Between the World and Me

betweenBetween the World and Me
by  Ta-Nehisi Coates
2015 / 178 pages
read by  Ta-Nehisi Coates  – 3h 35m
rating:  9.5  / race relations – memoir 

I was winding up my reading for 2015 but there were a couple short books I really wanted to get read.  Between the World and Me has been on the “best of” lists all over the internet as well as winning the National Book Award for nonfiction.  And then there’s Umberto Eco’s new one,  Numero Zero as well as the older The Gate of Angels (Penelope Fitzgerald) started for a reading group discussion next month.  All this and still 5 days to go before 2016.  Easy-peasy – anything else I can  finish quickly? –  lol –

This book is mainly  a very serious statement on race relations in the US but it’s also partly a memoir – continuing from Coates’ 2008 book, The Struggle.

Ta-Nehisi Coates  is an American writer working for The Atlantic and other magazines.  In addition to this book’s awards,  he’s won  commendations for his journalism.


Ta-Nehisi Coates

The narrative takes the form of a letter in very straight-talking language to Coates’ 15-year old son. The subject is being a young,  black male in the US of the 21st century.  Treacherous territory.   Sometimes it seems like Coates is talking to himself  – that’s fine as it adds authenticity.  It’s basically about the historic right of “people who think they are white” to break black bodies – to rape and murder and starve them as has been the true history of the US race relations.  

“People who think they are white” is a phrase repeated several times.  What does it mean?   See

This is not a comfortable book for “white” (skin tone) people or for idealistic dreamers.   It’s about the physical survival of young black men in a world where “whites,” and law enforcement of any color,  have the right to break the bodies of black people.   And Coates says he is trying to push his son into consciousness, an awareness of the reality.

Take note –  Coates is not optimistic about any kind of solution –  he’s certainly not advising his son to try to “make a difference.”   There’s too much history – including what has happening recently.

In essence he seems to say that the black world walks in fear these days,  seeing people just like themselves shot down in the street or highway or strung up in jails and the killers exonerated.  The events in Baltimore, 2014 were past but  Ferguson Missouri was just then erupting.

Blacks do not own their own bodies if the police can take them
at will. And women face a whole ‘nother ballgame when it comes
to fear for their bodies.  Coates is a self-proclaimed feminist.

Growing up,  Coates now age 40,  was not protected by the church or the patriotism which seems to comfort other black families – his family rejected all that and he rejects most of it now.

So with this background,  he tells his son,  Samori Maceo-Paul, about his own life –  how he grew up with a lot of love in his family and how he admired Malcolm X.  Born in Baltimore to educated middle class parents – his father an atheist ex-Black Panther,  Coates was educated at Howard University,  a black school in Washington DC he calls his “Mecca.”    He went on eventually to a successful career in journalism which is how he is employed today.  He wrote a prior memoir, The Beautiful Struggle,  published in 2008.  He also teaches at a couple of universities. He is stopped by the police and his friends are killed.

I think while in school Ta-Nehisi Coates came across the same thing feminists find when they seek heroes in the past.  There are precious few – blacks did not get oppressed and suppressed after they became important – they were prevented from ever doing anything or becoming important.  Only a few squeaked through – see Sojourner Truth,  Malcolm X,  Martin Luther King,  others. And most became important for their struggle regarding race – or feminism.

The dream – the American myth of being exceptional and pure and innocent should not be examined too closely –  but neither should the myth of blacks as displaced royalty – as the children of nobility.  And Coates was educated.  Nothing romantic about life in Africa or about being snatched and enslaved.  Coates is condemning both whites and black dreamers.

The human body is breakable at the will of others who are stronger or trickier   – and although the races of other people have been broken,  Irish and Jews and Indians,  it still goes on today in the US against blacks.

This is about getting real – no more myths, no more dreams, no more comfortable escapes.  Just look at reality and known that nothing is going to change – not soon.  So be careful,  because many things are beyond the control of the individual – from getting a job and housing to being murdered by police for selling cigarettes on the street.

 Between the World and Me was not written explicitly for white people (like me) is exactly why we should read it.. Because part of the ideology of white supremacy and racial hierarchy is the idea that everything white is better, and that people of color should learn from how white people dress and work and raise their kids and write. Want to subvert that subtle, implicit bias?  Tweeting #BlackLivesMatter is good, but expanding your intellectual as well as actual interpersonal relationships is even better. And especially if you live in a very white part of America, a book is a great place to start.


Yes,  there is a certain amount of generalizing here – and Coates seems not to be acknowledging the advances we’ve made in the last 60 years – but there have been set-backs, too,  and do I sense an element of backlash in the country today?

It’s a darned good  eye-opening book – well worth the awards and accolades.  Read it – Toni Morrison insists.

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