Ta-Nehisi Coates explains race to his son, trying to grasp it himself.
Guest Review by Lanie Tankard
“When I discover who I am,
I’ll be free.”
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Between the World and Me has reaped a lot of well-deserved attention since it came out last year. It’s a heartfelt letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son, Samori. Toward the end of this slim volume, Coates poses a question to the world at large: “Is that what we wish civilization to be?”
In the 130 pages leading up to this beseeching question, Coates points out the barriers Samori will encounter because of his skin’s darker color. He attempts to define racism in various ways—personal experience, observation, examples from the news, the linguistics behind “naming,” and memories.
Throughout, Coates uses lines drawn from two black writers as a refrain. They become staccato drumbeats to hammer home his leitmotif. The watchwords act as Velcro to which observations adhere, thus pulling disparate impressions together into a distinct thought. The first phrase emanates from a poem by Richard Wright (“Between the World and Me,” found in White Man Listen!). The second is from a letter by James Baldwin to his nephew (“because they think they are white,” found in The Fire Next Time). The first, also used as the book’s title, is a placeholder for the obstacles Coates encounters in his own life, while the second mocks the absurdity of those boundaries.
It’s easy to see why Between the World and Me has garnered honors. In his acceptance speech for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Coates explained the motivation for his manuscript. He began writing it when his friend Prince Jones “was killed because he was mistaken for a criminal” by a police officer due to the “presumption that black people somehow have a predisposition to criminality.” When Prince Jones died, Coates noted, “there were no cameras.” He went on to say: “I’m a black man in America….I can’t secure the safety of my son. What I do have the power to do is to say you won’t enroll me in this lie, you won’t make me part of it. That was what we did with Between the World and Me.” In his book, Coates explains nuances such as how loud rudeness in young black men affords them a feeling of “security and power among people with the authority to destroy your body.” He draws on other poetic voices from time to time, such as Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka.
Coates bears witness by channeling his experiences through words on a page via a strong authentic voice. Although the prevailing focus in this book is race, Coates also probes class and gender within that unifying idea. His capacity to dig beneath the dominant subject and touch that preciously thin membrane between belts/books, violence/nonviolence, ignorance/education, and revolution/accord drives this book by examining the edge where such polar opposites meet. That threshold is where hope for change exists. By painting the brinks of those borders, Coates has brought us to the verge of something crucial: how to recognize what exists and alter it.
The solution for Coates resided in libraries, by which he booked passage out of the ghetto quicksand pulling down so many of his contemporaries. He talks of “how to survive the neighborhoods and shield my body.” Underpinning everything is the way in which books and education can knock down fences and change a person’s life.
Between the World and Me is a slim volume, barely over 150 pages, with black-and-white photos throughout and a rounded spine that makes it a tactile delight to clasp. It stands alone as an effective statement but is clarified by reading the earlier 2008 memoir written by Coates, The Beautiful Struggle. From that book, we learn about both the father and grandfather of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the childhoods of all three men. When viewed together, with the addition of Samori in Between the World and Me, these two books paint a four-generation portrait of race in America.
The father of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a librarian, was a Black Panther. He beat his son but also taught him to love reading. “Thick books were hurled at us from across the room,” Coates wrote, also detailing how his grandfather raised his father, about whom Coates comments: “…once he’d been like me—from the street but not of it.”
The writing in Between the World and Me is smoother, more polished, than in the earlier book by Coates. His mother taught him to read when he was four years old, and she also taught him to write, presenting “the craft of writing as the art of thinking.” Schools did not draw Coates in, but once he discovered writing he found his strength. He emphasizes the importance of libraries and the pursuit of knowing, as well as his “deep belief that we could somehow read our way out.” Coates began working for an alternative newspaper after college, meeting the first white people he ever got to know on a personal level: editors—who were not what he expected. His description of how they gave him “the art of journalism” is moving.
Coates uses the psychology and linguistics of naming to examine verbal behavior regarding race. Historian Jacqueline Jones, in her 2013 book A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America, has posited the thought that race is an obsolete method of cataloguing the homo sapiens who inhabit this planet, in an effort to focus on our commonalities.
Even though the events Coates describes occurred in the United States, his all-encompassing theme spans the globe. Over a century ago, in 1893, Cuban writer José Martí published an article titled “My Race” in Patria, a newspaper he founded. “To insist on racial divisions,” Martí wrote, “on radical differences, in an already divided people, is to place obstacles in the way of public and individual happiness, which can only be obtained by bringing people together as a nation.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates ends Between the World and Me with a powerful last sentence about rain. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ended her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, with a similar image: “The new rains will come down soon.”
Is rain perhaps a universal metaphor for tears?
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. She is a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, and has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.