Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin and the “Brawl of Ancestors”

Critics who simply claim that “Coates is no Baldwin” are ignoring what can be a comparison that allows us to understand both writers more deeply.

Andy Seal

I had never really thought of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time as a queer text before — at least not in any deeper sense than that it was a book written by an author who wrote about queer themes and who himself had both male and female partners. But by putting Fire alongside Between the World and Me, the new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I was struck by the significance of the fact that Baldwin’s book is addressed to his nephew and Coates’s is addressed to his son.

Between the World and Me is ultimately (but only in this dimension of fathers and sons) a self-canceling book: its only lesson for Coates’s son is the necessity and beauty of struggle outside of the wisdom of fathers.

One of the more tedious aspects of the reception of Coates’s Between the World and Me has been the incessant comparisons made between Coates and Baldwin, with various personalities weighing in essentially to say Coates is no Baldwin.” But as Robert argued forcefully last week, that kind of fatuous evaluative reflex — Robert compared it to the Kobe Bryant-Michael Jordan arguments — hollows out what could be a very productive comparison, one that sheds light in either direction, helping us understand both Baldwin and Coates more deeply. That is what I hope to do here.

Why does addressing Fire Next Time to his nephew make Baldwin’s text queer? It hardly need be said that having a nephew and no sons is not a circumstance unique to sexual minorities, but the indirectness of the relation between uncle and nephew eludes in some way the heteronormativity that, at least in 1963, arguably, adhered indelibly to the father-son relation. There is a sort of diagonality to Baldwin’s letter to his nephew that, if it is not fully queer, at least slants away from the lineal directness of a father’s lessons for his son.

Baldwin emphasizes the diagonality of his position at the very beginning of his letter: I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. Like him, you are tough, dark, vulnerable, moody — with a very definite tendency to sound truculent because you want no one to think you are soft. You may be like your grandfather in this, I don’t know, but certainly both you and your father resemble him very much physically.” Baldwin is always triangulated around his nephew; either his brother or his father mediates their relation. He also reveals that his nephew is his namesake, but he laughs that James minor has taken on the name Big James, for you were a big baby, I was not.” At any rate, Baldwin, by noting the namesake relation, re-emphasizes that Big James” is not a Junior: the name is a tribute, not a transferal of identity.

Why am I tarrying so long with this? For one thing, we talk to our nephews differently than we talk to our sons and we expect different kinds of words from our fathers than we do from our uncles. We want our fathers to tell us simply and fully how the world works and why it works that way; we want to tell our sons the same thing. But an uncle has no such expectations, no such responsibilities, even though at times uncles (or aunts, adoptive or biological) give us other kinds of knowledge, teach us other kinds of lessons. 

By drawing out the queer avuncularity of Baldwin’s book, then, we also find that there is a rather desperate passion for the directness of paternal wisdom in Coates’s. Coates wants to be as unambiguous, clear and complete as a father’s lessons should be to his son; even more, his story of his own intellectual maturity is the story of a search for precisely that clarity and directness which we would like from a father. I wanted you to claim the whole world, as it is,” he tells his son. And that is what he appears to have been looking for during at least part of his collegiate career at Howard University, which he calls The Mecca.” In his aforementioned post, Robert described Coates’s ritual of sitting in Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center (which, it is worth noting, employed his father for a time — the library as surrogate father?) and devouring books three at a time.

He went in with high hopes for clear answers: I went into this investigation imagining history to be a unified narrative, free of debate, which, once uncovered, would simply verify everything I had always suspected. The smokescreen would lift. And the villains who manipulated the schools and the streets would be unmasked.” But, as he says, there was so much to know — so much geography to cover — Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas, the United States. And all of these areas had histories, sprawling literary canons, fieldwork, ethnographies. Where should I begin?” He discovers that the problem is deeper than mere bulk: the writers disagree, they do not provide the kind of answers a father is supposed to give. I had come looking for a parade, for a military review of champions marching in ranks. Instead I was left with a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.”

Between the World and Me is therefore not just a record of longing for the ability to receive and to give a simple and complete account of how the world works; it is also a record of Coates’s attempt to resist that longing, to understand that the brawl of ancestors” is a healthier family arrangement than the unitary transmission of fatherly wisdom. In particular, he resists the desire to turn the world into sense for his son. He writes to him:

I am speaking to you as I always have — as the sober and serious man I have always wanted you to be, who does not apologize for his human feelings, who does not make excuses for his height, his long arms, his beautiful smile. You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.

And, further: I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you — but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life.” Between the World and Me is ultimately (but only in this dimension of fathers and sons) a self-canceling book: its only lesson for Coates’s son is the necessity and beauty of struggle outside of the wisdom of fathers. 

This post first appeared at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History.

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Andy Seal is a graduate student in American Studies at Yale University. He is a regular blogger at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History and has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, n+1 and The Quarterly Conversation.
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