Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisis Coates
Random House, 176 pages (also in CD format)
Between the World and Me is journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son about life as a Black man in America. Inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, it is deeply personal and reads as a memoir filled with deep, intelligent reflection on his life and what he wants to tell his teenage son.
Coates cites his son’s disappointment that the officers who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 as the incident that pushes him to write about his experiences. He was also disappointed with what he saw as President Obama’s failure to sufficiently address racial disparities in the introduction of the Affordable Care Act and his call for African Americans to take more responsibility. Coates wanted to present a view of Black life and perspectives that wasn’t couched in hope and optimism. He wrote about his experience as it was.
What Coates presents in his writing is the lived experience of systemic racism. He writes extensively about the impact of systemic racism on his Black male body. It’s uncomfortable. It should be. Thinking about systemic racism in the abstract is easy, we can do it from a distance. Putting it in the context of a human body is confronting. These abstractions become real when we read about how they affect the way young men speak and interact with each other.
“The crews walked the blocks of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power.” (Coates 2015, 22)
They become real when Coates describes schools as places to teach young bodies instead of places to teach young minds.
“Algebra, Biology, and English were not subjects so much as opportunities to better discipline the body, to practice writing between the lines, copying the directions legibly, memorizing theorems extracted from the world they were created to represent.” (Coates 2015, 26)
Coates’ story is one of a childhood spent keenly aware of his inability to prove himself physically. He wasn’t a fighter. His university years at a Howard University, a historically Black university, gave him a sense of pride and space to learn. And his learning and education extend into his adult years and his first trip to Paris in his thirties. His story is one of a man who grew up feeling both that he had to depend on his body for his power and that his body was not his own. Over time, he learns to appreciate deep and endless enquiry as a way to cope, to try to understand his lack of control over his own body, and to look for forms of liberation.
Coates’ book does not write about white people, but about people who believe they are white.
The two things in this book that really caught my attention were the focus on the Black body and the way Coates talks about white people. The focus on the Black body was challenging to read because of how concrete it was. Talking about bodies, the flesh and blood that hold our hearts and minds, is not easy. Other peoples’ bodies are both unfamiliar and overly familiar. We know what it is to be in a body, to live a life in a body. So, when Coates talks about his experience in his body as opposed to in this world, he makes his story intimate.
This intimacy is necessary if, in our antiracism work, we take self-education seriously. Racism is about the skin you wander the world in. Your skin is different than my skin, so your experience is different than mine. If we trade skins, we experience the world differently. We cannot begin to understand another person’s experience, let alone groups of people, if we do not first understand the experience of one person in body walking on this earth we share.
In contrast to the intimacy and directness with which he writes about Black bodies, Coates does not write about white people. He writes about people who believe they are white. He writes about people who must believe they are white.
“Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible — this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” (Coates 2015, 7)
Whiteness is a construct. James Baldwin introduced the idea that white is something people believe in in his es say, “On being white and other lies” in Essence magazine in 1984. He wrote that Americans of all kinds of origins became white so they could subjugate Black people. This idea is at the center of Coates’ thinking and it makes his situation absurd. His life and his experience in his body is the result of a made-up concept of whiteness. He and his family and his son and his community are suffering because of an idea.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a great writer and his story is a coming-of-age story that is worth reading. It is all very well and good to learn about the theories and concepts that we need to do the work of diversity and inclusion. Stories like this, stories that dig deep into one individual’s experiences, are necessary to remind us that the work we do is to make a difference in individual lives.
Reviewed by Christine Taylor