Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Why I Chose this Book
Sometime ago while browsing the magazine stand at a “local” bookstore (Same county though not same city. How local are bookstores nowadays? It’s a shame how hard they are to find now.) I noticed the cover page of the magazine The Atlantic. On it was “The Case for Reparations.” This intrigued me. I sat there in the bookstore and read maybe one-third of the article. It’s pretty long. Later on that day when I went home I found it online and finished reading it. Some months later, while browsing the magazine rack in the same bookstore, I noticed that The Atlantic had another interesting article, “The Black family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Keep in mind that I don’t embark on the 25-minute expedition to the bookstore that often. Again, this article was written by none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates. Like last time, I read some of it in the store, but then I later downloaded an audio version of this article via EBSCOhost. I listened to it in its entirety during my drive home from work.
Sometime later, while browsing book titles on overdrive.com, I noticed a new arrival by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I liked his two articles, but thought a book by this guy may be a little bit pretentious. I don’t know if he’s worth a full book read. Really, who is this guy? Needless to say, I knew very little about this man. Not too soon afterwards it was announced that Coates had won the coveted McArthur Genius Grant for his writings. I then, of course, went back to the site and added my name to the waiting list to download the audiobook.
Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me is written as a letter by the author to his son. In this letter, Coates relays his feelings and experiences about being black in America, especially as a black man. The author discusses personal experiences and ties them to the often ignored social, environmental, and even historical contexts in which they exist.
Coates describes his youth as one in which he focused on preserving his body which was necessary to survive in the tough environment in which he lived. To survive the streets, one had to learn its language which consisted of knowing who ran which block and how to respond in potentially violent situations. A false translation could result in the loss of one’s life. In school, life was not very enjoyable either for the future notable scholar. Coates did not enjoy his time in school from elementary through high school. In fact, the beginnings of his aptitude for writing likely began from his mother’s demands that when he got into trouble in school that he write about the situation.
“Fail to comprehend the streets and u gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and u gave up your body later.”
Coates did make it through primary education though and would later go on to “The Black Harvard”, the Mecca, Howard University. At the Mecca, Coates’s worldview greatly expanded. He witnessed the diversity of black people. He learned more about the history of black people and delved even further into the writings of black scholars. Coates’s view of love expanded when he meets a girl who could be described as sexually fluent. Prior to this point, anything other than the heterosexual relationship that he was accustomed to was to be ridiculed. Now he has learned how limited and closeminded his viewpoint of the world was. In addition, he is confronted with the irony and hypocrisy of prejudice towards the LGBTQ community by someone who should be empathetic to such views. Later on, he would meet his future wife, start his career and have a son.
We learn of Coates’s friend Prince Jones Jr. who, doing no wrong, was murdered by a police officer yards from his fiancé’s house and the officer was never charged. We see how Prince Jones was the embodiment of the American dream. His mother worked her way up from poverty to become a doctor and provided everything she could for her son. Her son, Prince Jones Jr., was educated, handsome, a Christian, and soon to be married. This was a family playing by the rules, doing what they were “supposed to do”, yet this was still not enough to protect this black man, his body, his life, from the prejudices and biases of a tainted society. This scenario itself paints a bleak outlook for the life of a Black person in America. Follow the rules, but your life may still be taken from you and if the thief is a person in uniform, this act of theft may be allowed.
Also to note, the police officer was black. Why does this matter? When cries of racial prejudice from authority figures are answered with declarations to increase the number of blacks in important decision-making positions, this assumes that surely those of their kind would not be subject to the same overt and subconscious biases as their fairer peers. But the effects of centuries of racism run deep. If exposed to a belief long enough, if told something about yourself long enough, you begin to internalize it. Therefore, in a society in which the inferiority and criminality of blacks are spewed towards everyone, everyone takes it in. So, racial prejudice is not just a voluntary choice, but a systemic disease that can infect anyone it comes into contact with even causing autoimmunity. Furthermore, if institutions were built upon prejudices, one does not need to have underlying biases to discriminate against its targeted demographic, only to continue to turn as a cog in a hidden machine.
“Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free.”
The weight of unjustified murder weighs even more heavily when you consider the author’s point of view that there is no afterlife. Once life is over it is final. This life is all that we have. There will be no redemption in the afterlife. The Civil Rights Act and the gaining of social rights in America for black people in America do not justify the end of Martin Luther King’s or Malcolm X’s lives. They do not get to experience those things. After the murder of Mike Brown by a police officer Coates’s son is brought to tears. It becomes apparent that the world of the father is different from his son’s in many ways, yet in other ways such as the seeming valuelessness of bodies similar to the ones they possess, they are not so different.
This book though short touches on many ideas, even if touched lightly. Some ideas include the creation of the myth of white superiority and its perpetuation through the media. Enslavement was a forced institution through brutal means by those who “believe themselves to be white.” “White people” are unified by the suppression of black people. Despite being grouped into one category by “whites”, blacks are diverse. Integration devastated HBCUs and other black institutions. Both African American and African history have been trivialized and hidden. There were conflicting viewpoints of leaders during the civil rights movement, the fabrication of the label “black” by whites, self-discovery, the mythization of African history by some zealous pro-black people, colorism, etc.
Coates’s reminders of the history in which the country is rooted and the immediate social environments of its inhabitants ground the experiences he describes. This helps elucidate how an everyday experience, especially race-related, is not just an isolated experience, but one that exists on a cultural backdrop that has historical roots. Coates has since the publication of this book stated that this book is not meant to be the representation of life in America as a black man, but to those unfamiliar, this book provides an insight into many issues. Most important of them are the protection of the black body and the opportunity for a fair shot at life.
The author himself reads the book. Does he have the polish of a trained professional? No, but he’s not bad either and he brings passion and understanding to each line that only he could.