JUST SO YOU know, LLL is no johnny-come-lately to Mr. Coates, as you can see for yourself by our May 27, 2011 post on The Beautiful Struggle. Happy to report, though, that the praise that has come Coates's way for this new book is merited. If you were wondering whether you should read it, the answer is a definite yes.
I'm not sure about the invocations of James Baldwin that accompany almost every discussion of this book, though, starting with the back cover blurb from Toni Morrison herself: "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." This sounds badly off the mark. For one thing, Baldwin died in 1987, approaching thirty years ago, and given the work done since 1987 by (for example) Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Charles Mills, Patricia Williams, Percival Everett, and one Toni Morrison, one has to wonder...what intellectual void? If the Harlem Renaissance was a golden age for African American letters, what we've had since 1987 is a golden age squared.
Oh, I know. Blurbs are blurbs. They are not meant to be scrutinized. Still.
And yes, it is true that Between the World and Me consciously follows the example of The Fire Next Time: an open letter to a 15-year-old African American male, a no-punches-pulled assessment of the racist society that the young man was born into and will have to somehow find a way to be an adult in. And like Baldwin, Coates is especially good on the willed obtuseness of "white" America, the people he calls the "Dreamers," deludedly believing that the United States and its culture are their own unassisted creation, when evidence that African American labor and imagination shaped that culture are everywhere one is willing to look.
But...when I think of Baldwin, I think of his moral clarity certainly, but I also think of his gravitas, that music in his prose that came from being steeped in Shakespeare and the King James Bible, the occasional cadences of the church, of black preaching. Coates's music is nervier, more staccato, more jabbing. It has its luxuriances, too, but they are the luxuriance's of a tagger, not the baroque flourishes of Baldwin.
In a word, he does not really remind me of Baldwin at all. Which is fine. We've got a Baldwin. Let Coates be Coates.
I loved, for instance, the sections on Howard University, or "Mecca," as Coates calls it. They made me think how terrific it would be to have a Howard novel, as Brideshead Revisited is an Oxford novel or This Side of Paradise a Princeton novel. And Coates is the person who ought to write it.