My response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the world and Me

The Atlantic allowed me to write a short response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the world and Me. I’m not qualified to evaluate the book’s literary merit, let alone to engage celebrity-gossip regarding Coates’ rank in the pantheon of African-American public intellectuals. I read this book for my own reasons, as one of many researchers who study interventions to reduce youth violence. So much of Between the world and me underscores the necessity and the inherent limitations of our efforts. I make two points.

First I note the sad strategic dilemma in which urban youth have to be tough to deter each other. The game theorists will be unsurprised that the resulting codes of the street easily go awry, and how the memories of youth violence linger into one’s adult life.

Second, I find hope in Coates’ own relationship with his own son. He shows in the living that one can be a righteously angry black man and still be a gentle and loving father to one’s own sons and daughters. There is no contradiction in that.

Physical discipline is a sensitive issue, particularly in black America. The weight of the pediatric and social-science evidence suggests that such practices do real harm. It’s only human that frightened parents would seek the security and speed of harsh punishment to steer their kids from so many dangers and temptations that lurk right outside the front door. Yet what lessons do their children really learn—and at what price? If reaching for the belt were sufficient to deter young offenders, our juvenile-detention centers would be pretty empty already.

More here.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

2 thoughts on “My response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the world and Me”

  1. Harold: "I’m not qualified to evaluate the book’s literary merit.“ As readers, we automatically and inevitably form opinions about the literary merit of the texts we take in. Your judgement is implicitly positive, and the citations bear it out. In the universe of public intellectuals, Coates is a good writer, and what he has to say is important and necessary.

    In the universe of authors, or black authors, I'm not so sure he matches the highest standards, set say by James Baldwin. Take this sentence:
    “The violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit.”
    I needed to read this twice. The problem is that within the metaphor, the two imagined events are sequential and causally related, not alternatives. The alarm sounds in a crowded space like a theatre, triggered by the smoke; people rush to the exit, and are choked there by the same smoke. The smoke, standing for parental physical punishment, has both effects. Also, how is life like escaping from a theatre fire, a rare occurrence? To me, the inapt, too compressed and too complex metaphor distracts and confuses.

    Contrast Shakespeare's Mark Antony: "I'll put a tongue / In every wound of Caesar …" Because the brutal metaphor is instantly comprehensible, it lights up Mark Antony's meaning and gives it demagogic power. Shakespeare can even effectively use metaphors of great vulgarity. Hotspur: "if but the Devil or mischance look big / Upon the maidenhead of our affairs…" On a family blog, I'd better not explain this.

  2. I have not read the book, but have read some responses to it and Harold's is my favorite. Substantive, balanced and well-turned.

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