Thursday, May 19, 2016

Critiques re: absence of black women in Between the World and Me

Early on, a series of comments and reviews from black women journalists and scholars offered critiques of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me because of the apparent lack of black women or concerns central to black women in the book.

In one review of the book on BuzzFeed, Shani O. Hilton wrote that "it’s with disappointment but not surprise that I report, having enjoyed Coates’ book, and read the reviews that have followed, that the black male experience is still used as a stand in for the black experience." Over at The Root in a review entitled "In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ New Book, It’s Clear All the Blacks Are Still Men," Britini Danielle details some of the ways that Between the World and Me downplays black women. At one point, Danielle notes that, "As I read Coates’ book, I couldn’t help wondering why black female writers aren’t lavished with the same level of pomp and circumstance given to black male writers who write about race—or hailed as the second coming of Baldwin."

In a review at Rewire, Josie Duffy acknowledges strengths of Coates's work: "Between the World and Me is an important book—perhaps the most important in a generation—on how race in this country functions." In addition though, she points out limits: "Still, I found myself searching for the Black woman experience in the pages;" and later, "Coates’ description of violence to the Black body does not do justice to the violence to which Black women are and have historically been subject."

I valued aspects of what Hilton, Danielle, Duffy, and others were saying about the absence of black women's perspectives, even as I was cautious about the ways that some of those commentators seemed to be (inadvertently) calling on Coates to be a spokesperson for all black people, men and women. One reason the book works the way that it does is because it is presumably comprised as a limited black father-son conversation. Maybe Coates should have offered more qualifiers alerting readers that he was not describing all black people's experiences, but who exactly doesn't know that this one guy is not the spokesperson?    

Having said that, I'm mindful about the frustrations and pain of feeling excluded. I also understand the legitimate concerns about the ways that mainstream, uncritical white media outlets have an ongoing tendency to elevate one black person at the expense or exclusion of so many others. 

Looking at some of those critiques now, I understand even more the intensity of such critiques. Few of us who had been following Coates and Coates himself had little idea that Between the World and Me would become so popular become a stand-in for all black perspectives, for so many audiences. I worry, though, about the anxiety we're surely to always be plagued with when and if we obsess so much about those who appear to seek out only one voice to understand all black people.   

Notations for a common reading experience of Ta-Nehisi Coates
A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates 

No comments: