Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

 

“We should seek not a world where the black race and white race live in harmony but a world in which black and white have no real political meaning.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me, winner of the National Book Award, is written as a letter by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his 15-year-old son.

“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”

I read this book together with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, a coming of age memoir about growing up black in West Baltimore, and the two are excellent read back to back. If you want to see what Ta-Nehisi Coates is all about, I recommend reading the memoir first, so you’ll have background about Coates’ childhood and family, and then follow up with Between the World and Me so you have some context.

Fair warning, though, I found neither book an easy read emotionally, and you may not either if you are a white American. (Or, as Coates would say, if you think you are white. Coates believes race is a falsehood.)

“Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable reality of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.”

There is plenty of uncomfortable truth in these two books, and Coates does not mince words. Between the World and Me, especially, is meant to awaken America from its false Dream.

I grew up in a somewhat racially diverse town outside of Cleveland and attended public school alongside African Americans, but there was de facto segregation, with blacks in their own neighborhood not far from where I lived. In retrospect, and especially after having read Coates, I see how absolutely separate and different our lives actually were.

When I began reading The Beautiful Struggle, I found myself baffled by the words and phrases Coates used and many of his cultural references. I was reading a different language, the language of urban black America. The language is perhaps deliberately exaggerated in the first pages, and not decoded, maybe to act as a kind of culture shock or wake-up call to the reader.

A senior writer at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in one of the toughest, most marginalized and deprived communities in America. His father was a Black Panther who later became a librarian; his employment at the Howard University library enabled his children to attend school there tuition free.

I’m not going to summarize too much about the books, because I can’t do justice to Coates’ eloquent, powerful prose as he describes how the African American body has been violated through slavery, segregation, incarceration, and death at the hands of our criminal justice system. His words are sometimes hard to take, and both books are unfailingly hard to put down. I was especially struck by these aspects:

  • How very terrifying it is to be pulled over or questioned by a police officer if you are black in America. I think the only thing more powerful than Coates’ words are the videos we’ve seen of incidents gone wrong these past few years. I respect the bravery of police officers doing incredibly challenging work, but I’ve also been following the news in Cleveland, where I grew up, and how the police department there has been investigated by the US Department of Justice. My son attends the U. of Cincinnati, where this past year an unarmed black man was killed by a campus security officer for no apparent reason. (The officer has been charged with murder.) When the video went viral, I was chilled by what I saw, frightened for my son and anyone who might be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Coates recounts the first time he visited Paris, France. Growing up in West Baltimore, he could never have imagined such a gracious and beautiful place or that he would ever go there. It was moving to read Coates’ description of how easy it was for him to walk the streets of Paris, how differently he was treated, and how for the first time he wasn’t afraid.
  • Coates concludes that the fate of all of us is in the hands of those with power who think they are white – he believes many, though not all, African Americans are still too disenfranchised to change the system. But he fears that we as a country will reap what we’ve sown; that our hunger for power has also meant the abuse and destruction of the earth. He fears that in the end the earth will prevail, likely at great cost to humanity.

Here is one more quote from Between the World and Me, an example of his powerful use of language that some may see as divisive or offensive:

“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”

(And from “Whitey” Tim Kreider, read this. I happened to discover this link on my Facebook page the day I wrote this post.)

Have you read Between the World and Me or The Beautiful Struggle? What do you think of the final quote above? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

The Beautiful Struggle

11 responses

  1. Enjoyed your thoughts on these books. I read Between the World and Me and found it powerful and moving.. I’ll have to read the memoir some time. Loved the Kreider article, thanks for sharing the link!

  2. Wonderful review, Valorie! I have heard Ta-Nehisi Coates speak on TV, but I haven’t read any of his books. These two look like powerful reads. I loved what he said about Paris (though Paris seems to have its own problems these days). I loved that last passage that you have quoted – so powerful. It looks like Coates is the James Baldwin of our era. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these two books. I will add them to my ‘TBR’ list.

  3. Oh this one is still on my tbr, but I love the sound of his memoir too. Perhaps it’d be great for me too to read them together. It’s wonderful of you to share your thoughts on reading this book and thinking about privilege! It’s always interesting how forms of racism compare in Western countries, because we have our own share in Germany and of course in France, so for me reading about US race relations is always somewhere between extremely relatable and a completely different experience altogether.

  4. I hope to read one of his books soon. What strikes me the most (I guess because I hadn’t thought about it before) is what he says about the difference between being in France and being home. It’s so sad the he should feel so afraid in his own country compared to one he’s never been to.

  5. Between The World and Me was one of the most powerful and significant books I read last year.

    Excellent review, Valorie. You picked out the best quotes from the book and selected great takeaways from this slim novel that carries a monumental weight and importance.

  6. I should probably read his books, because this is such an important and timely topic, and the racial discrimination and institution of white privilege needs to end.

    But the last sentence of the quote bothers me, and the fact that he seems to have deliberately obfuscated the language of his opening pages to baffle those who have not had his experiences puts me off. It strikes me as being hostile toward readers who “consider themselves white.” Shouldn’t he be trying to draw them in, not shut them out, if he wants to share his experience and help others see the world the way he does?

    And reducing the problems with our police force and government to (forgive me) black and white cliches (ALL police officers are fascists pigs? ALL members of the government are majoritarian pigs?) seems simplistic at best. We need less of that divisive kind of rhetoric, not more, if we are to overcome the racial divide and judge each other by the content of our characters rather than the color of our skins.

    On the other hand, it is always helpful to view the world through the eyes of those we do not identify with, and who make us question our own view of the world–and his books sound like they do that.

    • I debated whether to put that last quote in, but decided to go ahead. I think his language is harsh, but it really got through to me. When you hear him speak, he comes across as inclusive. Not so much when he writes. To tell the truth, I don’t much blame him. I truly believe he’s been traumatized, as have many people. I think if he tried to be inclusive it would have hung him up and not been authentic – I think he had to say what he had to say. I think he is terrified for his son. As for the difficult language in the other book – I’m not sure if it was intentional. I could be misreading that. If it was, it worked for me, it didn’t turn me off.

    • Really? You know, I’ve been to Baltimore only once, and never to West Baltimore. Unfortunately, there are many other such cities to choose from if you can’t make it to W. Baltimore….Detroit, Cleveland, etc etc

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