Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau
Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir Between the World and Me seems to have landed on all the Best Of book lists that are so ubiquitous at this time of year. And rightfully so. Structured as a letter from Coates to his 15-year old son, this book deserves all the attention and accolades that it has received, including the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Although this is only 152 pages, Between the World and Me speaks volumes about American history, racism, society, parenting, activism, and so much more. In a smooth narrative, Coates seamlessly connects the lived history of generations before him (“At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies—cotton—was America’s primary export.”) with his personal history of growing up in Baltimore. He writes of the culture of the streets and the neighborhoods, and then, as a student at Howard University, of the many hours he spent reading in the library. “I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”
The senseless death of Prince Jones, one of Ta-Nahisi Coates’ college friends killed in 2000 by a police officer, still haunts the author 15 years later. The murder has been the subject of several of Coates’ previously published pieces in well-known publications. (Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues for TheAtlantic.com and the magazine.)
In Between the World and Me, the political becomes personal and the personal becomes political as Coates places his reader’s focus and emphasis — as well as that of his teenage son’s — on the body.
“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
This book’s moment comes at precisely the right time, given the current racial climate and rhetoric in our country. Between the World and Me is an important book, a classic of our era that deserves to be widely-read and taught in schools long after the accolades and the “best of” lists fade into the New Year and the ether of the Internet.
Ta-Nahisi Coates writes that he “would have [his son] be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” Reading this book and talking with others about it is one small way we can do the same.