Between the World and Meby Ta-Nehisi Coates Published 14 Jul 2015
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|Publisher||Spiegel & Grau|
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In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.
"Between the World and Me" Reviews
Folks that love Mr. Coates will love this book, as they'll be able to follow him through a piece that is somewhat indulgent -- but he certainly won't win new fans or quell his skeptics (like myself) with this piece of work. Coates says that he wanted to write like Baldwin, but it just comes across as a unfocused, stream of consciousness. As a black man who constantly battles with the work of Mr. Coates, I wanted to give this one a chance, as many lament tons of praise on the work -- but I for one still think that our perceptions of what it means to be a black man in America today are far different--my own not being one of privilege, but one that gives me much more hope than what Mr. Coates likes to deal out to his readers.
I thought it was a little fishy that all the reviews on here are these reverent whispery multi-starred nods of agreement about how important this book is. I mean, that just never happens, especially with the "it" book of the moment : there are always naysayers and contrarians and people who just don't get what the BFD is. Since there's a copy lying around my house, I thought I'd check it out -- the season's "it" book is rarely just 152 pages and about a topic that interests me, so I was excited to participate in the cool thing for once, after missing out on Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games and Eat Pray Love and all the rest due to a combination of laziness and snobbery.
On some level I was hoping to be the don't-believe-the-hype hater on here, but Coates left me disappointed on that front. It did take me a little while to get into this but once he got to college I was hooked and couldn't stop even though it was late and I had to get up at 3am to catch a transcontinental flight. My main question before I read it was, "What new is there to say?" I'd noticed everyone had their panties all in a twist over this book about being black in America and based on what I'd heard I just didn't get what he could've said that seemed so revelatory and new.
The answer is, not too much really: it's more the way that he says it. Between the World and Me is an intensely personal book that's rooted in deeply-felt lived experience. As someone who is horrified by our era's obsession with memoir, I am occasionally floored when I see what a personal story can do. I recently read an essay online by a woman whose father had committed suicide that made me seriously rethink my antipathy towards memoir, and my response to this book was similar. So often the recounting of personal experience and private feelings comes off as dull, narcissistic, and unnecessary, but on occasion memoir transcends itself and is able to speak to something much larger than one person's life with an authority that nothing else can.
It doesn't need to be said but I'll point out anyway that a lot of this book's success has to do with timing. White Americans have been able to ignore a lot of this for a long time, but recently that's become almost impossible to do. In the past two weeks we've heard Sandra Bland's traffic stop and watched Samuel DuBose be murdered before our eyes and the trauma of witnessing these things, and the rest from the past year, has left pretty much everyone looking for answers.
This book did partially answer a huge question I've had for years that I'm sure a lot of other uninformed white people have but that's too offensive and embarrassing to ask black parents directly, which is, "What do you tell your kids? When do you tell them? And how do you reassure them that it's going to be alright, when as a parent you're supposed to help them feel things will be okay but you're also supposed to be honest and keep them safe?" This book is constructed as a letter to Coates's fifteen-year-old son, and the reason it's so satisfying is that it does not err on the side of false comfort and remains honestly bleak. It also gave me the uncomfortably excited feeling of access to a perspective I've always wanted to know more about but was -- yeah, I'll admit it -- afraid to ask.
I think pretty often about what makes me an adult, and maybe this sounds weird but one of the main things is understanding now what a big deal it is when people die. I feel like when I was a kid I didn't quite get that that actually happened, and then when I was a teenager I didn't think it was very serious, but when I grew up I finally saw that this was it, this was huge, this was almost the only thing that there was that mattered. Between the World and Me's main orientation is corporal: it's concerned with what happens to a person's body as ultimately the sole important thing. For me, this is a helpful way to think about racism. I remember one day when I was not so old, but not really that young either, reading that African American men have much shorter life expectancies than white American men due to health disparities, and it was like a light went off and I finally saw what racism was in a different and much truer way than I had before. So much discourse about race takes place in these abstract terms that speak about social construction and are preoccupied with the nuance of language and ideas, but there is something about a return to the body that blows that away. At the end of the day, redlining matters because it's created conditions in which black kids are more likely than white kids to get hit with a stray bullet while walking to school. It sounds foolishly obvious but police brutality and mass incarceration affect people in the most stark and concrete way: by ending lives, by physically hurting or locking up their bodies. Of course there are other reasons why racism is is a problem, but Coates's emphasis on the body, and his insistence that nothing else matters so much beyond that, resonated with me.
