Merced. Since, I have left the field but remained interested in it and the related fields of mediation and arbitration, as all of these were covered in my graduate studies at Pepperdine University School of Law: Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. HBO has announced that it will premiere a 1HR 30MIN film adaptation of the book on November 21, 2020. Read the book, read my review, watch the film, and share your thoughts with me. Please. And thank you.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, award-winning staff writer at The Atlantic Magazine and author of the taboo-breaking long-form essay The Case for Reparations, has written Between the World and Me. Part of the book’s thrill is that Coates departs from what historian Dr. Thomas E. Woods Jr. often refers to as the “bi-partisan 3x5 index card of allowable opinion” that muzzles most authors, by daring to have a default position of suspicion toward the State. His suspicion is historically and presently contextual given the relationship between black folks and the State.
I purchased my physical copy of Between the World and Me at IOA 2016 in Seattle, WA. Looking at the books available for purchase made me wonder how many books matter for our field and which books matter most. I chose to review this book in this journal to highlight the social construct commonly called “race”. Our responses to it matter. Ombuds practitioners striving for inclusion will recognize that the spirit of this book (criticism of oppressive individual and systemic human behavior) can apply to all Otherized people.
Attempts to summarize complex ideas run the risk of oversimplification. Calling out the risk is the first cautionary step. Next, a short and clear roadmap helps. I invite you to enjoy a panoramic shot of the text’s lush landscape followed by select zoom-ins and finally an analytical tie-in that shows the relevance to our organizational ombudsman profession.
Between the World and Me is political, but not electoral. It is a publicly penned personal letter exhorting and encouraging Coates’ son Somari (and whomever else resonates with its message) in a world that dishearteningly treats some people with less dignity than others. Notable trends he examines are: Battered Black Bodies, The Dream, The Mecca, Christianity, and The Struggle.
Battered Black Bodies
Coates’ vividity in describing battered black bodies to his son is so alarming and commonplace in this letter that it sucks you into this uncomfortable world just in time for you to realize it’s reality and not fiction. He says: the State uses compulsory schooling to “better discipline the body” (pg. 26) and compulsory security production to deflate “the fearless boys and girls who would knuckle up, call on cousins and crews, and if it came to it, pull guns”, because “America [sic] had guns and cousins, too” (pg. 27). His acquaintance Prince Jones’ “vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth” by “the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket” (pg. 82). Relatively affluent Chicagoan blacks who think they have found “respite” instead find “a more intricate specimen of plunder” (pg. 110) and the origin of battered black bodies is a “birthmark of damnation” (pg. 147).
This is not an exhaustive list of how black bodies are battered. But, in these crumbs Coates uses repetition and plain-spokenness to emphasize the repugnance of the status quo condition of blacks in America. The perpetuation of the status quo is The Dream.
The Dream (dreamt by guardians of the status quo critiqued by Coates) is that whiteness has always meant what it does today in the U.S. The Dream is a white picket fence in a white neighborhood with no fretting that you could be murdered on your way to or back from school. The Dream is police as friendly do-gooders with but a few blemishes here and there. The Dream ignores brown babies abroad being extra-judiciously blown-up by Made in USA bombs and euphemistically, Orwellianly, and all-encompassingly described by the 4th Estate as ‘militants’ and/or ‘insurgents’. The Dream is tidy and neat - no room for ‘blight’. Dreamers (often referred to by Coates, perhaps partially for comic relief, as “people who think they are white”) are people who refuse to leave this reverie.
Mecca in Between the World and Me is not the famed home of the hajj in Saudi Arabia. Mecca is Coates’ literary device referring to Howard University (HBCU of HBCUs). Still, for him, it is a sacred space. Mecca is where black intellectuals gather, whether they are qualified for Ivy League Schools or not, because the diversity of blacks allows them to be “normal” for once. They do not feel pressures to behave in a particular way or represent their “race” in controversial conversations. Coates radically and delightfully describes The Mecca as having “a power more gorgeous than any voting rights bill” (pg. 149).
