Thomas Chatterton Williams on Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man's Escape from the Crowd Philosopher and author Williams at London Review of Books:

In Coates’s view, no one has agency. The young black shooter doesn’t have to think too hard about what he might do because ‘the galaxy was playing with loaded dice.’ What’s alarming, though no doubt comforting to his white readership, is that in this analysis whites aren’t individual actors either. When an irritable white woman leaving an Upper West Side cinema pushes the young, ‘dawdling’ Samori and impatiently screams, ‘Come on!’ Coates, who is a tall, imposingly built man, erupts:

There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body … I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defence. I experienced this as his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast. He had made no such attempt on behalf of my son. And he was now supported by other white people in the assembling crowd. The man came closer. He grew louder. I pushed him away. He said: ‘I could have you arrested!’ I did not care. I told him this, and the desire to do much more was hot in my throat.

Coates sees this woman not as a morally fallible person with her own neuroses, but as a force of nature, she is ‘the comet’ in his scheme. It doesn’t occur to him that she may not be an avatar of white supremacy but just a nasty person who would have been as likely to push a blonde child or a Chinese one. Coates doesn’t realise that his disproportionate reaction – ‘my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history’ – is bound to be seen as objectionable to those ‘standing nearby’. And it doesn’t strike him that as long as black people have to be handled with infantilising care – for fear of dredging up barely submerged ancestral pain – we’ll never be equal or free.

This scene comes late in the book, and it’s the first, worst and only negative thing we actually see white people do to Coates or his family. More.

Reality check: It is fundamental to much modern philosophy (though not to Chatterton’s, apparently) that people do not have agency, do not make choices.

That fact helps explain  Daycare U, where adult helplessness and acting out, far from an embarrassment, are an asset. Just as in Huxley’s Brave New World.

See also: Respecting one’s heroes but taking issue – Thomas Sowell edition


How can we believe in naturalism if we have no choice?

  • lgeubank

    They just shouldn’t let bigoted morons like Tee-heesie Coats and Maya Angelou write books full of pretensious double-talk. I mean, they should publish that horse manure.

  • gainny

    I haven’t read the book, just reviews of it, which said Coates’s son was dawdling at the foot of a down-escalator–an immediate danger to everyone piling up behind. There’s no reason for Williams to impugn her character or mental health.

    • Frances

      If you are correct, then a real father would have yanked the kid out of the way while apologizing to the people behind. Obviously Mr Coats doesn’t think his child should be required to behave in a manner which doesn’t endanger others. And as for any basic manners – not in his vocabulary.

  • Hard Little Machine

    Victimology is like Calvinism. You are spiders in the hands of an angry god. No point in having free will, intellect or a moral compass.

  • Sid Falco

    “my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history”

    just another oversized violent brute. Where is the White “safe space” ?