It’s a bit difficult to know where to begin talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. On the one hand, Coates does an incredible job not only constructing a seamless narrative (more on that in a second), but making experiences I, as a white man, will never have to endure, feel visceral on a deep, personal level. And those are just two of the reasons I feel compelled to write this post and enthusiastically recommend this short, but powerful, book. But on the other hand, the fact that I cannot personally identify with the injustices Coates documents in such painful beauty makes me reluctant to say much about it at all.
In short, Coates is the kind of author I want to listen, not talk to. Or, if I want to talk, only so I can ask questions.
I do want to highlight some of the things I loved most about this book, but I cannot stress enough that this is a book that defies objective analysis or summary. I don’t know what you’ll find most powerful in Coates’ writing – all I can guarantee is that it will have a powerful, and lasting, effect on you long after you’ve finished reading it.
So what makes this book so great? First, as I said, it’s seamless. His writing reminds me of what it’s like to be engaged in a fascinating conversation. You might start off talking about one thing and then, an hour later, be talking about something totally different. And along the way, you may talk about a dozen other seemingly unrelated subjects. Yet each one was reached so naturally you don’t even notice the transitions. In some books, including ones I like, you can almost see the seams separating different sections – you can tell the author had a particular goal and, once it’s reached, there’s a hard cut (as you’d say in film) before moving on to something else.
In Coates’ writing, no such seams exist. The book touches on myriad issues, yet I’d be hard pressed to cut off one section from another. Every word flows perfectly to the next, like a monologue or a fundamental particle condensed to its smallest state. Incidentally, I’ve found this with all of Coates’ writing I’ve read, including in The Atlantic and other media.
A second thing I loved about Between the World and Me was the personal journey of Coates himself. The first half certainly has elements of a bildungsroman, especially when we see Coates’ intellectual development begin as a child and later blossom at Howard University. He paints such a vivid picture of his university days that I couldn’t help imagine Howard University as a kind of utopia, which transformed Coates into the formidable intellect he clearly is today.
I also enjoyed the fact that Coates referenced many authors and books that influenced his intellectual growth. I was humbled (or more accurately embarrassed) that I had only heard of one of the authors he listed, C.L.R. James and his book The Black Jacobins. I’ve included a partial list of the book titles and authors he included because it epitomizes another thing I love about the book – it not only encourages you to read more, but helps point you in a productive direction.
But you really feel the blood in the writing when Coates describes personally tragic incidents. Some touch on issues that still rattle the nation – like the brutal murder by a police officer (who, I have to remind myself every time I see them suffocate, torture, or otherwise murder unarmed Americans are charged with protecting their victims) of Eric Garner. What makes his comments on Garner particularly devastating is how he shows the impact of the case on his own family, specifically his son. There are other incidents, like when a white woman shoves his four or five-year-old son out of her way in a mall and, when Coates demands an apology, a mob literally forms around him, shouting at him angrily. You can feel the vitriol of the white people around him, that in a time not so long ago might have led to violence (although we are daily presented evidence that our present moment isn’t nearly as far removed from that time not so long ago as we might like to believe).
If nothing else, this book made me outraged in the best possible sense (similar to the impact of Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer). It made me more aware of our society and myself. It made me realize how uneducated I am on racial issues affecting millions of people in the US and abroad. And it gave me a reading experience I’ll never forget.
So go read it. Now.
A few authors mentioned by Coates:
- Chancellor Williams, J.A. Rogers, John Jackson, Larry Neal, Eric Williams, George Padmore, Sonia Sanchez, Stanley Crouch, Harold Cruse, Manning Marable, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Etheridge Knight, Sterling Brown, Harvey Cruse, Basil Davidson, C.L.R. James, Thavolia Glymph
A small sample of the books mentioned by Coates:
- Children of the Sun, Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Kushite Empire, The African Origins of Civilization, Destruction of Black Civilization, The Black Jacobins