This is an important book. His writing reveals a deep love for the world– a love that will not tolerate falseness.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new memoir delivers its powerful and personal message in a clear, urgent, and honest way. This book. It has taken me some days since finishing the book before I could write this reflection. There is just so much here. I think I’ll be learning from this book for months to come. The more I reflect, re-read, consider, and read again, the more insights I discover.
Between The World and Me carries the weight and authority of its personal nature. Coates writes the book as a letter to his fifteen year-old son. The first word of the book is “Son,” and from there he consistently returns to his son’s frame of reference, how his son might understand or remember a certain incident. The fatherly language weaves itself throughout the book, adding to its gravity.
Ta-Nehisi Coates tells his own story in this memoir– though he links his own personal story to the larger African American story. He describes growing up in the violent world of Baltimore, where even as a small boy, he knew he had to be mindful of where he was, who he was with. He recounts with some sadness, his early awareness the violence of the city required. He had to know who he was walking to school with, how many friends were with him, who he sat beside at lunch. He recalls that the wrong decision in any of these situations could mean his life. None of these realities is true for most white people. Coates was raised by parents who were not religious but who were politically aware and committed. His father was in the Black Panther Party. So he grew up in a house surrounded by urgent and essential ideas.
He recalls moving to Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was a fierce reader and discovered at Howard that within the Black community, there were disagreements and fights. The Black world was not monolithic in its thinking. It’s beautiful to read his experiences at Howard, where the Black world opens up to him in all its diversity and richness. However, one part of his Howard experience was especially painful. Coates recalls a friend’s death, Prince Jones, at the hands of police. Prince Jones, he recalls, was one who made it, one who made all the right choices– yet still the white world could destroy him. Jones was chased by a police officer who was dressed as a criminal, through suburban Maryland, Washington, D.C. and into Virginia, where the undercover officer shot him to death. That officer was never charged. In fact, he was returned to his job as a Prince George’s County officer. Coates uses this incident well, illustrating the point that those to whom the state gives the right to use lethal force can kill Black people with impunity. In fact, they always have.
He takes us through his son’s reaction to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the lack of charges brought against the white police officer who killed him. In some ways, Coates’ son’s reaction to the lack of charges provides the starting point for the memoir. His son went to his room, needing to be alone, and cried. A wise reaction for a young boy.
Coates’ simple and strong thesis is this:
Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body– it is heritage.
While this memoir is personal, avoiding the empirical evidence of Coates’ Atlantic article on reparations, which I highly recommend, he still gives compelling examples. While the book feels personal, it reflects Coates’ sound and clear thinking.
A surprising element in this book is its humility. Several times, Coates admits his weakness in one area or another. He admits to his son that his emotional vision was not always what it might have been. He also admits that he does not have religious faith to impart to his son. He dives into this aspect of his life several times. He acknowledges that many African American people are rooted in their churches, with a personally deep Christian faith. He admits that this provides a support for many people which he does not have. I think he writes about this with admirable honesty. He deals with it.
Coates uses a semantic move to describe white people in a way I find fascinating and freeing. Believing that race is a social construction that has been shaped in various ways over the centuries, nearly every time he refers to white people he writes of “…the people who believe they are white.” Or “…people who have been told they are white.” As one who has never been content with the term “white,” I am compelled by what he does in this regard. He forces the reader to see his “construction” language before he even gets to the word “white.” I, for one, am grateful for this. I will use that language in my own classroom.
Coates believes that life is struggle. It has beauty and is meaningful, but he insists, with his own personal honesty, that life is struggle. He tells his son life will not be easy.
Midway through the book, Coates says:
Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about the world is meant to be. 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.
He goes on to say:
I am not a cynic. I love you and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover.
Some books are beautiful, and at times, this book shows us beauty. Some books burst with new insights and this book accomplishes that, for me, at least. Some books are important and this book surely is important. While I have heard Coates say in interviews he does not write to change the thinking of “people who have been told they are white.” I believe this book can do just that.
We must move beyond the simplistic need to agree or disagree with this or that idea or thinker. Life is rarely that simple. I hope a zillion people read this book. I hope they don’t try to agree or disagree with Coates. That would miss his points. I hope people will just take in his ideas, consider how he describes his life. Let his words take you where they might. I know they are moving me.