Between the World and Me

between-the-world-and-meI’ll preface this post by saying that it’s hard for me to know how to write about this book. I read it back in October, but didn’t know how to start writing a review. Between the World and Me was inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, in which Baldwin writes letters to his nephew; in this book, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his 15-year-old son Samori, about the Dream of those who think they are white, about the American heritage of using and breaking black bodies, about the ongoing struggle to create a true narrative of the world. But as I try, tentatively, to paraphrase and quote, it feels like paraphrasing poetry. The book is already so focused, so clear. I don’t want to do damage, or bruise a sentence by taking it out of context. I want to tell you: just read it. Just listen.

The tone of this book — really a long essay — is deeply personal. Coates talks about his own experience, his childhood and adolescence in west Baltimore, his time at Howard, his growth as a writer, his fears and frustrations and deep losses and loves and connections and discoveries and profound rage. But this is not just a letter and not just a memoir. There’s a formality, or perhaps a containment, to this sorrow and anger, and Coates spends time showing the connections between his experience and those of other black Americans, back for generations, back for hundreds of years to the beginning of the systematic abrogation of the humanity of an entire race.

Coates doesn’t admit the concept of race. Because of the strange quirks of American racial history, we have people with pale skin and blue eyes who are “black,” and people with dark skin and eyes and hair who are “white.” It’s meaningless; just a way to keep some people outside the sheltering definition of human rights. He shows the consequences of this long history and heritage: the powerlessness that adds unstable rocket fuel to gang violence; the terror that makes black families beat their children into submission around white people; the disparity between black and white lives. He asks the questions that occurred to him his whole life: about the American Dream that is meant for white people and built on the backs of black people; about the heroes black people are supposed to adopt (why must black people have only nonviolent heroes, but white people can have as many violent heroes as they like?); about the importance of love and community when you live in constant fear for your body.

I was well aware as I was reading Between the World and Me that I was not its primary audience. How shall I put this — I’m not excluded from reading this, or pushed away, I’m just not the person Coates is thinking about when he’s writing. This reminded me of a story Coates tells in the book: apparently Saul Bellow once quipped, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” Implying, you know, that Africans haven’t come up with any great cultural achievements and so they aren’t as good as Europeans. Coates goes into detail about how he spent time at Howard studying the great achievements of ancient African civilizations, trying to prove to himself that they had contributed just as much to world culture. And then he read this, by Ralph Wiley: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus. Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” There it is. Tolstoy wasn’t thinking about me as his audience, either. But I am glad to be at the table.

This book is a powerful, relentlessly honest assertion. It is personal and it is political. It values body over spirit — it says that the body is the spirit — and it profoundly values life. It values truth over myth, struggle over dream. In a country that has systematically and personally whitewashed and distorted the role of anyone other than wealthy white men, this book is a shout. I recommend it for everyone.

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24 Responses to Between the World and Me

  1. Sounds like a very timely read.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, it certainly is. It came out last year, and it was timely then, too, and I think it will be timely for a long time to come.

  2. This is a fine review. His fear for his son, simply because he’s someone with brown skin, is moving. I was troubled, and I admit at first affronted, by Coates’s bitterness toward America and his lack of belief in our nation. I can see why—reading it showed me how some people of color might feel this way—but America’s failures still seem only half the story. The other half is our nation’s transcendent ideals that eventually impel it to do things like fight a horrendous Civil War and put Barack Obama in the White House. It’s Coates’s right to feel the way he does, and, as I say, that was illuminating to me to know his despair and rage. But it also made me feel and fear for his son in a new way, over Coates’s own cynical view. The book is almost suffocatingly without hope. I think Coates will grow beyond this and offer more mature work.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re not the only person to think this; Michiko Kakutani at the New York Times also criticized him for not acknowledging racial progress over the centuries. However, I think it’s crucial to listen to what he says. He says he’s not cynical — that he loves his son, that he loves the world, and every inch of it that he discovers. He doesn’t want to forget Barack Obama. But he doesn’t want to forget the decades and centuries of violence and repression that create the disparity between black and white lives, either. For Coates, the opposite of hope isn’t despair, it’s struggle, and he loves the struggle. For him, it’s truth and life, whereas the Dream is despair because it’s a lie.

