Thursday, August 24, 2017

Teaching Resources: Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me" in the First-Year Writing Classroom

Resources for Teachers: Links and Documents related to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.

These are some texts and resources that might be helpful for people teaching Between the World and Me. While there’s no doubt that this book is an impressive achievement -- as a work of rhetoric, as a thoughtful and learned essay -- it might not be transparently obvious how to teach it to first-year students at Lehigh, especially in coordination with a textbook like They Say / I Say. These resources aren’t designed to be “lesson plans” in and of themselves, but rather focal points that might come in handy for a number of different approaches to situating this book in a composition classroom.

One important starting point to bring in might be the “rhetorical situation” -- Coates wrote this book at a particular point in time and in the midst of a particular conversation about police violence and the contested deaths of (generally unarmed) black men and women in a series of incidents especially in 2014 and 2015. It's important to name that rhetorical situation, and underline for students that virtually every great work of public argument starts with a rhetorical situation, whether it's Lincoln at Gettysburg or King at Birmingham Jail.

Another possible conversation might be connected to the rhetorical positioning Coates uses here -- the second person address (or: the form of the “open letter”). This could be a good opportunity to bring up the Baldwin text that Coates’ book is modeled on (see below). It could also form the basis of a short paper assignment (or even *the* paper for this unit): have students compose an open letter type argument in the second-person. It *might* also be helpful to link the Coates/Baldwin texts to other influential open letters (one thinks of Emile Zola's "J'Accuse" in the Dreyfus Affair in France -- it might be helpful to show students how this form works outside the frame of American history).

Another approach might entail finding the “They Say…” voices inside Coates’ book. Some of these are easily located (such as the allusion to Saul Bellow’s comment about the “Tolstoy of the Zulus”), others are ones we might have to interpolate. If one of the most important ‘scenes’ in Coates’ book is the moment his son learned the news that Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown, would not be indicted, in a sense that suggests that the Grand Jury’s finding is itself a kind of statement to which Coates and his son are both responding.

A way to make that interlocutor more concrete might be the statement from Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis prosecuting attorney who made an official statement around the time the decision was reached not to indict Officer Wilson:

There is nothing “racist” in McCulloch’s statement, but perhaps that’s the point. Coates is responding not to individual incidents of racism, but to a pervasive sense that black bodies -- the bodies belonging to Michael Brown, Prince Jones, or his son -- are subject to violence in America. Not only is there no legal recourse for that violence, it’s what the country was founded on. It’s embedded in our “heritage,” our system of laws, and even the “objective” findings of a federal prosecutor. What might it mean if we were to read Coates' book as an oblique response to McCulloch's presentation of the case?

I. Sources / Origins

Richard Wright, “Between the World and Me” (poem, 1935)
This is the poem that gives the book its title. Coates also gives a few lines from it as an epigraph.

James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” (1962-1963). The Fire Next Time is of course the most immediate source text for Between the World and Me -- Coates models his rhetorical positioning and the idea of the open letter to a younger black man on Baldwin’s open letter to his nephew. Excerpt here:

Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots” (1963)
This is the origin of the quote on p. 35 (“Don’t give up your life…”)

II. Immediate Context

→ Coates names a number of African-American men and women killed by police in 2010-2015: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Kajieme Powell, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Marlene Pinnock... He also frequently returns to death of an acquaintance at police hands more than a decade earlier -- Prince Jones. See the essay by Coates on this, “Black and Blue,” indicated below.

John Lewis, “Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the ‘Other America’” The Atlantic, December 15, 2014. Forceful argument by a civil rights pioneer shortly after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner

Nice survey in the LA Times of several fatal police shootings. Published in May 2017, not long after the death of Jordan Edwards:

Black Lives Matter debates:

A conservative critique from July 2016 (shortly after five Dallas police were killed):

Deray McKesson’s response to critiques of BLM -- from that same week:

Interview with Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of BLM, reflecting on how the movement has been mischaracterized. August 2017:

III. Earlier Writings by Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Black and Blue.” Washington Monthly, 2001. This was Coates’ first version of the story of the killing of Prince Jones, a fellow Howard University student and acquaintance of the author in college.

Darryl Pinckney, “The Anger of Ta-Nahisi Coates” New York Review of Books, February 11, 2016.

The review by Pinckney summarizes some of the key points in the story of Coates’ father, which Coates wrote about in The Beautiful Struggle (2008). Students may want to know more about Coates’ family, especially after the reference to the Black Panther Party on p. 30. Also, the review is helpful for acknowledging critiques of Between the World and Me -- specifically the sense that Coates isn’t arguing for “hope” or confident that the world can “change.” (Good instances of “They Say / I Say…”)

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

Some of the history of segregation described in Between the World and Me is taken as a given. Practices such as “redlining” are mentioned but not explained. Coates did a deep dive into some of these discriminatory practices -- which occurred in northern cities like Chicago & continued well past the end of “Jim Crow.”

This essay is important because it might show students that “racism” can in fact be “systemic” -- supported by government policies -- not just the product of individual idiosyncrasy. It also gives important context for African American urban poverty.

IV. Historical and Literary References in the book that might be interesting to explore

"A Forgotten History of How the U.S. Government Segregated America." Interview on "Fresh Air" May 2017.

Saul Bellow, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be happy to read them.” This is mentioned on p. 43 of Coates’ book. A helpful account of the controversy Bellow’s statement inspired can be found here (dating from 1994 -- shortly after Bellow made the comment):

Brian Farm, Gettysburg. This is the farm Coates mentions on 101-102. It is part of the historical battlefield of Gettysburg. Interestingly, it was owned by a free black man who fled the farm ahead of the battle fearing that Robert E. Lee might be likely to pull him back into slavery. (This might also index with ongoing debates about the status of Confederate statues)

Solomon Northrup, “12 Years a Slave.” This is mentioned towards the end of Coates’ book

Robert Hayden’s poem “The Middle Passage.” Cited on p. 51 of Coates’ book

V. Police Shootings Data / Statistics

These databases probably need to be scrutinized. If introduced to students, it seems important to frame them thoughtfully. Might also be helpful to have general crime statistics (i.e., crime has been decreasing steadily in the U.S. for twenty years), as well as comparisons to other countries (fatal police shootings in the U.S. are way, way higher than in other countries).

Washington Post, “Fatal Force” Database.


VI. Critiques of the book:

Andre Archie, “The Hopeless Politics of Ta-Nahisi Coates.” The American Conservative.
November 9, 2015.

Nice critique by Melvin Rogers, professor of African American History at Swarthmore College:
Key quote: “But if we are all just helpless agents of physical laws, the question again emerges: What does one do? Coates recommends interrogation and struggle. His love for books and his journey to Howard University—“Mecca,” as he calls it—serve to question the world around him.  But interrogation and struggle to what end?

VII. Teaching Resources / Reading Guides at Other Institutions

First-Year Experience Common Read, California State University-Northridge:

Random House's "Freshman Year/ Common Readinng Discussion Guide:

Kansas University Reading Guide -- First-Year Common Book 2016:

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