Another drawing power throughout the book is religion. Coates is not a Christian, by his own admission, and says his parents raised him atheist. And yet, he cannot help but constantly comment on Christianity’s pervasion throughout black culture. Other authors would have ignored it or literally marginalized it to a footnote or worse an endnote. Coates’ inclusion of Christianity shows his bend toward impartiality.
Outside of Coates’ nuclear family, he has Christian relatives. Eastern concepts of what makes someone Christian can help shed light on this puzzle. In Lebanon, there is a quota of governmental positions that must be filled by Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Uniate Christians, and Orthodox Christians. The politicians’ metaphysical views are less relevant than their familial religious background. Similarly, some Ethiopian Orthodox Christian monks become monks as opposed to goat herders for job security rather than out of religious conviction. Still, this secular monk will be called, and will call himself, a Christian until his last breath. Coates needs not to have recited creedal formulas in his youth, let alone to have had faith in them, to have his thoughts shaped by the Christianity of his community.
Coates’ cognitive dissonance regarding Christianity is exemplified by his confidence that there will be no resurrection of the dead but his admiration for the otherworldly hope that oozes out of blacks that have faith in the resurrection of the dead. He says nonviolence in the face of tear gas is imprudent martyrdom. He says a system that promotes violence domestically and internationally has no grounds to tell blacks to be nonviolent. And yet, he thoroughly appreciates the superhuman ability of nonviolent protesters to emotionlessly absorb torment. That’s one way to navigate The Struggle.
Coates’ prior book, which I have not read, is entitled The Beautiful Struggle. Reading it would provide greater context to his usage of the term struggle in Between the World and Me. But, even without that added context the message is unmistakably clear. The Struggle is any given black person’s persistence through life in the US, in the face of individual and systemic obstacles not faced by other denizens of the US.
Organizational Ombudsman Tie-in
South Park has made it evident to the world that “Jesse Jackson is not the emperor of black people”. There cannot be one spokesperson for such a diverse group. Likewise Coates, after publicly supporting Bernie Sanders over Hilary Clinton in a Democracy Now interview, wrote that he does not want to be and is not qualified to be the political spokesman for all black peoples. Thus, however influential this text may become, we must recognize it as but one black and blooming voice.
Our organizational ombudsman profession should take note of Between the World and Me’s message if it is serious about harbingering individual and systemic behavioral change. How can we practically apply Between the World and Me’s exploration of “race” relations? Academic ombudsmen should take note of critical ‘race’ related events pulsating throughout the U.S. such as: Kansas’ rejection of a University Senate approved multicultural student government; the University of Missouri’s hunger-strike and football-team boycott which resulted in the president’s resignation. As ombuds, what is our role in the context of the current campus-wide and nation-wide tensions regarding diversity and culture… especially pertaining to police?
Between the World and Me is no proverbial magic wand. But, it rudely awakens those who have slumbered through these issues and encourages those who have already awoken and engaged these topics.
 Coates, Ta-Nehisi. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau. Print.
 This phrase and amalgamations thereof, are used by Woods as a catchphrase in print, radio, and online.
 Coates uses the term cousin functionally rather than according to the letter. Your cousin need not share any blood relations with you but for the ones all humans share. The sic is placed after America to signify that a nation or people is not necessarily represented by the State that rules it. The text makes no such distinction.
 This protection racket line is reminiscent of economist and polemicist Dr. Murray N. Rothbard’s words from two score and one years ago. “It is the state, indeed, that functions as a mighty "protection racket" on a giant and massive scale.” Rothbard, Murray N. "Society without a State." The Libertarian Forum 7.1 (1975): n. pag. Print.
 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU)
 This is a popular satirical animated comedy in the U.S. Stone, Matt and Parker, Trey. (2007). With Apologies to Jesse Jackson. South Park. Episode 154. Comedy Central.
 Coates, Ta-Nehisi. (2016). Against Endorsements. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/02/against-endorsements/462261/