“I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.” ~Ta-Nehisi Coates, BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.
Three things prompted me to pick up this book:
- The Toni Morrison Blurb: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates….This is required reading.”
- This book was written as a letter to an adolescent son. I have three sons (of English-Irish-Welsh-Russian Catholic descent), whom I am trying to raise in an environment that will prepare them for the world by encouraging intellectual, emotional, and spiritual exploration, to make them more empathetic human beings. I need to expand my worldview to expand theirs.
- I have grown up 30 minutes outside of Baltimore my entire life, and after the Freddie Gray riots, I realized a) I might as well live on another planet, and b) I need a better understanding of the black men and women raised there.
This book was eye-opening, to say the least. I have new insight into what it means to grow up black in America, and I am deeply ashamed of the past of the country, disheartened by the current state of it, and admittedly hopeless about the capacity for large-scale future change. The problems are systemic–so much a part of our cells, our maps, our minds–and the root systems are too complex to fully eradicate. Not to mention that there must be a reckoning; society must reap what it sows.
However, I believe in God–a force Coates acknowledges he has no connection to, yet does not discount because of the strength faith has given so many–and with God, there is hope. While Coates does not provide a tidy solution, I’m inspired by a truth I found reinforced in his anecdotes, and in my conversations with others after reading the book. We are responsible for those around us, for the small square of land we inhabit.
More and more, when I’m tempted to take rants to Twitter or Facebook, pile onto the masses, tear out my hair over the terrible state of the world, I pull inward. I look at the many and varied faces of the people around me. I see the living they do–the good in my community, my church, our schools. I see the rifts in my family and know that until I reach out and mend those torn places, trying to impose change on society is futile. I realize I can make simple gestures: hold a door for young black man and walk in after him, look a person in the eye when I’m speaking with him, raise my sons not to fall into the traps of categorizing people based on “race,” give the book to the family member who insists on proclaiming her ignorance when confronted with Black Lives Matter by retorting All Lives Matter to read, instead of hitting her over the head with it.
The responsibility lies in my hands, my actions.
I don’t know if Coates wanted someone like me to read his book, and I don’t know if this is what he wanted me to take away from it. All I do know is that I cannot stop thinking about it, and this thinking has silenced me. Acknowledging the crisis of the past and present, and watching, listening, and responding to the needs of others is what I can do in my home and in my community to start change, and I intend to do it.