Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me: Tragic Hero or Not?

Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me: Tragic Hero or Not?

Written By Isis West, Staff Reporter

Ta-Nehisi Coates poses for a headshot. Photo from KOLUMN Magazine.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates explores a plethora of hard-hitting, sentimental and worldly themes through an exceptionally and mostly linear plot. Even though the book is organized in a more straightforward way, the voice that Coates brings makes the story seem as if it’s one long train of thought-provoking sentiments. As he moves throughout his life and experiences and the many descriptive lows and highs of both his world and the world around him, I took on and embraced a sense of pity as well as frustration throughout several moments. 

The plot of the narrative is based on a series of real-world events that prove to be both personal and intimate as well as global. These events are quite literally the driving force for all of the personal thoughts, actions and movements partaken by Coates himself and those he chooses to mention around him. So yes, the plot is quite literally the most important element of the narrative. In the most dramatic way possible, the plot that is “Between the World and Me” carries the characters and events high on its shoulders because it is the plot and events that drive the reaction and thought of all. However, I think that within this book, it is just as important to acknowledge the poignant amount of character that derives from the plot because these elements all relate to the themes and ideas that Coates shares and projects. 

For example, Coates makes many claims and observations about his own person as the story pushes on. He acknowledges his own flaws and even explains, to his son and the world, how he has never claimed to be “noble, illustrious and good-hearted.” We as readers are immersed in several moments where some of his most disconnected and cold-hearted opinions on situations and people are revealed. This, in my understanding, places him far from being a tragically flawed main character. He does not introduce himself with the listed qualities above and they do not steadily carry throughout the narrative. It is reasonable to consider and establish Coates as the main character of the narrative because we read and analyze events and actions from his point of view. This disqualifies Coates as a tragic, main character. Even though we know that most characters have their own flaws, the acknowledgment of such by Coates immediately disqualifies himself from consideration for the classically acclaimed definition of a tragically flawed hero. 

In terms of spectacle and song, nothing within the narrative authentically illustrates any of these aspects on a poignant scale. To be more precise, the descriptions that Coates gives us of people and places should be more so classified as necessary as opposed to over-the-top and grand. Even with the love interests that he finds and pursues while at Howard, Coates only gives a basic visual description at first and then moves to describe the women as forces, roles, and influence they held/hold over his thinking and life. For example, he describes each new relationship as a “bridge” into the ever-growing “Mecca” of Black versatility that he continued to discover, document and learn from. The presence of song within the narrative is practically non-existent, with the exception of the mentioning of a couple of popular songs. They were not significant enough to exist as an essential element of the narrative. In fact, I think that Coates even mentions these songs as playing in the background, for example, amidst Howard’s Homecoming game. No element of song moves the story along. In Between the World and Me, it did not seem like the presence of spectacle and song needed to be exaggerated. The perceived goal of the book was to take the thoughts, events, witnessing, comments and people as they were. It was a book that valued authenticity over-dramatization.

Besides plot and character, the two elements of tragic literature that I think Coates does an exceptional job of implementing and utilizing to further explicate his feelings, ideas, interests and experiences are diction and thought. When I first bought the book in Portland and sat down to read it, the sentences and words both confused and enthralled me. I read vocabulary, concepts, and worldly themes that I had never heard of but at the same time, I convinced myself that everything made sense and I believed. The level of Coates’s writing and storytelling was admittedly some of the best I had ever seen. Although complex, it was simply organized. His thoughts encouraged, no, practically forced readers like me to unfold and attempt to unpack some of the most complex and, I can imagine, unfamiliar concepts. I do not think that Coates used such fine-tuned language to tell a series of personal anecdotes because he wanted to assert that he was a gatekeeper of the depths of his trains of thought and learning; that would defeat the entire purpose of the book. Since the entirety of the novel is based on, organized and illustrated via a string of Coates’ personal thoughts addressed as a personal letter to his son, I feel like it would have been exceptionally important to make sure that his voice was present. This would give a sense of personality, sincerity and moral proximity to the gravity of the ideas being shared. I feel as if Coates did an exceptional job of incorporating his voice into his thoughts. It would be difficult not to automatically do this. His writing was memorable in a variety of ways. Now, whenever I hear talk about “the body” and “owning your body,” my mind immediately rushes to the abundance of sentences by Coates’ that flush out the same idea and concepts. He was the main character and so his voice mattered, however, he cannot be assigned a tragic voice because of the events and people he chooses to cover and the way he talks about these things within the narrative.

A hardcover copy of “Between the World and Me.” Photo by Bookswept.

There is of course an obvious “scene of suffering” that Coates narrates within the book. The tragic death of Prince Jones was an event that rocked not only Prince Jones’ family and friends, but his community, especially Coates himself. He dedicates the longest part (out of three) of his book to him processing the events that took place and caused Prince’s death. I feel as if the gravity of this scene of suffering can amount to those of what Aristotle would classify as classic tragic literature. The fatal and tragic suffering of one loved man push-started the suffering of communities across the world. It brings our main character and voice to narrate some of his lowest points in life as well as some of his darkest and deepest thoughts. I viewed the death of Prince Jones as the hallmark of the book, the event that both Coates and readers learn the most about themselves and the world. However, this tragic scene of suffering does not happen with Coates himself, even though he is severely impacted. I feel like one might argue that the most poignant scenes of suffering within tragic literature have the main character as the main and most direct recipient of such suffering. So, in my opinion, Coates cannot directly claim the scene of suffering. 

He can, however, claim the moment of recognition. The most impactful moment of recognition that Coates narrates is when his son is pushed by a white woman unprovoked on a sidewalk in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He explains how, at that moment, all he wanted to do was rage and protect his son but the consequences of doing such would result in unwarranted mayhem. He cannot push the woman back, he might get sent to jail. And he cannot allow his son to experience the full-fledged freedom of just being a vivacious kid on the sidewalk, because he would be taking up too much space for the people who believed that where they had to go and what they had to say was more important than his or his sons. He also recognizes that his son was intensely watching the entire altercation, witnessing his dad get visibly angry, scaring him, and he later admits that the last thing that he wants is for his son to be afraid of him. A striking and insightful moment of tragic recognition. That it did not matter if he tried to defend his son and do something right, he would still be at fault. 

Upon my rereading of Between the World and Me, I granted myself the opportunity to explore more tangible realms of critical thinking. Coates narrated just how tumultuous the journey of life for a person of color can be. What we read from him is realistically only a fraction of the inevitable social and physical endurance people of color can face, especially African-Americans. I think that “Between the World and Me” teaches readers how to recognize and acknowledge the varying lives of human beings, as well as teaches readers how to be human and think critically, considerably and empathetically.