Reviewed by Quincy Norwood
America is just a couple months past Inauguration Day 2017, when, as a nation, we officially embarked on the path to become “great” again. While this is a time of considerable optimism for some, for others, the nebulous term “great,” followed by “again” raises questions about the glorious past to which many Americans seem eager to return. The mythology of the good old days belies the experiences of those whose bodies, psyches, and lives have been in constant peril throughout American history. It is this precarious existence that Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks to in Between the World and Me, an endearing and unflinching book length letter to his 15- year old son. With an examination of historical events, current affairs, and biographical experiences, Coates provides a refreshing analysis of race that forces readers to confront jarring truths lying beneath the veneer of America’s “post-racial” exterior.
In the early pages of Between Coates offers his son insight into how race is lived in America. Though the biological understanding of race continues to evolve, the social concept of a racial hierarchy with whiteness at its head has been virtually static for much of American history, with an immeasurably devastating effect. Coates writes, “Americans believe in race as a defined, indubitable, feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people, then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition.” For Coates, race, racism, and power are inseparable in the American schema. Differences in hue are as old as humanity, but the relatively new idea of immutable traits being associated with skin color and other physical attributes, has been used to extol “whiteness” while denigrating “blackness,” and others outside of the established white norm. He continues, “But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy, so much as one of hierarchy.” Coates often references “those who believe they are white,” echoing the sentiments of James Baldwin’s “On Being White…and Other Lies.” Both Baldwin and Coates’ do well in exploring the invention of “whiteness” and how this insidious brainchild of wealthy men in colonial America continues to affect most aspects of life in this country.
Coates further explains that the way race is lived in America implicitly, and in some cases explicitly, permits violence against black folks. Many black parents, my mother included, prepare their children to navigate the world with the “Don’t Give Them a Reason” speech. It was our warning that we live in a society that has a legacy of undervaluing black lives and it doesn’t take much – playing music too loud, wearing a hoodie in the “wrong” part of town, having a mental illness, selling loose cigarettes, being accused of flirting – to be killed, often with impunity. “The destroyers will rarely be held accountable,” Coates tells his son. Knowing this, Coates is still struck when his son says, “I’ve got to go” following the acquittal of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Coates’ expression of his son’s need to escape reveals an unsettling connection between father and son, the very real fear that their bodies could be destroyed at any moment, as “In America, it is tradition to destroy the black body – it is heritage!” However, Coates encourages his son, and readers, not to turn away from this history. The specter of physical and psychological violence that maintains the status quo of racism must be borne witness to for any hope of meaningful change to occur. This is the challenge Between issues to readers.
While the tone of Between is “serious and sober” Coates’ writing to his son displays a certain vulnerability at times. He references the constant fear of “losing his body” he felt in his childhood in Baltimore, a fear that manifested in posturing that made him seem unafraid. Coates also discusses how this fear gripped him in adulthood as well, when he details the death of a college friend Prince Jones, who was murdered by police in Prince George’s County, MD. Coates tells his son, “Now at night, I held you and a great fear, wide as all our American generations, took me…Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.”
In addition to addressing pressing issues concerning race, Coates champions the restorative value of writing. Coates documents how writing helped him make sense of the world and facilitate the evolution of his consciousness as a human being. He mentions a valuable lesson from his mother that encouraged him to view “the craft of writing as the art of thinking.” Writing was the catalyst for intellectual growth for Coates. While he had become adept at questioning the assumptions that undergird American life, writing made him question his own assumptions as well, “I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations.” Further, Coates’ prose is engaging and precise. Between is a short read, but it is packed with insights that that can fuel some necessary discussions about race.
Between has been criticized for its supposed lack of answers to the important questions it raises. For me, this is one of the book’s strongest features. The truth is there are no easy or palatable answers to questions about how the perception of race affects human beings and societies. Coates’ open-ended, cards laid out on the table writing urges readers to seek their own answers. As he tells his son, “I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you – but not that sorry.”