Between the World and Me
“May we find the courage . . . to make this land . . . a more just, more reasonable, and more tolerant place.”
A book review is not a mirror. It should not be too personal. Reviews are designed to critique the work—describe characters and plot, analyze the prose, assess the story, and define the potential impact on the reader—not the reverse. In fact, good reviews often omit any mention of the word “I.”
But Between the World and Me is no ordinary book, and the writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, an essayist and correspondent for The Atlantic is no ordinary writer. This personal account, written in the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, who has experienced great emotional pain around the Ferguson incident wherein police killed Michael Brown, this personal account demands a personal response.
In fact, the whole point of this particular book about the turbulence of racism in America is to ask the reader not to remain too distant from the theme, not to take comfort in vocabulary which can often provide safety and distance from harm; for example, as the comfort afforded to the bystander of a crash who can walk away if the scene is too gruesome.
“It is hard to face this,” warns Coates. “But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial injustice, 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. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
Okay, Mr. Coates. I shall break some reviewer rules. I am white, female, Jewish, and American, in no particular order. That matters. You have taken great pains in this book to tell me about yourself—how you grew up in a tough part of Baltimore. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease.” Your streets and schools were not, as mine were, safe places. In your neighborhood “fear ruled.” In mine, fun ruled. There is a huge distance between those poles.
As an African American male, you have experienced life in ways I shall never know—in this letter focusing on potential threats and dangers, and warning your son to do the same in telling him, “You are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which somehow will be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements.”
You love your son deeply, and this letter to a son you love beyond measure is designed to prepare him, protect him, and beseech him to be careful of those parts of the world he cannot control. I feel the same way about my two sons, although, of course, the threats are of a different ilk. I hear the pleas in your voice when you write: “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.”
Words, particularly questions, do give us navigational tools to challenge our values, traditions, and political/cultural structures. Many of us wrestle, as you do, with vexing questions about American “exceptionalism” and democracy. Is it a failed experiment, deeply flawed by “inherent contradictions”? I like your phrase, “One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.”
Your critics point to your lack of hope and solutions regarding racial divides, police brutality, and the uneven playing field that you poignantly describe: “No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good.” In fact, you suggest that those parents told white children to “take twice as much,” and that the rules “redoubled plunder” and left you and others, as you state “readying ourselves to accept half as much.” I wish you had some solutions to suggest so I might address the inequities I see around me. But I also understand that this book is in the form of a letter and not a policy paper.
But like you, I worry that the future for my children will not be bright enough, fair enough. I worry, for example, that the digital world in which they live will leave little room for sun and warmth. But your fear goes profoundly beyond that. I feel your anxiety in the part of your letter to your son, Samori, (whose name comes from a story of struggle). “You would be a man one day, and I could not save you from the unbridgeable distance between you and your future peers and colleagues, who might try to convince you that everything I know, all the things I’m sharing with you here, are an illusion, or a fact of a distant past that need not be discussed.”
Between the world of you, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the world of me are many miles. But we travel upon parallel, but different roads in being born in America. May we find the courage and strength to make this land we occupy and the world around us, a more just, more reasonable, and more tolerant place.