Between the World and Me
By: Ta-Nahesis Coates
Coates uses unremarkable vocabulary and old ideas, but Between the World and Me is certainly worth the read. It’s an in-depth look at the black American male experience. I appreciate that Coates does not attempt to push his story as the “one story,” the singular narrative of people of his demographic. In fact, Coates goes to great lengths to give examples of stories that are unlike his own, which enhances his overall argument. The novel is written in the form of an anecdote-filled letter to his son, and the ideas are woven together beautifully. Each section introduces a subject that is clearly different from but also clearly related to the previous one.
The book is separated into three parts. The first part sets up the theme of the novel and details Coates’ youth. Here, Coates establishes the fundamental premise of the book: “Race is the child of racism, not the father”(p7). Before making such a bold claim he writes,
“Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism— the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them— inevitably follows from this inalterable condition” (p7).
In three sentences, Coates has simultaneously denounced the idea of race and defined racism, shattering our preconceptions of both. Because Coates believes race is a societally enforced categorization, he refers to caucasians as “Americans who believe they are white” (p6). After settling the definitions of race and racism, Coates attacks “the Dream.” He describes it as smelling like peppermint and tasting like strawberry shortcake (p11). That is to say, Americans are chasing what they believe to be the Dream, but because the Dream is not what it seems to be, it is unattainable, especially for the disadvantaged demographics who are forced to be content with just smelling the Dream because it “rests on [their] backs” (p11).
Much of part one is dedicated to illustrating the effects the interactions between race, racism, and the Dream have on a growing black man. He infuses the section with the fear his elders had for his safety, which he only came to understand as he grew older. Coates wants his son to understand that “police departments [in his] country have been endowed with the authority to destroy [his] body” (p9). In part one, Coates also acknowledges the difference between street rules and school rules. As a child he attempted to live by both codes of conduct, but at times the two worlds were irreconcilably different. Despite the differences between the two, school and the streets served the same purpose: to imprison. Coates laments his situation, echoing the cries of today’s youth:
“If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later. I suffered at the hands of both, but I resent the schools more” (p25).
It is difficult to focus on school when your life may be taken at any point between home and the educational facility. By going to school, however, he was tacitly agreeing to play by higher society’s rules, and hoping to receive its protections in return. Still, because higher society tends to turn its back on the streets, there was no guarantee of safety in the schools. Had Coates been killed on the streets, there might have been an uproarious outcry by the public, demanding justice for the dutiful community citizen, but it would have been temporary at best, and those who continued to protest would quickly be silenced by the community’s order enforcers. In the 1980s, a black man’s life was less than important.
Part two of Between the World and Me covers Coates’ post-college, early adult life. The fear introduced in the first section does not dissipate. In fact, the fear intensifies as it switches from hindsight to foresight. Fear has begun to color his world in such a way that it alters his behaviors; he behaves more carefully. The section begins with a description of a traffic stop in a county known for its high number of police shootings by police. Coates was well aware that though traffic stops are usually harmless, there was a high possibility he wouldn’t make it out of that particular situation alive. His fear quickly became rage and bewilderment when he learned the fate of one of his peers. The peer’s name has been omitted in this review so as to avoid spoiling the novel, but this particular peer had “made it though,” he had gone to college and graduated but still lost his life (p77). In an instant, the flaws in the protections afforded black men who go to school were exposed. The game that was previously thought to give educated black men an advantage quickly turned into a game of Russian roulette.
Perhaps the most poignant passage in Coates’ novel is the comparison between police violence the 9/11 terrorism on page 87:
“But I [knew] that Bin Laden was not the first to bring terror to that section of the city…I could see no difference between the officer who killed [my former classmate] and the police who died, or the firefighters or died. They were not human to me…They were the menaces of nature.”
Though it’s extreme, the near flippancy with which Coates handles 9-11 breathes live into his argument. The “overwrought slogans” mirror the current #blacklivesmatter movement, and Coates’ treatment of 9/11 exaggerates the dire situation of black americans. Coates, however, made an egregious misstep in depriving the police and firefighters of their humanity. In calling them inhuman, he is giving them the same treatment they give black people, but perhaps that’s his intention.
Later in part two, Coates elaborates upon the “American tradition,” which he insists is to “destroy the black body” (p103). Not unlike today’s black rights activists, he sites the slave trade as the foundation for the current systematic destruction of black Americans. Coates continues this narrative, using an anecdote to illustrate that black Americans don’t even enjoy the privilege of defending their beliefs.
Part three is by far the shortest section– it’s less than 20 pages long– and is most preoccupied with the story of Coates’ fallen classmate. More precisely, Coates’ approached his classmate’s mother, and asked for her perspective on the recent events. Her powerful testimony adds the human dimension that is so often forgotten in cries for justice. As a society, we focus on the boys and forget the family. We focus on the government and forget the boys. In fact, both Coates and his classmate’s mother acknowledge that “the forgetting is a habit” (143). After the initial wave of protests, the cases are forgotten until a verdict is reached. If the verdict is unfavorable, then and only then do the protests resume, for a brief period of time.
Between the World and Me was a good, quick read, though it’s hard to say it’s not a book that should be read over and over again without pause in between. Undoubtedly the novel has a lot to offer, and should be passed on to children who are old enough to understand it. It goes without saying a reader’s background will heavily influence their reaction to the Between the World and Me, but perhaps everyone could benefit from reading it at decade-long intervals to see how the the world and their interactions therein have changed (if at all).