This is a book that takes our country's sweet language about having a dream and turns it into a bitter mouthful of ashes. I'm actually surprised it's so popular because I feel we as Americans crave optimism and promises of solutions, and Coates offers neither. There's a lot of beauty in the world, he says, and there are great things about being young, gifted and black or whatever, but he doesn't believe in any moral arc of the universe tilting toward justice or in any of this getting especially better, which according to him (spoiler alert!) will be a moot point anyway soon because we'll all be underwater.
A short, well-written, timely book that I, along with everyone else, recommend.
Less than an hour ago (on 7/26/2015) I finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. As I read the last sentence, “Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets,” I was involuntarily overcome with inexplicable, yet wholly warranted emotion. Oddly, tears, my tears, tears perhaps I had been locking inside my fatherly bravado for a couple decades, came down in their own sheets, as thoughts of my child, my daughter, at fourteen years old, still having to face the daemonic vulgarities of a world she had no part in building but would be expected to repair, came to life.
The tears came because Coates, in a few pages, captured, exposed, unlocked and translated what so many people of color, so many frustrated and frightened parents, and so many disenfranchised and nomadic youth found so difficult to dictate and explain. For them, the feelings were there but the words simply would not come. I wept because Coates' story was my story from my early experiences as a student at Morehouse College (the Harvard of the South) to the wanderer (and discoverer) of beauty upon the Parisian landscape, to accepting my unexpected role as an English teacher in a tough and directionless Baltimore City, to my exploration and rebirth, producing who I am today.
Like so many, I was immediately taken to the oft quoted, extensively analyzed and eternally relevant essay, The Fire Next Time, written in 1962 by James Baldwin, as a “letter” to his nephew, written I suppose, for all the nephews in the world to analyze and digest. The similarities between Coates and Baldwin were uncanny, and certainly intentional, as "Between the World... was written by Coates to his son, as if a continuation to Baldwin’s last line from “The Fire…”:
“And everywhere there is the anguish of being black in a society that at times seems poised on the brink of total racial war.”
Yes, Coates released Between the World and Me, several weeks after the ‘unrest’ in Baltimore at the urging of his publisher, a timely and strategically perfect act and as an expose of tumultuous racial injustice and social chaos headlining the evening news the world over. He writes: “But race is the child of racism, not the father.” Indeed. Perhaps.
This is a book that must be read and passed on to the youth to read several times over; a book for universities and secondary schools to add to their bulging curriculum to produce and encourage meaningful dialogue without blame or bias. Between the World and Me, is a book that should be discussed over scones and tea and bags of potato chips, and shared during drives to grandma’s house in the country or the inner city. It should be read by all people regardless of color, creed, nationality or social belief. This is a book of substance and timeless relevance. It is the book we all know. Eagerly and with great expectation, I await the next Coates to continue the story between the world and us.
Sometime early in my reading of this book, I felt in my gut I had encountered a classic. Not a best-seller—this book is already that—but a classic. I envisioned stack upon paperback stack piled on metal shelves in university bookstores, shelves labeled Black Studies 301 but also Basic Comp 100. I could see pirated copies of large portions of Part One passed out to high school juniors and seniors, to be carefully annotated in AP Language and AP Literature, and I could see smaller sections distributed (with the customary "scaffolding" materials) to freshmen and sophomores in Basic English I and II.
But even now--after the winning of The National Book Award--I doubt my own vision. Coates book deserves to be a classic, just as much as The Life of Frederick Douglass, The Souls of Black Folk, The Fire Next Time, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X—all first-class books—deserve it. But a classic, after all, is not only a book of “first-class” quality, but one that is taught in “class”--and Coates book may be too bleak to appeal to educators--not to mention schoolboards and parents--who prefer books like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Secret Life of Bees that agree to temper (to dissipate?) their truth with the comforts of warmth.
Coates book--presented as an open letter to his teenage son--is undoubtedly bleak. He grew up on the streets of Baltimore in the early '90's, and describes the experience in physical, visceral terms. As a black boy growing up in such streets, you knew that your body was continually under mortal threat, often under attack. At any moment your body could be controlled, violated, by the hands or weapons of another—often by the policemen employed by “the Dreamers,” those who define themselves as white in America and wish to preserve for themselves the privileges of the American Dream. And you knew that any of these random violations of the body could lead to the ending of your life. And if you were a young unbeliever—as Coates was and is—you were conscious that this act would end the only life you would ever know.