      I do think it’s almost impossible to read this book and consider it immature, or consider that the author needs to grow up. There’s a wisdom here that I think most Americans would do well to listen to.

    • Christy says:

      When I read this book for the second time, I saw more hope in it than the first time. The essay ends by pointing to the strength and beauty of the black community – there’s a line near the end ““They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”

      • Jenny says:

        That’s a great quotation. And I agree there’s hope and beauty throughout: it just takes a different form than believing in the “transcendent ideals” of America.

  3. Tom Hoerr says:

    This wonderful review captures the story and the pain that Coates bears and bares for all of us. I learned – and I hurt – from reading the book.

  4. Ann Marie says:

    Beautiful review! I also found it difficult to articulate my feelings after reading this book. You did a much better job of it. :)

    • Jenny says:

      It’s not a sound-bite kind of book — Coates doesn’t make it easy to pull quotes or neatly summarize what he says. There are themes and big ideas, but the best way to talk about this book is really to read it and then sit down and talk about it with a friend, isn’t it?

  5. I think you’ve done an excellent job of capturing Coates’s goals. I hope that readers who come to this book then go seek two other books: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, the glorious book that inspired Coates and that, sadly, isn’t dated even a little by the passage of fifty years; and The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward, a collection of essays by young writers of color who are addressing the same audience Coates is after. As a man closer to Baldwin’s time than to Coates’s I still found myself deeply moved by all of these works, and as a gay man I find a sense of shared identity (although my journey has not been as tortured as that of people of color). And the language of these writers can be savored and enjoyed on its own; all, including Coates, are fine stylists and artists who are using their powers to try and change the world.

    • Jenny says:

      Christopher, thank you so much for this comment, and especially for the recommendations. I think my first foray into Baldwin will be The Evidence of Things Not Seen (I’ve asked for it for Christmas) but there is so much left for me to explore. Your comment that Baldwin is so relevant after fifty or more years is well taken; it seems that we have a serious problem with sharing power in this country.

  6. Stefanie says:

    I think you wrote about the book just fine. I really liked it too and I liked that it made me feel uncomfortable and I liked that I learned a few things. An important book I think.

  7. Jeanne says:

    I did feel excluded, but thought that was part of the genius of this book–you can’t argue with it, because it’s so personal. No one can say “nuh uh, you don’t feel that way….”

    • Jenny says:

      I think what I meant by “not excluded” is that Coates doesn’t NOT want me to read it. He doesn’t care if I read it or not. I’m just not in his mind. This, of course, reflects the black experience, like, forever: since when is an African-American the person that, say, John Updike or Kurt Vonnegut or Anne Tyler primarily had in mind? But I agree that this experience of not being the intended audience was part of the genius.

  8. Christy says:

    Your review echoes a lot of what I felt when I finally wrote my own review of Coates’ book. I also barely quoted the book because the whole thing is so tightly woven together that it’s hard to understand individual excerpts without knowing the context.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re right! I just went and read your beautiful, strong review and I did have a very similar reaction to yours. I think you said it better! It’s not a long book — I just want people to read it.

  9. Linda says:

    I began reading this book and put it down because it’s essentially a very long essay, and somehow it was hard for me to read. Then I listened to the audiobook – which the author narrates himself – and I highly recommend it to anyone. It’s a book of powerful words and ideas, but it’s elevated even more by the passion with which he reads it.

  10. Lovely review, Proper Jenny. I had a hard time writing about this book, and I believe that in the end I copped out and didn’t say anything at all. I loved Coates’s writing. His fear and love for his son made me ache. The whole thing reminded me that I have so much reading and learning to keep doing and I have to always keep at it and never ever become complacent. (Which, I mean — if Coates’s book hadn’t been a reminder of that, this recent election would have been.)

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, that’s so well put — it made me really think about my own obligations as a citizen and a human being, from my reading to my boots-on-the-ground actions. (And yes to the reinforcement the election gave me in this regard.)

  11. Rebecca says:

    I just finished this book. I dog-eared every other page. There were so many notable phrases. He’s genius with his ability to turn a phrase.
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
    Follow me on Bloglovin’

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