Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

CoatesBeing the fiction fanatic that I am, I never thought for a moment that my reading choice for Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe would be a work of non-fiction. I had intended to read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche or one of the more recent novels of Shyam Selvadurai. But the calendar got away from me, Booktopia happened, various busy things at work and at home, and boom, I didn’t get to either of those, or any other novel by an author of color. Perhaps even worse, I looked back at my reading for 2015 and the only author of color I have read this year is James Baldwin.

As pitiful as that is, in at least one way, it is fitting that Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin are mentioned in the same breath. In addition to his breathtakingly good novels, Baldwin wrote non-fiction about race in America with unflinching and unapologetic honesty and Between the World and Me is nothing if not honest. In fact, as I have read recently, Coates modeled Between the World and Me on Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in both format and outlook.

For those who haven’t heard anything about it, Between the World and Me is a 152-page letter from Coates to his teenage son Somari. Although Coates’ love for his son, his family, and his friends comes through very tenderly throughout, the overall message of the book is a rather depressing, pessimistic view of what has happened to African Americans, what is happening to African Americans, and what is likely to continue to happen to African Americans. Specifically, he warns his son of the violence perpetrated upon Black bodies on a daily basis in the United States. As someone who thinks of myself as being well informed about what African Americans face, a book like this points out that I don’t know squat.

Some have complained that Coates is too pessimistic. I suppose one could nibble at the edges of his thesis and his approach and find ways in which he may overstate something or paint with too broad a brush. But really, when it comes down to it, it really is just nibbles. The overall thrust of his argument and the outlook he has is not just deeply rooted in the past, it is deeply rooted in the present. It is disgusting how little has changed for African Americans. Whatever advances they may make socio-economically speaking, they still face a daunting, daily assault on their very being. It’s a scenario that requires a very open mind for someone who thinks of himself as white, to be able to take it on board and allow the overall truth of what Coates writes about to sink in–without getting defensive about it.

I think this is the kind of envelope pushing necessary to shake people out of complacency. One of the reasons the environmental movement has stalled in this country is because the average citizen doesn’t smell or taste or see the degradation. We’ve cleaned-up the obvious stuff, but there is still a lot that is hidden and even more pernicious, not the least of which is climate change–the causes and effects of which are so embedded in our society and so stupidly politicized that no one seems able or willing to do anything about it. I think a similar thing has happened with race.

Lest you think this is all too depressing to read, you need to get over yourself and read it. It’s something we all need to face square on. I don’t know what to do about it really, but I feel it cleared away some cobwebs that have been collecting since my much more radical thinking college days. Even with all the shock of the recent press given to violence towards African Americans and the racist hate that has bubbled to the surface since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, I think one still loses sight of, or doesn’t know about, what it means to be Black in America.

So go find out.

12 thoughts on “Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

  1. Lisa October 5, 2015 / 10:31 pm

    Yours is the first blog review of this that I’ve read, and you’ve confirmed my feeling that I need to read it. I’ve been following Coates on Twitter since I learned about this book, and some of the controversy it generated.

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  2. lonesomereadereric October 5, 2015 / 10:49 pm

    I’ve just recently read Glenn Greenwald’s book about launching the Snowden news story. Between that and this book it’s making me think I should read more nonfiction as well instead of being so firmly rooted in fiction reading. I really appreciate voices like these that cut right to the heart of the matter and give you a new clearer perspective on what’s happening now. You also make me want to go back and read Baldwin again – who I read a lot of in college but not since.

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  3. queenofthepark October 5, 2015 / 11:31 pm

    A passionate and persuasive review Thomas! You make it impossible for me to look away and retreat to cosy fiction. Thank you

    Like

  4. Liz Dexter October 6, 2015 / 3:16 am

    This sounds like a powerful and necessary read. I will be looking out for a copy.

    Like

  5. buriedinprint October 6, 2015 / 11:15 am

    I’m reading this right now and I agree with the points you’ve raised about why some readers might resist the work. His style is quite compelling though, and that does help to engage readers despite the difficult subject matter.

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  6. lakesidemusing October 6, 2015 / 6:25 pm

    The audio version is narrated by the author and has received very high ratings. I think I’ll go that route. Thanks for bring this book to my attention.

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  7. Andi M. (@estellasrevenge) October 7, 2015 / 10:01 am

    I loved this book, and in loving it and finding it so important, I put off writing a review in favor of thinking about it and then it’d been too long and the words were gone. So I’m just going to pretend I wrote a discussion of it as kickass as this one.

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  8. Christy October 7, 2015 / 8:44 pm

    It is a very bracing work. You’re absolutely right – you have to let the writing sink in. It’s a powerful read.

    Like

  9. liviania October 8, 2015 / 1:31 am

    I don’t read much nonfiction, but this sounds excellent.

    Like

  10. Susan in TX October 8, 2015 / 10:00 pm

    I’ve got this one on my list. I’ve only heard praise for it thus far.

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  11. booklustblogger October 11, 2015 / 4:28 pm

    Yes to everything. I think people who view the book as too pessimistic completely miss the point. He did not write the book to make people feel good about themselves and the progress that has been made, he wrote it to remind everyone of just how far we still have to go. So glad you participated in #diversiverse and read this one, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. lailaarch October 14, 2015 / 11:56 am

    Great review. I loved this book, even though it was a hard (emotionally) read – it feels like such a necessary read, for everyone right now. The section about Prince Jones’s mother is just devastating. Hell, it’s all devastating, but that’s the point – to wake people up and make us feel the reality of being black in America. I’m so, so glad I read it.

    Like

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