A Review: Between the World and Me

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates- 3.5 Stars

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a book I found different but worth a read. This book has largely gained popularity over the past year or so, especially during this political climate and the increased support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The book is written like a very long essay or long-form prose with not much breaking up the words. It’s a short book. My e-book version only has 100 pages, although the physical copy is listed as having 150 pages on Goodreads.

The overview of the book says this: “In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of ‘race,’ a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.”

Coates writes eloquent but lengthy sentences and phrases, as if he is writing in a stream-of-consciousness format. Addressed to his son, the book reflects on Coates’s life giving tidbits of advice mixed in with recollection like a memoir. Although the book was written in a long essay format, there were a lot of quotable lines I found myself highlighting specifically to mention in this blog post. Here is a quote that I thought worth noting from the book:

“Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains. You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”

If you don’t like books that are written as ramblings or stream-of-consciousness, I would not recommend this book. Since Coates has little breaking up his thoughts and ideas, it was easy for me to skim entire pages and then realize I missed something as he was onto telling a different event. However, I did notice a few themes throughout the book.

One theme Coates refers to is the destruction of black bodies. From the beginning, he focuses on how his father would beat him with a belt as punishment. Then later on he talks about black bodies being destroyed at the hands of police. He also reflects back to when black people were enslaved and learning about the Civil War and how their bodies were worth so much to the nation, despite being beaten, tortured, raped, and murdered at the will of slaveholders.

Another theme I noticed is Coates reference to The Mecca. Despite being nonreligious, in the book, he recalls a little bit of his time at Howard University where he meets so many different types of black people, and he calls this time The Mecca since it was almost like he and his friends were in a safety bubble where everything was wonderful there. Even though he did not graduate, he learned new things and eventually met his son’s mother there.

Much of the book goes through phases based on setting. The beginning is set in Baltimore where Coates grew up, and then Prince George County in Washington, D.C., where Howard University is, and then New York City, where his family eventually settled. Throughout these settings, Coates recalls events that have happened that have shaped his views on life in America.

Although this book is probably not one I would read more than once, I think it is worth a read, as the author gives a unique perspective to the black experience, his feelings toward America at large, and his thoughts on race. You may not like this book if you have particular political beliefs that clash with Coates’s thoughts and opinions on police shootings. Although you do not have to be a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement to enjoy this book, you may not like this book if you have strong feelings against it. Coates does not mention Black Lives Matter in the book, but he makes several references to police shootings that have made national news like the Trayvon Martin case.

I think it’s worth noting a little bit of background on Coates’s life. According to his website, Coates is a journalist and author and has several bestselling books including Between the World and Me. He is also the current author of the Black Panther comics and Captain America, something I did not realize until I Googled him. Additionally, he has written a novel called The Water Dancer, which I may try reading just to compare his fiction writing with this memoir.

Have you read Between the World and Me or any of Coates’s other books? Let me know your thoughts! What did you think of this book? I’d love to hear from you!

1 thought on “A Review: Between the World and Me”

  1. This is one I have in my consciousness as one to get to at some stage. I’ve been trying to centre my reading on people from different backgrounds than mine on the UK experience initially, as there is so much to learn and absorb here, and our global majority peoples’ lives and experiences and the racism here is quite different to that in the US (not less extreme or intense, as some people claim, but different). But I do read widely and want to get to this one in the fullness of time. I appreciate your careful description of it.


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