Between the World and Me
Copyright © 2015 by Ta-Nehisi Coates
What’s it about?
A middle-aged man writes a letter to his son about his experiences growing up as a black man in America.
What’s it really about?
This is not one man’s account of his personal history. I mean, yes, technically and literally I suppose, it is. But this should be read as an amalgamation of personal histories. Of the bodies that have been taken away from people of color throughout American history.
As a straight white man, that version of America is different than the one I have experienced. That experience shapes perceptions of what is real and not real. What is good and what is bad. What and whom should be trusted, and what and whom should be questioned.
But also included in that experience should be education, should be learning, should be listening. Saying ‘I didn’t grow up that way’ is not an excuse for ignorance.
That’s part of the message conveyed in this book – Coates is writing about his own personal experiences, knowing that his son hasn’t had those same experiences. As a way to tell him, and us, that just because it didn’t happen to you, doesn’t mean it’s not real. That just because some progress has been made, doesn’t mean the struggle ends. That we can minimize the damage done by hundreds of years of brutality, plundering, and the stealing of the body, as if it still isn’t happening to this very day.
There’s an acknowledgement that some progress has been made, but also a message that there is still nothing close to equality in America, and there probably never will be, so don’t believe that just because this generation are a bit better off than the previous, or the one before that, that the fight stops, that the struggle ends, and that the plundering of the body ended.
There’s a sense of duty in the writing of this book. That because Coates has achieved notoriety, he doesn’t want his son, or others, to forget where they come from, what they come from, the struggles that they have gone through, and the struggles, the very real, very present struggles, that exist, and in some cases have gotten worse, to this very day.
Why should I read it?
I will never be able to understand what it’s like to be discriminated against. The sense of insecurity, the alertness, the constant sense of fear, of being ‘the other’ that I will never be able to relate to. In Coates’s words, I’ve lived the Dream. I’ve never had to worry about my body. I haven’t achieved some sort of black-history-experience omniscience by reading this book.
But this is a piece of the puzzle in helping those of us who haven’t lived the black experience and will never be able to live the black experience, to continue to try and understand, and appreciate, what that experience has been like and the effects and impacts it has had on the lives of millions of people, past and present.
I don’t expect this will change any minds in any way, but I do expect it will help make that picture just a bit less blurry, or make that puzzle a bit more complete, in the understanding and appreciation of what it means to be black in America.
Why should I not read it?
If you’re expecting a complete history of the black experience in America, you’ll be disappointed. But other than that there’s no real reason every person shouldn’t read this book – we’d be better off as a society if more people did.
Overall rating / recommendation?
Read it, think about it, talk about it, and then read more like it.