I’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.