Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic, is an essay written to his son on growing up black, specifically on the subjugation and the preservation of ‘black bodies’. It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction (2015), an ALA Alex Award (2016), the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction (2015), a Pulitzer Prize Nomination for General Nonfiction (2016), and several other awards. Text Publishing | July, 2015 | Paperback | 152 pp
“Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.”
In Coates’ essay, he talks about growing up black in a tough neighborhood with tough parents, his time at Howard University (his ‘Mecca’), and becoming a parent. He also discusses his leanings toward Malcolm X over Martin Luther King, Jr., the beginning of the BLM movement and the cases of police brutality that inspired the movement, the fear that comes with living inside a ‘black body’ – especially the fear over a child, general day-to-day racism and how one wrong step could lead to death, and the execution of a classmate and friend from Howard University.
“Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”
He uses the word ‘Dreamers’ to describe those who believe in the American Dream which he feels is a white dream – for those who believe they are “white”. And that those who are white cannot exist without having someone to hold down, to have someone to destroy. In this belief, this hate and need to own/control/enslave/destroy is fed into the police departments and into the minds of even black policemen.
“There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream.”
His letter has two roles: a partial memoir and a warning to his son.
“I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.”
You can feel his worry, this parental fear, most keenly after he interviews the mother of his friend Prince Jones, his HU classmate who was killed by a plain-clothes police officer for no reason. His mother is a wealthy doctor and she did everything “right”. She gave Prince a privileged life of culture and education. He could have gone to Harvard or Yale, he could have been anyone he wanted to be. And although he had that incredibly privileged life, his ‘black body’ was still snuffed out because he was a young black male. Even though she did everything right and he didn’t grow up on the streets, it wasn’t enough to save him. His black body marked him for destruction.
Coates doesn’t have all the answers and he wears his pain and anger plainly.
“I wanted you to have your own life, apart from fear – even apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.”
This is an emotionally-charged piece, academic and poignant. There are many references to authors and works I’m not familiar with during his collegiate years, but this did little to prevent the indelible impression it left. Between the World and Me was not written for me, a light-skinned woman. It was written for his son, and that’s what makes it such an important read.