Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
(Spiegel & Grau, 2015, 152 pages)
Reading Between the World and Me feels a bit like eavesdropping. The book is written as an open letter from Coates to his son. It frankly discusses some of the most important issues in American culture in an intensely personal way. By design, it is a communication that we as readers are listening in on. It is a memoir and a report on black life in America that is shot through with anger, wisdom, and warning.
Coates’ overriding message to his son is this: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage” (103). He illustrates this startling claim by rehearsing the country’s history of slavery, racial prejudice, and violence. More strikingly though, Coates explains how bodily danger has defined his life. From the cautions he had to take walking the streets of his childhood in Baltimore, to the interactions with police that always seem a mere moment from disaster, Coates offers a powerful account of his own experience to support his alarming claims. This is one of the major strengths of the book – it disabuses us of the illusion that we can escape the influence, the stain, of our national sins.
One of Coates’ formative experiences was his time at Howard University, which he calls “The Mecca.” It was there that he became aware just how flexible the term “black” actually is. He realized “that we were, in our own segregated body politic, cosmopolitans. The black diaspora was not just our own world but, in so many ways, the Western world itself” (43). This revelation came through his interaction with other students and through his reading. The description of his college experience, and specifically the library, was my favorite part of the book. As he puts it, “The pursuit of knowledge was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom” (48). This impulse to declare his own curiosities has continued to characterize Coates in his career as a journalist.
The comparisons that have been made between Coates’ book and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, are appropriate. Both men write with eloquent anger, and both use a mastery of words to make vivid the crises of our nation. Baldwin, however, has a degree of self-criticism that Coates seems to lack. As fervent as he gets about the specific racial injustices that have defined America, Baldwin is always aware of the destructive turn that justified anger can easily take. I don’t see quite the same recognition in Coates. Baldwin ends his book with a prophetic warning. If the nation does not put right the systematic wrongs of racial injustice, the fire of judgement will eventually come. Coates ends in resignation. His warning is delivered – as the book was begun – to his son. In a nation where the “American Dream” has often been so destructive, he encourages his son to “Struggle for wisdom… But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion” (151).