Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Spiegel & Grau (2015). 176 pages.
A brilliant, important book by a young black man about the fear which permeates the lives of many blacks and whites today. A book that is and will continue to be widely discussed.
Ta-Nehisi Coates demands that all of us see the world as it looks from his perceptive, that of a black man. Although he has become a successful writer for The Atlantic, because of his black skin he can never feel safe. Neither can the black son to whom he addresses his new book. Even the MacArthur Genius Grant which he was awarded this week is not enough to protect him from the violence and fear of white America. Many of us have read other accounts of what it means to black, but Coates takes the narrative to another level. He forces us to see that the civil rights movement did not end racism in American or even deal with its ugly core. As he demonstrates with the story of his friend Prince, following the rules laid out by white America can not protect a black from being shot down for no good reason other than being black.
Growing up in the streets of Baltimore where guns and death were always present, Coates understood early how easily it would be to be killed. Schools gave him little to feed his imagination. But his family fostered his sense of worth and directed his curiosity and anger. His father, a librarian at Howard University and a former Black Panther, pointed Coates to books and authors, including Malcom X. His grandmother insisted that when others hurt and humiliated him that he write about what had happened and why. When he went to Howard University as a student he was inspired and excited by the atmosphere there. He calls what he found “The Mecca,” a concentration of the energy of black people from all over the world, overlapping with the university but not synonymous with it. When police kill one of “the best and brightest” of his friends, he was devastated. He realizes that even being twice as good as whites can not protect a black body.
Coates does not attack whites as individuals for being racists. He attacks them for creating a world in which black bodies are valueless. Slavery was possible only because blacks were not considered people who mattered. It was an institution that could exist only through the regular use of violence. Even when it ended, the idea that blacks were disposable continued. He repeatedly refers to whites and “people who think they are white” as deluded in their attempt to ignore racial anger. “The “Dream” of safe, orderly, race-free suburbs within which to raise children is not attainable.
According to Coates, we all must face that the problems go far deeper than police reforms, but he offers no easy list plan or list of demands. Raised in the urban north, the Afro American tradition of spirituals and non-violence means nothing to him. He urges his son not to get caught up in the white Dream, but to join the struggle against it. That struggle is the only honest way to live despite the likelihood that white people will not change enough for those with black skins to be safe. He wants his son to know how to be gentle rather than tough, but he wants us to see why many young blacks resort to violence.
Whether you agree with him or not, Coates is an exceptional writer. His words have the cadence of rap music. He demands readers go back and consider his message. He tells searing stories out of his childhood and at his time at Howard while always keeping his eye on the larger public context. His fierce joy and his sadness over what he sees pervade his book. While his blackness makes him especially vulnerable, we all know at some level that none of us can escape danger by being “good enough.” I cannot imagine reading this book and not being moved.
Toni Morrison says that this book “should be required reading.” Like many of Coates’ readers, I agree totally. Its message is not simply for America, but for anywhere while supremacy has thrived. It is obviously meant to be read by those who are both black and white, because we must all grasp that “Black Lives Matter.”