Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

In a radio broadcast this year, President Obama said this about racism in America. “We are not cured… Societies don't overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior.” That’s the premise of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new nonfiction book, a moving personal letter to his son.

Coates begins by sharing his own difficult childhood on the streets of Baltimore where his only goal was to survive.  He describes learning another language “of head nods and handshakes.” He learned “a list of prohibited blocks” and even learned the “smell and feel of fighting weather.”

Growing up in a bad neighborhood taught him one vital thing: he had to protect and shield his body.

Because his father was a librarian of special collections, Coates learned early the power of books.  But he was not perfect in school or out. He got in trouble. Whenever this happened, his mother made him write about it. To analyze his behavior by questioning his motives and choices.  What he could have done better.

This analytic bent Coates soon turned to books and culture, not to take things on face value but to search deeply to find the true answers. For years he studied American and African history, but it was not until his time at Howard University that he realized that he didn’t need to prove that black people had an important civilization for centuries. After many years of reading biographies and histories, he finally understood that “black blood wasn’t really black; black skin wasn’t even black.” He wondered but could not answer for sure, if being black (in the U.S.) meant being at the bottom, a human turned into an object, a pariah?

Coates brings his great intelligence and endless quest for learning and deep study to the subject of race.  One notable quote he says is that “Race is the child of racism not the father.” He believes race has more to do with hierarchy than genealogy and physiognomy.

So much of this book is relevant to the present moment in America.  Coates describes murders by police of citizens in Prince William County, Maryland in the 1990s.  One of his closest college friends was killed by a police officer investigating a crime that Coates’s friend did not commit.

The personal epistolary style makes the philosophy and knowledge Coates shares much more affecting that a straight first or third person account would.  The “you” addressed in this book is his only child, a son.  A young man whose race puts him at danger for just walking the street or stating his opinion.

This book is far more in-depth than the warning many black people give their sons about how to survive in a racist world. It’s important for all of us to read this inquiry into race and its profound effects on our society.

A writer that was Coates's lodestar as a young man was Malcolm X. Try The Autobiography of Malcom X for some historical context.

This book is on the short list for the National Book Awards for 2015.