I’m not even sure where to start with this review. As our world explodes with revolution and righteous indignation, I decided the best thing for me to do is start by learning and listening. There’s not really a way to go wrong with that, so I started with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book I’d heard a lot about, seen all over the place, but had never even read the inside cover (full disclaimer, I didn’t read the cover even before I bought it. I just knew that it was said to be a powerful book, and that was good enough for me).
Coates writes the book as a letter to his teenage son, taking a hard look at the reality of being Black in America. Coates talks about growing up in Baltimore, in a family where love was violent because the real world was even more so. Better a beating from dad and his belt than from a cop. He talks about trying to adapt to the rules of the streets, even though it wasn’t him. When he went away to university he finally began to find himself, only to realize that he was still subject to the rules laid out by white society.
Coates desires a different world and different experience for his son, but the heartbreak of the book is that there’s no neat and tidy ending. No, “do X and you’ll be free from all the troubles.” Essentially what Coates gives his son is his own experiences to try to help his son find his own way to survive as a Black man in America.
Between the World and Me is part biography and part almost philosophical processing of his life. And he writes many poignant thoughts that make readers stop and wonder, consider how they fit into the equation. Whether it’s his assertion that Black boys are ultimately required to shoulder the responsibility for the actions of police officers– “the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements”– or that “‘good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the dream,” Coates writes in a compelling style that cries out for a better world than the one we’ve been given.
Coates reminds that “hate gives identity… we name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.” But building identity and community on hate cannot lead to the better future he wants. But to struggle forward is worth it.
Between the World and Me is the kind of book that when I read it again, I’m sure new things will stand out. Coates doesn’t spew hate or try to dodge responsibility for his choices and actions (even if they were more limited). Instead, he simply leaves his son with a final thought: than those who oppress–actively or tacitly– must learn to struggle for a new word on their own. Black people and other people of color cannot pin the hope of their struggle on white people or other oppressors having a sudden change of heart (that’s not to say it won’t happen or shouldn’t be encouraged, but that it’s the responsibility of those people to struggle to that conclusion for themselves). Whether the rest of the world accepts it or not, supports it or not, struggle forward anyway.