Last Tuesday, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates dropped his second book, Between the World and Me, to nigh-unanimous critical acclaim. It deserves it, because it’s an indescribably enlightening, enraging, important document about being black in America today. Coates is perhaps the best we have, and this book is perhaps the best he’s ever been.
There’s one passage, though, wherein Coates puts the toll of white supremacy in America into context. Much has been made of Coates’s confessed atheism in the book. Christianity has always been a tool for African-Americans, because with graceful suffering comes salvation, and with salvation comes the light at the end of the tunnel of white supremacy—Heaven, the promise of a better, eternal life. As a corollary, there is the idea of God’s vengeance. (There is a reason why the former preacher James Baldwin, with whom Coates is in all but explicit conversation here, took the title of his masterpiece The Fire Next Time from an old spiritual in which God threatens to follow the flood with apocalyptic fire.) This locates morality in the natural order of things, the idea being that those who, as Coates puts it, believe themselves to be white have committed incredible atrocities to further white supremacy in the name of the American Dream, and will suffer some sort of recourse more or less in line with the hell they have inflicted on blacks.
This is elegant and, in Coates’s mind, horseshit. What’s coming is much, much worse—an apocalyptic fire making no distinction between the just and the unjust, brought about not by some supernatural agent but by man himself:
I had heard such predictions all my life from Malcolm and all his posthumous followers who hollered that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. I saw the same prediction in the words of Marcus Garvey who promised to return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors, an army of Middle Passage undead. No. I left The Mecca knowing that this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.
Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.
In tracing a line from America’s original sin of slavery to sharecropping to redlining to white flight and a car-centered culture that is warming and destroying our planet, Coates is saying quite literally that white supremacy is destroying the world. This outlook is bleak, and terrifying, and crushing, especially because Coates’s philosophy doesn’t allow for God, or afterlife, or escape. It doesn’t absolve whites who aren’t racist, or know not to use racial slurs; it doesn’t save blacks who have suffered in hopes that it magically gets better; it doesn’t permit any escape from history, even if the heart of every man, woman, and child were to change tonight. It’s bigger than that. It is also elegant in its way. White supremacy, the most destructive force in the world, will be what ultimately destroys it.