I did not want to finish this book, because I knew I’d then have to write a review, and I don’t know if I can do Between the World and Me justice.
This short National Book Award winner from 2015 by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a three-part letter to the author’s (then) 15-year-old son, Samori Coates. It was written shortly after the killer of Michael Brown was acquitted, inspired by his son’s reaction to the injustice, and is Coates’s paean and lament about the truths of being Black in America.
If you’ve paid any attention to politics, pop culture, the media, or writing over the past decade, I don’t think Between the World and Me is going to tell you anything new. But whether you “know this already” is beside the point. For such a short book, Coates manages to cover a wide array of theses and themes, and he makes the reader not just understand but feel the way fear transmutes to rage, the way trauma ripples across the generations, the way everyone, in one way or another, struggles in relation to that invented ideal of The Dream, even if that Dream might be different in France than in America. What is the Dream?
The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.
The Dream is what is expected, what is given authority, what is given importance and value, and The Dream ignores the why and the how. I almost feel like in attempting to explain what Coates means by The Dream, I am taking something ineffable and making it ordinary, and I am not talking about The Dream itself.
Another prominent theme of Between the World and Me is The Body. What does your body mean to you? Do you think about it often? Do you feel the way it relates to the world? How the world relates to it? Coates talks about the body, and the plunder of it, so much. I come to this book as a Jewish, White, Canadian, upper-middle class woman, and so I have experienced this world through the lenses of class and racial privilege that I can easily take for granted. I have also moved through the world in a female body, which Coates mentions as a thing his wife will have to navigate that he and his son do not. I know that my experiences are different and that I have, through ignorance or laziness or existence in this society as it is, fell victim to the Dream and done damage to others. I want to do better. This book does not tell you how to do better. It’s not for that. Does that mean this book is not for you? In some ways, of course. This book is for Coates, for his son, for people who need it. In others, not at all. Not even Coates’s son is going to live in the same world he experiences, but we can experience the wisdom derived from it, can bear witness to the damage caused by it. If you want to know what you can do about it, there are other books for that.
He also talks about education and schooling, about mass incarceration, about clashing philosophies, and about religion and the lack of it. And it all is woven together so perfectly. I suppose if I had one complaint: near the end of the third part, Coates moves briefly from the specific plunder of the Black body in service of the American dream and broadens the scope to the plunder of the planet in service of White capitalism, and while it’s as beautifully and precisely written as the rest of the book, it felt a bit tacked on to the main thesis. Like, I think Coates could write a whole ‘nother book on that topic, not just three pages at the end of this one.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a MacArthur Fellow whose most recent writing has been for the Black Panther comic books series, so it’s not as though this is news, but Between the World and Me is incredible. It’s the sort of book that reminds me how transportive language can be – it’s prose that’s like poetry, that carries you away with the force of the words. I’ve been reading so many books where characters or plot or setting are the focus, or conversational pop culture-style essays and memoirs, that I almost forgot what prose itself can do. Like it says on the cover, “This is required reading.”