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).
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.”