Coates has no faith in America or in its dream. For him, unlike Martin Luther King, the arc of the moral universe bends not toward justice but chaos. The Dream itself is built upon the despoliation and violation of the bodies of black men and women, and may only end when it has finally violated and despoiled the entire planet:
Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could order the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.
Once, the Dream's parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And the revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.
But this book is more than its bleakness; although it is never hopeful, it is earnest, honest, and aware. Coates describes his odyssey from the narrow streets of Baltimore, to the black “Mecca” of Howard University, to the diverse neighborhoods of NYC, and to his encounter with a profoundly different culture on the boulevards of Paris. He welcomes his increasingly wide world with open eyes (if not always open arms), and his encounters with it deepen—although they do not substantially alter—his perceptions of blackness or the toxic nature of the Dream.
Finally, even his atheism seems to be something like a gift. Perhaps it is only by realizing that the body is ultimately all we have that we can finally get our priorities straight, stop believing in forms of “magic” like “salvation” or “the Dream” or "progress," and instead concentrate on making sure that the bodies of all young people are protected and respected, so that each may discover the world with her own unique eyes.
Between the World and Me is undoubtedly a great book. Even if its bleakness prevents it from becoming an official classic, there is still a part of my vision that I am sure will come true. I see fathers giving copies to their sons, mothers to their daughters, for generations to come.
I've read Coates work in the Atlantic for years now and my fundamental impression of him is unchanged. His limited Black liberal anti-racist appeals to White guilt illustrate his total inability to escape the narrow racial essentialist vision of Black identity. Coates in his book reduces America to basically two categories: The Dreamers, (White Americans) and the rest being Black folk. This thinking demonstrates such a pedestrian understanding of America, especially when considering that the "Empire," as Coates once correctly refers to this nation, is headed by a Black president, Attorney General, and Director of Homeland Security. Coates has no explanation for how the "black bodies" he often laments, are being crushed by law enforcement mechanisms which are under the legal purview of a Black Woman. His total lack of effective class analysis further demonstrates that Coates has not evolved past a Martin vs. Malcolm understanding of Black America. Coates' inability to explain American oppression outside of mere anti-black racism is also troubling in its banality. No critique of capitalism that explains why it needs racism and a complete lack of materialist analysis outside the totally unoriginal rhetoric of "America was built on our backs." Coates' myopic race speak drivel offers no remedy or policy, simple grievance and complaint. In that way his voice is perfect for our neoliberal age which so perfectly uses identity politics cries for representation in the "upper management" cue to maintain the Empire. There are neither original arguments or thoughts in this book. Simply grievance based cries for white attention.
An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.
The moment I really fell for Ta-Nehisi Coates was during his interview on the Diane Rehm’s show after he was asked his opinions on gun control. The question came after a statement by him about the safety of his son living in Paris as opposed to the United States with regard to the rampant gun violence in the US. Gun control is a very ‘hot-button’ issue in the US as of present, and anything this journalist from The Atlantic said was sure to become another .gif in the meme politics of American social media. Coates gave the classiest of answers possible, declining to address an opinion on gun control due to a confessed lack of proper, journalistic research. He listed many socio-political issues he felt he was well-researched upon enough to give an opinion, but on gun control he lacked a ready-built answer complete with statistics and citation so he felt it would be improper to broadcast his opinion on the matter. As Wittgenstein wrote ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ This classy response won me over even more so than his reading from his book Between the World and Me,’ though it is highly recommended you listen to his wonderfully cadenced voice recite the pure poetry that flows through his book¹. The National Book Award winning book is written in the form of a letter to his son—' I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.’—and addresses the issues of racism and racial violence prevalent in the United State and how it is a product of American history itself. ‘You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.’ Coates letter is an extraordinarily blunt and honest stance in the depths of storm, highlighting the violent lunacy of racism—‘race is the child of racism, not the father’—opening our eyes to the real immediacy of violence and white privilege in a poise and prose sure to leave readers awestruck in it’s powerful wake.
Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.
Around the time I was toying with the idea of picking up this book (I rarely read non-fiction but the rerun of his interview on NPR was the clincher that brought me that very day to a bookstore found on my Wednesday delivery route) I was pulled over one night for a routine traffic stop. The events that followed lead me to understand what the phrase 'check your privilege’ truly meant. To my ignorance, the right, front headlight of my car wasn’t working and when I saw the flashing lights of a county cop I immediately pulled over and fretted over how I would manage to afford the ticket for whatever infraction I had committed. My mind was abuzz with my lack of finances and confusion over what I could possibly have been pulled over for, at no point thinking ‘this could be the moment my life is ended, my body destroyed.’ The police officer was extremely friendly and helpful. It wasn’t until I was driving away that I realized he never asked for my vehicle registration or even bothered to ask if the car was registered in my name. He asked if I had been drinking and when I smiled and said ‘not yet, sir’ he laughed and replied ‘have to ask, don’t worry, I believe you.’ It was a simple experience. In no point was I eyed suspiciously, my car wasn’t searched, the police officer didn’t pull me out readily questioning if I even legally had possession of the car. That was a flat out privilege that I was able to coast through this so easily..
