Coates and Augustine: A Hypothesis

My hypothesis is that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is in critical dialogue with Augustine’s Confessions. Coates does not make this dialogue explicit, but it becomes evident through a series of structural parallels. Here are some of the primary ones that I have noticed:

  • Both books are structured as a direct address to a “you.” In Augustine the “you” is God, while for Coates it is his son. This a tighter parallel than one might initially suppose. When Coates becomes aware of his responsibility for his son, he says, “Everything that was the past seemed to be another life. There was before you, and then there was after, and in this after, you were the God I’d never had. I submitted before your needs, and I knew then that I must survive for something more than survival’s sake. I must survive for you” (pg. 67).
  • Both books document the profound impact of the death of a friend, and in both cases the friend is not mentioned prior to describing the impact of his death. Augustine’s friend remains unnamed, while Prince Jones is not only named but given considerable biographical background. As with the God/son comparison, this highlights Coates’ distance from Augustine — Augustine believes that his mourning for his friend was excessive and distracted him from God, while for Coates, this life and the people in it are all we have.
  • Both books end their autobiographical sections with a tribute to a mother — Monica in Augustine’s case and Prince Jones’s mother in Coates’. This shift away from his own mother to the Jones’s mother highlights the fact that the victim could very well have been Coates rather than Jones. It further emphasizes the fact that Coates response to his mourning is greater solidarity with his victimized friend rather than self-chastisement for excessive attachment.
  • Coates’ book lacks a parallel to Books X-XIII, with their commentary on Genesis, and that makes sense given that he does not want his son to settle for pre-digested answers any more than Coates’ own parents let him do so. He must study the sources of black experience for himself.
  • The experience of seeing the young man pull a gun for no reason seems parallel to the malice of the infant in Book I of Augustine. The young man with a gun, like the infant in Augustine’s scenario, is sated — well-appointed in his expensive ski jacket — and flashes his weapon in a sheer assertion of dominance for its own sake.
  • Similarly, Coates’ experience of getting angry with the white woman for pushing his son seems to echo Augustine’s account of stealing pears — both are apparently minor incidents that take on extremely weighty significance in terms of the authors’ respective arguments.
  • Howard University seems to be the “to Carthage then I came” moment, where Coates receives his rhetorical training (attempting to become a writer) and flirts with dualistic doctrines that attempt to reify blackness alongside whiteness (a parallel to Manicheanism). Augustine eventually comes to reject Manicheanism because he is dissatisfied with his teachers’ vague answers to his questions, while Coates rejects his reification of blackness due to his teachers’ interrogation of his pat answers — further highlighting the fact that Coates’ end goal is an open-ended exploration rather than a set doctrine.
  • The trip to Paris seems to be Coates’ own conversion experience, when he finally intuitively grasps that race is not a real, positive entity — an interesting parallel with Augustine’s theory of evil as privation.
  • Both books are fundamentally about the problem of evil, but for Augustine the problem is an abstract conceptual one, while for Coates it is grounded in the lived experience of the body — which is problematic for both authors, though for very different reasons.

When I first noticed these parallels, I thought that they were so striking that someone else must have noticed. Interestingly, though, the only substantial evidence that I was able to find linking Coates to Augustine was Coates’ own 2012 blog post talking about the flack he caught for not knowing who Augustine was. I think, though, that this may actually support my view that he is in dialogue with Augustine, but not highlighting it. After all, a bunch of white folks tried to publicly humiliate him for his ignorance. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who would respond to that by proudly brandishing his ignorance and not reading Augustine on principle — he’s going to read the damn thing, but he’s not going to give his critics the satisfaction of telling them he finally did his homework. Instead, he chose the best revenge: he wrote a book structured around a dialogue with their precious Augustine, and none of those white know-it-alls even noticed.

There is circumstantial evidence within the book itself that may point in this direction as well. For instance, when he talks about his first trip to Paris, he notes that he failed to notice certain significant places because he had not read Camus and Sartre — indicating that he must have read those authors in the meantime. The strongest indication to me, however, is the repeated refrain that “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.” This line is, please note, claiming that a black author has access precisely to an extremely self-critical Christian ascetic from a privileged background.

Meanwhile, if anyone is the “Tolstoy of the Zulus” in Bellow’s sense, it has to be Augustine, the greatest African Christian ascetic. But Coates doesn’t go in that direction, instead choosing an African queen who obviously is nothing like Tolstoy — a complex rhetorical strategy that at once raises the possibility of the Augustine parallel (at least from a non-white supremacist perspective that would recognize Augustine as African rather than an “honorary” European), takes it away (concealing Coates’ structural dialogue with Augustine), but then raises it again through the sheer inappropriateness of his substitute Tolstoy.

More than any individual structural parallels or telling clues, however, the style of the book as a whole echoes Augustine — the repetitions, the circling back on a few key points, the vertiginous leap from fragmentary life incidents to broad historical and quasi-metaphysical claims.

If I’m right about this — and I’m well aware that I may be way off and reading too much into it — then Coates’ critique of Christianity (and by extension, the Civil Rights Movement’s strategy of martyrdom) may actually be less episodic and more sustained than it initially appears.

8 thoughts on “Coates and Augustine: A Hypothesis

  1. I would note that Coates’ book is approximately 150 times longer than Baldwin’s letter, hence an additional structuring principle may have been necessary beyond simply imitating Baldwin’s gesture of an open letter to a young relative.

  2. The more I ponder it, the more and tighter parallels jump out at me — the way he describes his experience at school, his struggle to learn a foreign language or care about it (Coates’ French for Augustine’s Greek), the fact that he has his big realization precisely in a garden… This can’t be accidental.

  3. Best of all: when Augustine finally reads Aristotle’s Categories after people rave about it and finds it easy to understand and use, that could be parallel to Coates’ own experience with the Confessions.

  4. I don’t think dmf was suggesting that Coates’ book was wholly structured on Baldwin’s letter. Perhaps he just felt that he should helpfully bring this relevant text to your attention in case you didn’t know it. But of course you did know it, hence a snooty response was the only way to go.

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