Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” – What I’m Reading Series, #2

This afternoon I finished Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s best-selling second book. I first came to know about Coates’s work thanks to the recommendation of Nick Sacco and then Coates’s outstanding essay, “The Case for Reparations.”

Between the World and Me is anything but the typical book, best-selling or otherwise. In the spirit of Fannie Lou Hamer’s “I question America,” it is constantly bold in its proclamation that institutional racism built and maintains the United States and its Dream for “people who believe themselves to be White,” all at the expense of Black people and the Black body. Coates, through the literary technique of one 150-page letter to his son, recounts episodes through his own process of coming of age in the United States. 

Coates discuss his childhood and the unavoidable shackles of both the streets and the schools. He talks about his parents and grandparents. He talks about police brutality. He talks about his time at his “Mecca.” He talks about France. He talks about his atheism. He talks too about his love of Malcolm and his frustration with the myth of nonviolent tactics. He talks about his son’s reactions to the world. He talks about his luck, too. He talks about slavery, segregation, and 9/11. And so much more.

Some especially powerful passages include:

“American believes itself exceptional, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization….I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.”

“American understands itself a God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that American is the work of men.”

“‘Slavery’ is the same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom…hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave….For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation.”

“You have to make peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

“I new that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.”

“You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.”

“‘It only takes one person to make a change,’ you are often told. This is also a myth. Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with you countrymen.” 

These brief selections are only a handful of the many quotable lines, lines that give us material to discuss for hours.

Coates conveys a strong love of family, History, learning, consciousness, and questions. His overall emphasis is anything but uplifting. This is not a “chicken soup for the soul” book. This is a “face the painful reality” book. 

I still don’t know what my overall opinion of the book will be. While I recognize that I am far from the typical reader, for me, Between the World and Me did not particularly teach me anything new or did not provide a substantially different message from what I have already seen. Although, I absolutely enjoyed his use of words.

As I read, I naturally drew parallels to the well-loved page-turner Coming of Age in Mississippi – a book my students always love – and wondered how they would work when taught together. 

However, Coates might make readers more uncomfortable than Anne Moody, per se, because he focuses on the here and now. He jumps around chronologically and connects very recent events to very distant events. And he makes attentive readers wonder about the nature of racism, society, and every thing by only focusing on it as an institutional problem.

While his position that there is essentially no hope is most understandable and somewhat justified by historical and biological evidence, humans typically need some kind of hope. Students get frustrated talking about racism and privilege if there isn’t also a discussion about what we can do to make the world better. I suspect, especially given that this book was published and having read Coates’s other work, that his “no hope” position is mainly polemical and not (fully) intended to be his true and only belief.

We must also keep in mind that Coates both isn’t and is writing to White people. He isn’t in that this book is a letter to his son. He is that the “letter” was a literary technique and more importantly, Between the World and Me was ultimately intended for White audiences in that it was published. I am concerned that this book will, like its brother and sister texts, basically only be read by people who already agree and are often at a loss for how they as an individual can do anything to help make meaningful change. 

Finally, Between the World and Me is accessible–the writing is clear and vivid and the book doesn’t take long to read. The book does feel a bit long in places, but I think this mainly results from the entire book being one long, very personal letter. I am hoping there is a way to discuss this book with a group of students and others!

I absolutely recommend it. Let me know what you think. 

Read an excerpt from Between the World and Me here.

Andrew Joseph Pegoda