Without Any Fantastic Gloss: History in “Between the World and Me”

History is at the heart of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me. Not just in how the events of the past shape the lives of African-Americans, but in how understanding and misunderstanding of the past shape both American society and Coates’ perception of it.

Looking back on his youth in Baltimore, Coates remembers fear being a regular part of life, and he sees that culture of fear as deliberate. For centuries, culture and government policy in the United States have worked together to keep African-Americans in fear. While white Americans are protected by home loans, the school system, and the justice system, these systems do far less to protect African-Americans, especially in poor neighborhoods. For Coates both in his youth and today, the justice system is more of a threat than a comfort.[1]

In school, Coates found little encouragement. He wrote of Black History Month, and how his school portrayed the Civil Rights Movement. The more fierce, outspoken voices were ignored in his education. Instead, only the pacifist side of the movement was taught. “It seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera.”[2] Coates wondered why his school only ever showed pacifist, even passive heroes.

Unable to find answers in school, Coates turned to his own research. Here he found his own heroes, first in Malcolm X. His writings were Coates’ first experience with not passive survival, but black pride.[3] This led Coates to read more, delving into a history he had never learned in school. Before going to Howard University, he found his greatest inspiration in Queen Nzinga, a 16th-Century Central African monarch who had resisted the Dutch. Coates read of how, when the Dutch ambassador refused her a seat, Nzinga had ordered her advisor to kneel and make a chair of her body. Coates was awed by this display of power, seeing an idol in the queen’s indomitable will.[4]

Queen Nzinga, image from Wikimedia Commons.

Coates’ education at Howard shattered that pedestal. The books he had read before had portrayed Nzinga’s show of power as an act of defiance, but Linda Heywood, Coates’ professor at Howard, showed a different perspective. She told the story from the view of the advisor, forced to humiliate herself and act as furniture so that her queen could sit.[5] How could this be his idol, when she was just another oppressor? Dr. Heywood problematized the story, making Coates put himself in the place of the powerless and the downtrodden, rather than the monarch. His view of history changed again.

This made Coates reevaluate his life. He had been trying to fight back against colonial ideas. He had been trying to prove that Africans were worthy, to find the “Tolstoy of the Zulus” that novelist Saul Bellow had joked about.[6] Coates realized that by doing this, he had been accepting Bellow’s colonial ideas. He had been accepting the idea that Bellow had reason to be proud because his skin was the same color as Tolstoy’s.[7] Coates threw away the colonial perspective and was free to come to his own understanding of what it meant to be black in America.

Part of that understanding was realizing how oblivious white Americans could afford to be. Coates recalled going to the movies with his young son, and how a white woman shoved his child. When he got angry over the assault, the woman acted offended and a white man stepped in to defend her. Coates said that he wanted to point out the historical context, the reason that she felt entitled to move his son like an object in her way, but he knew she would deflect. The system of racism is built on deniability. Coates recounted how throughout history, even the most obvious racists have denied being racist. From Michael Richards shouting out racial slurs to homeowners in the 1960s fighting to keep their neighborhoods segregated, they always claimed to be not racist.[8] Coates wanted to point out “that there was no golden era when evildoers did their business loudly and proclaimed it as such.”[9]

Later in life, Coates wanted to foster the same knowledge of history in his son, and to expand his own knowledge. When his son was ten years old, Coates took him to several Civil War historical sites. Some of these sites were promising, others less so. Some sites, such as Gettysburg, tell a more inclusive narrative now. Coates mentions how before the Battle of Gettysburg, the town had a free African-American community, some of whom fled from the Confederates for fear of being enslaved.[10] Petersburg Battlefield, by contrast, completely dodged the issue of slavery. The interpretation there presented Confederates as noble heroes, and the discussion on the tour obsessed over the weapons of war while carefully avoiding any discussion of why the war took place.[11]

Coates shows history as a tool, one that people have often misused. It can oppress or empower. But to truly empower ourselves, we must see history as it was, not how we wish it were.


[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 17-18.

[2] Coates, The World, 32.

[3] Coates, The World, 35.

[4] Coates, The World, 45.

[5] Coates, The World, 54.

[6] Coates, The World, 43.

[7] Coates, The World, 55-56.

[8] Coates, The World, 97.

[9] Coates, The World, 98.

[10] Coates, The World, 101-102.

[11] Coates, The World, 99.

13 thoughts on “Without Any Fantastic Gloss: History in “Between the World and Me”

  1. I thought the use of history made Coates’ points so much stronger. He used it as a method to explain the ways in which America and the Dream work and how great of an effect it has on society today. I like that you brought a lot of the history that influenced him together in one blog post, it’s interesting to see his transformation more clearly.

