Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates has contributed some of the more tendentious analysis on African-American identity and history in the US, including his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.” This book came about after he reread James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which includes, in part, an open letter from Baldwin to his nephew.

Between the World and Me is written in a similar style, but as a letter from Coates to his teenage son in which he speaks frankly about the plight of being black in America, including stories of his West Baltimore upbringing and the idealism of his college years at Howard University. Despite dips into history and memoir, the book is rooted firmly in current moments. In a year in which a lengthy list grew of black people killed for no defensible reasons and at a time when their names are reported widely, the moment that really gets to Coates is witnessing his son struggle after the news that Michael Brown’s killers wouldn’t be indicted. Coates himself is dispirited from the experience of one of his college friends being shot by a police officer under questionable circumstances, acknowledging how even education and class ascension can’t protect black people from white supremacy.

There are several motifs that recur throughout the book, including the concept of how vulnerable a body is and “the Dreamers,” meaning those who have the privilege to realize the American dream. He borrows again from Baldwin in referring to “people who believe they are white.” Unlike Baldwin, Coates is noticeably less hopeful about change. This may be in part to his atheism — of which he says that “accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of [his] total end” allows him to freely consider how to “live free in this black body” — yet Coates is also just pragmatic about the physical truths of history.

Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor — it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this….

He continues in this elucidation of brutality before ending with a quote from John C. Calhoun (a South Carolina senator): “The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black.”

And there it is — the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

There are many powerful moments in this book, impressive for a volume slight enough in pages that it could be read in one or two sittings, but the image of mountains and valleys is so evocative of the challenge in finding true equality in our culture. It’s not just about trying to raise those in the valleys, but those in the mountains relinquishing their elevated status.