Imagine now, if you will, had I been a different race. Social media has been filled in the recent year with police-cam videos showing black men and women treated with hostility from the get-go in routine stops and many horrifying clips that finish with the officer discharging his weapon into an unarmed black motorist. Undoubtedly, my mind would have been on much more than simply 'oh no, how will I pay for this,’ but more along the anxiety lines of ‘am I going to be hauled to jail or killed out of this encounter?’ Yes, I had benefited from a moment of White Privilege, and I can’t just walk away from this without reminding those who also benefit from this to keep it in mind, in constant check, and remember that we coexist with those who do not benefit from this.
Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others...Discussing White Privilege is not about discrediting someone’s shortcomings or problems because they are white as many seem to mistake it, it is not about saying white people are less important, it is simply about remembering that your race has dealt you a different hand. For better or for worse. It’s just about being self aware. Much like how Black Lives Matter does not mean White lives don’t matter, but about reminding you that black lives do matter too in a world that sometimes neglects to think about it, that all lives matter.
So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope
Between the World and Me delivers horrific account after horrific account of what living on the side of those who are destroyed, as he often puts it, simply for not being of the benefiting race. He reminds you of the fear, the hate, the violence and the fury boiling in the reality of the racial problems in America, and reminds you that it is a man-made and perpetuated problem.
[A]ll our phrasing--race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy--serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.Coates refuses to let the issue be sugar-coated and rubs the reader’s nose in the gore and terror of reality to make sure you will not forget it. He does not make apologies. The naysayers frequently like to dismiss the horrible murders mentioned in the book by pointing out that the victim had been committing a crime, yet this is grossly missing the point. Remember the ‘I can’t breathe!’ incident from a year or so ago, where the man was strangled by a police office responding to him illegally selling cigarettes? His crime in no way negates the fact that his arrest led directly and immediately to his death. ‘Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed,’ Coates reminds us. The punishment in no way equals the crime. The police officer should not be the judge, jury and executioner, the punishment of death is not theirs to decide. What is worse is that ‘The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.’ From Michael Brown to Prince Jones, Coates looks deep into the death of men at the hands of police.
‘All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.’
In order to fully learn a lesson one must not just retain the knowledge but also act upon the knowledge. Don’t just be a sword in it’s scabbard on the battlefield of society. Recognizing white privilege isn’t enough, and neither is writing this review. I must always keep it in mind, recognize it and act with it in each moment and breath like the religiously devout and then reconfigure myself to help others; I must see the message and deliver it for the good of all humankind with each and every action I undertake. I want to take the plunge, to walk that peaceful warrior’s road, and I want you all to walk with me. It’s the only way to a better horizon. Ta-Nehisis Coates emphasizes on one particular race issue, but the message is easily expandable and adaptable to shelter all race, sexual orientation and gender issues under it’s empowering umbrella. I brought a daughter into this world and I don’t want it to be one she will regret having been forced into. This could and should be a world where we don’t see race—it feels necessary to reiterate Ta-Nehisi’s point that race is a symptom, not the infection—or gender, but the human race as a whole. The most common criticisms of Between the World and Me are that he is not saying anything new or, as Eddie Glaude, author of the wonderful Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, states that Ta-Nehisi only questions without offering solutions (far from condemning Ta-Nehisi, Glaude goes on to praise the man for at least asking the right questions in his own interview on the Diane Rehm’s Show). However, what succeeds in heroic fashion for Coates is his infectiously beautiful prose which impregnates the reader with his ideology through the purity of it’s complicated simplicity and power. He opens eyes like a sunrise. We must all take his words to heart. It’s a difficult road, but I’ll take your hand if you’ll take mine and we will squeeze them with the brave reassurance as one would squeeze the hand of a terminal cancer patient. Let us not allow racism to be the tumor of society, let us not fall victim to the fear of the Other. Let us forge a brighter future.
‘You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. 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. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this’
¹ The interview between Coates and Diane Rehm can be found here.