  2. It is clear that Coates has been influenced by many historical events and figures. His decision to travel to sites of American history also serves as inspiration for Coates, and in this way he begins to share his thoughts and experiences with his son, which is a constant goal throughout the book. The comparison between the Gettysburg battlefield and the Petersburg battlefield clearly illustrate the disparity of viewpoints that Coates so often encountered in his reading, put into tangible context.

  3. I found your post very enjoyable, John. Your last two paragraphs have got me thinking of the effect the romanticizing of the Confederacy has had on the current system of racial inequality. Sadly, I think we would still see many of the systems in place that have perpetuated inequalities in European-dominated North American since the fifteenth century. But I wonder if idolizing a state built on keeping slavery intact has prevented the US from making more powerful strides in ensure the true equality of all of its citizens. I obviously do not have an answer to this question, but it is an interesting thing to think about.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head with this post, especially your concluding sentence. History is an incredibly powerful tool and in the wrong hands, it cause great harm to many people. As aspiring museum professionals, I think reading Coates, Wright and Baldwin is really important, especially if we want to tell stories that don’t necessarily belong to us.

    1. I loved the last sentence too. History is so much more complicated than what the “popular narratives” often present. As museum professionals, we have to think about how we can wrestle with and present these complexities in our institutions. How can we help encourage people to go on the journeys that Coates went through on his own? I’m reminded of something Cordell Reaves said last week in Professional Seminar: “Telling diverse stories is not politically correct, it’s historically accurate.”

      1. Thanks for reminding us of Cordell Reaves’s quote (and writing it down)! He was speaking in reference to tourism, and the way it can challenge institutions to make their material relevant to a wider audience and therefore more diverse. I think that this is a perfect tie-in to “Between the World and Me”; there is a large percentage of the American population whose experiences and truths are simply not reflected in history textbooks and museums. As John points out in this post, the lens is carefully narrowed to promote pacifist heroes and hide those who took an active stand in self-defense, which can be incredibly frustrating in a violent world. Museums have viewed white-washing history as a way to make their audience happy, but who do they think their audience is?

      2. Yes! It’s entirely true, as public service organizations it’s not only historically correct but it’s also a service we are compelled to do for our diverse public.

  5. John, you write about one of the themes that I found most interesting in Coates’ work, history and perception. It was fascinating, as the reader, to go on that journey with Coates to see his ideas change over time, as well see how his reading and intellectual community shape his framework. I think this points to one of the things we have discussed so many times throughout this semester – just how complicated issues of class, race, and gender can be even within one individual, and that these perceptions are shaped and molded over time and discovery.

  6. Really great post John. You did a great job of summarizing and analyzing Coates’ extensive use of history in this novel. I’ve heard it said that “history is written by the winners” and as your blog states so profoundly, Coates points this fact out so well. History is full of examples that push this social narrative along, which furthers the idea itself since it has become a social narrative, a social hierarchy that still defines life today.

  7. John I enjoyed how you brought in the encounter with the white woman in your blog post. That was one of the most moving parts of the book for me– Coates understands the history of why this white woman felt entitled to move her son but the woman does not and furthermore does not understand why it should bother this black father. It makes me think what thoughts or actions I might take for granted or need to question in order to be a more productive member of society.

  8. This post underlines a major issue for museum professionals. Romanticizing the past is dangerous matter and can lead to situations we are seeing today in society. There has to be care not to play into the “victors history” as Coates states and instead tell the whole narrative. If one focuses on one side of the story, it makes the other side the villain with negative connotations. This post supplements Coates’ points well and add to the discussion of how to interpret history for larger audiences.

  9. Great post! Your last line really brings it all together. As museum professionals we really need to be aware of how history is being presented and make sure to tell the whole story and be as inclusive as possible. The line “how oblivious white Americans can afford to be” really struck me, and makes me think about how important it is to look beyond your own experience, and take time to understand other people’s experiences and perspectives.

  10. Looking fully at the evolving trajectory of Coates’ thinking throughout the book as he grew up, went to school, and entered the world is to receive a profound and nuanced view of the African-American experience. Coates’ historical perspective gave credence to the force and necessity of his views. And it reflects again, the necessity of this experience being profoundly aware of history, how it has shaped past and present, and how it necessarily controls one’s actions. It exerts a present and is more a consideration than most white Americans will ever understand. Coates understands history as shaper of a limited context, but arguably the most empowering part of this book is his use of history to understand these truths and know how and why things must change.

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