Updated on April 30, 2018
15. ‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My friend brought Between the World and Me over to my house the other day and I squealed when I saw it because I’ve been wanting to read it since it came out in 2015. Once he was finished with it, he leant it to me, and if I could now lend it to everyone on the planet, I would.
Between the World and Me is written as a letter to Coates’ son, and it is peppered throughout with photographs from the writer’s life. Through this book, Coates describes his experiences growing up as a black man in America, and he passes on his hard-won wisdom. He wants to recognise the ways in which the world is different for his son than it was for him, and give his son the tools to make his own way, rather than imposing a set of rules that might not apply to his life. He says, “My work is to give you what I know of my own particular path while allowing you to walk your own.” That is part of the beauty of Coates’ writing: it’s extremely thoughtful and tries at all times to get to the unchanging core of the issue of race in America.
There are some major ideas that Coates sets out in Between the World and Me. There’s the notion of ‘the Dream’, as in the American Dream – the world of trimmed lawns and white picket fences – which is by necessity built on exclusion and un-reality. Minorities such as black people are automatically shut out from the Dream, and Coates believes that the people “who believe themselves to be white” (i.e. the chasers of the Dream, those with the power, those who class themselves in the white ‘in-group’ rather than as an ‘other’) need to let go of this unattainable and damaging Dream so that we can all live together in reality.
“The Dreamers accept [black deaths] as the cost of doing business … because it is their tradition.”
There’s also the extremely important claim that the racial atrocities we see committed in America make perfect sense. They are the natural extension of a history of slavery, racial segregation and decades of misinformation about race. So when US police officers murder black citizens in cold blood, this is not the result of a few bad apples or an oppressive minority, but an accurate reflection of the fears and prejudices of the country as a whole. It does a disservice to these problems, and does not help us to solve them (worse – it entrenches them further), to pretend that American oppression of black people is anything but systemic and pervasive, and in which every single person (intentionally or otherwise) plays a role.
All of these ideas are expressed through the over-arching theme of the body. Coates mentions the body frequently, bringing every issue back to the brutal physical reality for black people in America. He shows us that every problem, no matter how abstract, ultimately results in the bruising and cutting and incarceration and destruction of the black body. This is a real and all-pervasive fear that black Americans have to navigate constantly, as well as living under the double standard that the system is allowed to inflict all the terror and pain it wants, while its victims are expected to respond with calm non-violence.
“The Dreamers … are exulting nonviolence for the weak, and the biggest guns for the strong.”
One idea which I found particularly compelling has to do with the notion of ‘tribes’. On the one hand, he argues, it’s futile and arbitrary to divide up humanity based on race, but on the other hand there’s no denying the power of feeling like you’re part of a tribe. I’ve thought about this in regards to feminism: how do I balance ‘Yeh! Girl power!’ with ‘Stop constantly categorising me as a woman’? Coates addresses this by saying that, since race has been imposed upon black Americans, they have built something collaborative and wonderful out of it. He sums it up like so: “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.” I love that.
This book might be short, but there is so much packed into these pages. Nearly every sentence is a perfectly crafted quote, and while I found it a little heavy-going to begin with, I soon got into the rhythm of Coates writing. There’s plenty more I could say – about his vivid descriptions of Howard University, about his moving account of the death of Prince Jones, about his fascinating analysis of the failings of the school system and the books that saved him – but if I did all that then you might just as well read it yourself. And you should – Between the World and Me is a compelling and important read.
“The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Between the World and Me here.