A friend of mine introduced me to Ta-Nehisi Coates with The Beautiful Struggle, a book I found both moving and eye-opening. When I started seeing Between the World and Me (2015) on bookshelves, I knew I’d be reading it.
The Beautiful Struggle was a memoir of Coates’s life, growing up in the violent streets of Baltimore with a dictatorial father.Between the World and Me covers some of the same ground but in a very different way. This book is an existentialist (according to the NY Times) letter to the author’s 15-year-old-son. It is not as straight-forward or detailed as a memoir would be, more often working through ideas than giving the minutiae of his life. With Coates’s vulnerable and bitterly honest prose, I continue to be impressed by his writing. However, I did find this book more challenging to read than The Beautiful Struggle. Instead of a cohesive story, it is more of a free-flowing collection of thoughts on the world his son will become a man in.
Coates takes on a number of topics in his letter to his son. He begins with the term of the “Dreamers,” those who believe that America’s progress was not built on looting and violence. He compares the lives of of black people in America as those forged by the violence of slavery and still can have their black bodies stolen, used, or taken without warning by those with power.
“[A]nd the Dreamers are quoting Martin Luther King and exulting nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong.” (131)
Along with this theme, Coates focuses on some of the police brutality and police shootings that have recently occurred. Specifically, a young man named Prince Jones, whom Coates knew in college, was killed by police. He does not go into great detail about the case, although it sounds incredibly unjustified. Instead Coates focuses on the wonderful and unique character of Prince Jones. Coates describes visiting the Prince’s mother, and learning about her struggle out of poverty to become a doctor. Yet despite all of her struggles, and everything she put in to her son’s life, his black body was taken away without warning and without justification.
“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow will always be assigned to you.” (71)
“But the price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with is or her error, real or imagined.” (96)
“I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could–with no justification–shatter my body.” (87)
One other theme that struck me was how differently Coates and I (as a relatively privileged white woman) perceived the world. He stated that black people communicate fear to their children. They cannot go anywhere without fear, while “people who believe they are white” can belong anywhere–especially the seats of power. This is the kind of thing that I can often take for granted. I sometimes attribute feeling comfortable in society to my education or knowledge. It doesn’t even occur to me to appreciate that I can go almost anywhere in any time and be expected to be in the class that controls the police, the laws, and society’s expectations. As a woman this is not always true, but at least when it comes to crime and police, I am in the most protected class in America.
“The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.” (89)
“I am wounded, I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” (125)
I am always impressed by Coates’s writing. I could have highlighted most of the book with phrases and points that I wanted to remember. However, on the whole, I’m a fan of details and arguments. I like to have a clear picture of what is before me, and this is not that book. For example, I wanted more information on Prince Jones and what happened to him that night. Coates does an amazing job of conveying his feelings of loss, anger, and hopelessness, but not how the shooting unfolded or exactly what happened to the officer afterwards. Despite the fact that I’m always looking for more information, I cannot imagine having a book like this as a teenager. I hope his son takes it to heart.
“But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live.” (146)
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