Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)


When I happened to see this title at the library, I grabbed it as reviews of it have been all over the interwebs and I was curious to see how it read. Wow. It’s a provocative and challenging piece concerning race relations in the U.S. in the form of an impassioned letter from a black father to his son.

Written echoing the narrative structure of James Baldwin (who wrote The Fire Next Time, a similar narrative addressed to his nephew), Coates writes a missive to his teenaged son on how to live life in America as a black man. It’s interesting to read, but wow – Coates is so angry about twenty-first century life for African-American people and seems to hold so little hope for life to change from his son.

As a white person reading this short volume, his strong feelings against “people who believe they are white” took me a few steps back – “Wait a minute. I haven’t done anything to earn this invective”, and in fact, I felt so strongly that I actually put the book down to reconsider whether to continue reading it.

After sleeping on it, I decided to pick it up again to finish the read and see what Coates’ total message really was. He. Is. So. Angry. He also seems to have little belief in any individual agency that people can change their lives for the better, blaming all (almost all?) of America’s recent ongoing racial troubles on the troubling history of entrenched cultural racism stemming from the years of slavery.

As an English (and American) white person, I felt personally attacked and blamed for something over which I had no control. Slavery happened way before I was born, and so one side of me thought that this was something that was old news. Yes, it happened. Yes, it was horrible. Yes, it should never happen again, but at some point, one should consider the tenet of “History is not Destiny”…

coatesBut then I realized that I come from a background and history of never-ending white privilege. I have never had to deal with racism directed towards me in a negative fashion, so how can I judge whether Coates is over-estimating his views? I can’t, and I have no right to do so even if I could. He is entitled to his opinions and how he views the world, and I, as a privileged white woman, should pay attention to that. His opinion of life in America for POC was shocking and sad for me to read. No one should have to live in fear every day.

The essay in this book is not focused at me, a white person who has not felt the daily fear of day-to-day life as an African-American person may well feel. As a white person, society usually reflects my race in the ads, the films, the books, the very life I lead. I can usually guarantee that someone who looks like me will be reflected back to me on the TV screen and similar, that I can (and am) living the manufactured Dream that Coates refers to: the Dream of green lawns, picket fences, and all the other fixtures of the American ideal. However, if I was a person of African descent, how often can one say that? How can I believe that Dream is achievable for me if I don’t see people who look like me in it? If I only read reports of people who look like me getting killed, incarcerated, addicted?

It’s true that Coates is very angry about life in the U.S., and fears for his son and his future. Just witness the endless numbers of police shootings, black-on-black crime, poverty, unemployment, and disproportionate numbers of black men in the U.S. prison system, and one can’t rationally deny that racism is not alive and well in the world of today. If I was an African-American person growing up here, how could I not be angry at the way that America has treated me? I’d be mad as hell as well.

So this was quite the provocative piece for me. By the time I had finished this fairly short read, I had definitely revised my views of U.S. race relations and of Coates. It’s an emotional piece of writing for me to read and I admire Coates in some ways. I wish that he did not feel so angry about the world in which he lives as there must be happy pieces in his world somewhere but there is no mention of that. He seems to have a very all-or-nothing view of the whole situation which seems to be rather extremist in some ways and to foster little hope for improvement on any level.

But then I consider what he says about how America in the twentieth-first century is based on public policies which have their roots in slavery and segregation, and for me to deny that would be foolish.

Of course life today is impacted by the life of yesterday. But how to change that? Should we take the perspective of recognizing what’s better and still continuing to strive for more improvements? Or should one take Coates’ perspective of “not enough, we deserve more and we won’t rest until we get it”?

As a privileged white woman, the argument could be that as I’m already in a comfortable position, it’s easy for me to have the former perspective. Is it me being too much of a Pollyanna to view the world in that manner? Should I get my (white and idealistic) blinders off and more fully realize that life is still hugely affected negatively by race in the U.S. and, according to Coates, always will be?

I think that that is the biggest strength of Coates’ narrative piece here: that his book invites everyone to take a closer look at how racism affects people (even if it’s not you), and how its insidious effects can chip away at a whole people one day at a time. It’s also a muscular “take no prisoners” letter to a son from a father who passionately wishes to protect and prepare him for his adult life.

This ended up being a fascinating read which really opened my eyes about modern life in America for people of color. I recommend this book to anyone (wherever you may fall on the spectrum) as it will be certain to shake up how you see the world. And isn’t that the point of any good book?

(And if you’re interested in another really thoughtful read by Coates, check out his article in The Atlantic about reparations…) It will make you think of the situation in a whole new light and that, I think, is the be-all of reading non-fiction – at least for me. Does it affect your world view in some way by opening new worlds of thought about something or someone? That’s the very definition of powerful writing, if you ask me.)

Coates, BTW, is the son of a former Black Panther and so understandably has strong views. Link this with Beyoncé’s SuperBowl half-time show, and it’s interesting to consider how this will all play out with a new generation. Food for thought, indeed.

There are, of course, tons of reviews et al. out there around the interwebs, but here are several that I really like about this huge important issue:

What are your thoughts?

2 thoughts on “Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

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