Between the World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son, is a meditation on African American life in America in 2015. And that needs to be remembered, especially when others compare Coates to, say, James Baldwin. Before I continue it is crucial to point this out: there will never be another James Baldwin. We do not need another Baldwin. Coates has never presented himself as another Baldwin. Instead, what modern society needs is someone who will speak to the issues of our time. That isn’t to say the words of Baldwin are irrelevant to debates in 2015—on the contrary, any truly good and powerful writing will speak across generations, across national, ethnic, and racial boundaries. But when we compare Coates to Baldwin, whether for good or ill, we risk missing the unique elements of Coates’ book, blog posts, and lengthy Atlantic Monthly essays born out of his experience growing up in Baltimore during the Reagan years, attending Howard University during the 1990s, and rising through the ranks of journalism as the War on Terror raged.
As a historian, I am struck by how Coates invokes history throughout his work. Between the World and Me should be seen, at least partially, as an intellectual autobiography. Considering that Coates’ blog space on The Atlantic Monthly’s website has been a chronicle of his journey through history, reading, and encountering new books, we should not be surprised. But Between the World and Me as an intellectual autobiography speaks to both the importance of people and place in the construction—and reconstruction—of any person’s intellectual background. When paired with The Beautiful Struggle, Coates’ first book and a memoir about his life in Baltimore, readers vicariously experience an African American man’s intellectual quest shaped by the War on Drugs and the debates over multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s. Coates’ time at Howard University looms large here.
Coates’ description of Howard University as a gateway to knowledge about the African diaspora is an important part of Between the World and Me. Up until this point, Coates saw himself as an ardent black nationalist, shaped by the racial tensions of the 1980s. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality, unlike the streets and their bravado, unlike the world of dreamers,” wrote Coates in describing his worldview before attending Howard in the early 1990s. The upsurge in support for Malcolm X iconography in the late 1980s and early 1990s, culminating with the release of the 1992 film Malcolm X, is seen through the eyes of Coates as a young man in a crime-riddled, racially segregated East Coast city. If you’ve read Andrew Hartman’s “The Color Line” chapter in A War for the Soul of America or perused David Chappell’s Waking from the Dream to understand the development of Civil Rights Movement memory from 1968 until the early 1990s, you might recognize the strains of early 1990s culture wars coming through in Coates’ memory of the period. The academic world at Howard University that Coates describes in fawning detail was, in many ways, a redoubt for African American academics embroiled in the Culture Wars.
Coates remembers reading the Saul Bellow quote “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” and Ralph Wiley responding, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus”; and he recalls becoming a mainstay at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University’s premier research institution, exploring a new intellectual world: “I would arrive in the morning and request, three slips at a time, the works of every writer I had heard spoken of in classrooms or out on the Yard: Larry Neal, Eric Williams, George Padmore, Sonia Sanchez, Stanley Crouch, Harold Cruse, Manning Marable, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Etheridge Knight, Sterling Brown.” These names cover the spectrum of African American (indeed, black international) intellectual thought in the twentieth century.
Again, I cannot emphasize this enough: Between the World and Me is an excellent window into life in Baltimore at the height of the War on Drugs. When we make comparisons between Coates and Baldwin, we risk obscuring the vast differences in the backgrounds of the two men. Baldwin himself commented on the world that Coates was born into: “The poverty of my childhood differed from poverty today in that the TV set was not sitting in front of our faces, forcing us to make unbearable comparisons between the room we were sitting in and the rooms we were watching; neither were we endlessly being told what to wear and drink and buy.” Baldwin’s writing after The Fire Next Time speaks as much to this world as it does to the halcyon days of the Civil Rights Movement. Considering his haunting passages in the essays contained in No Name in the Street, or his work in places like The Nation during the 1970s and 1980s, lamenting America’s failure to continue the changes agitated for by civil rights demonstrators. And in many ways, Baldwin’s later writing links to Coates, who is writing in an era coming to terms with both the successes and failures of the 1960s movement. This overlap, and not whether or not Coates is the “next Baldwin,” should fascinate more readers. Comparing the two writers is understandable, but it should only be done to better understand one writer or the other—not to compare them the way ESPN personalities argue about Kobe Bryant versus Michael Jordan.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is an important writer to grapple with in our “post-soul,” or post-civil rights and black power, era of African American politics (seen in Eddie S. Glaude’s In a Shade of Blue and Zandria Robinson’s This Ain’t Chicago, and born out of Nelson George’s book Post-Soul Nation on African Americans and the 1980s). It will be interesting to see where Coates goes next in his work, and how his critique of American society will change in a post-President Obama landscape. In short, Ta-Nehisi Coates is not the James Baldwin of our time. And he does not need to be. He should simply be the Ta-Nehisi Coates of our era. Historians, now and in the future, would be well-advised to consider his work from that point of view.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me. (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015), p. 36.
 Coates, 46.
 James Baldwin. “Dark Days,” in Baldwin: Collected Essays. (New York: The Library of America, 1998) Originally published in Esquire, October 1980.