An Unignorable New World
There’s a moment in Between the World and Me in which Ta-Nehisi Coates travels to Paris. Walking around the 6th arrondissement, he describes himself in another world, free from racism. And in that moment, to me, Ta-Nehisi Coates was no longer a man writing a letter about a lifetime’s experience living within the racial structure of the United States, and instead he became something else: another American tourist overwhelmed by the differences he’s noticed on his first trip to Europe, championing idealized statements about a fragment of a city he’s visited but doesn’t truly know. Paris has its ghettoes, cruel places disconnected both physically and culturally from the City of Light. And isn’t Coates acutely aware of the Roma he passes in the streets? And also of his Algerian taxi driver, who warns him against harboring such an idealized vision? But that’s the point, isn’t it? That just this one time, he can escape; he can become simply the American abroad, and is permitted to not notice the very different racism that wells sous les pavés in Pigalle and Montmartre and any other district you care to name.
This short scene evokes Du Bois describing John’s journey to the symphony in The Souls of Black Folk. The glance behind the curtain was a catalyst for hopeless self-destruction in Du Bois’s story, representing a world forever unavailable to him, and one more weight on a pair of shoulders that he presumed could be unburdened if he could only cave to acceptance or ignorance and free himself from the knowledge that another such world could ever exist. In Coates’ story, he begins to sense the need for unity, first in thinking about the African-Americans who didn’t “make it out” in the same way he had, and secondly when he realizes the global dimensions of racism. Yet for both authors these stories represent a nearly identical experience of sudden, formative lucidity. The other worlds and other galaxies are allegorical, of course, and for Coates in particular this concept takes on many nuanced, overlapping meanings in a way almost functionally identical to Du Bois’s Veil.
Thus, it becomes hard not to consider race theory even within such a personal text. When Coates describes whiteness as a syndicate, for example, he draws upon concepts such as whiteness as property, and the elevation and assimilation that occurs at the cost of African-Americans in processes of ethnic projects. Perhaps in defining it as a syndicate, he explains this process better than the theory could. Let’s not forget that ‘syndicate’ has connotations of crime—organized crime, glamorous and white. Crime forgivable in a way that selling cigarettes, or disrupting class, or holding a toy gun apparently is not allowed to be. And let’s remember DuBois’s own attempt to defend post-Reconstruction blacks, who were manufactured discursively into a criminal class by the same innocent men who killed, raped, and enslaved them.
But I keep returning to Paris, and to the Roma—Europe’s black; the permanent immigrants whose phenotypical whiteness still does not syndicate them into the institutions of whiteness. The rules and vagaries of racism in Paris and Baltimore allow neither one to understand the other, not while living the lives into which they’ve been bound by birth. Coates reduces the distance between racial theory and the material conditions of living within such a society, tearing down the invisible barriers constructed between my own life and the lives of African-Americans in my new country—imposed upon me first by quirk of geography and secondly by an immigration system that demands political ambivalence and, by proxy, complicity. His escape means the most because I know it. Because even when we’re geographically closer than ever, there remains a world between us. But in that moment, his stake in the racial paradigm becomes complicated, lost in guilt over an unignorable new world of racism that doesn’t belong to him, and we are the same.