Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most thoughtful, beautiful, sad and clear-eyed books that I have ever read.
I resisted reading this book despite its widespread acclaim, including a 2015 National Book Award, something I revere as highly as American golf fans, for instance, revere the U.S. Open. I consider it the American reader’s version of a national championship.
Still, all I knew about the book itself was that it was written by an African-American father as a letter to his adolescent son, concerning his future as a black man in America. I told myself I didn’t want to listen to more complaining or another lecture, wasn’t ready to process any more anger from any faction in the contentious world of human politics. I let myself duck behind that weak defense for a year. Maybe later, I kept telling myself. But, as Coates so eloquently makes clear, this was just the selfish and fearful instinct to protect my own dream of innocence in the crimes of our history and social order.
But Coates does not give a lecture to white readers or black readers or to his son. He does not accuse whites so much as all of human history itself, especially—but not only—American history, of allowing the crime of any one tribe to claim power over another tribe’s bodies. And the tendency of time and self-serving delusion to enshrine that power as righteous tradition.
In the process, Coates questions the simplistic cliché solutions of policy, education, violence, religion. He has even disabused me of my long-held and naive notion that time and interracial procreation will eventually dilute the perception of difference, that someday all of humanity will be a unified beige and racism will become an artifact.
Challenging that idea, Coates reminds us of black Africans enslaving black Africans and white Americans enslaving white Irish and white Germans enslaving white Jews. There is always an “other” pushed to the bottom and held down as long as possible. There is a kind of economic and social cannibalism to the way our machines of power and so-called progress eat up human bodies, and yet the well-fed look away from the evidence of their own gluttony.
If Coates lectures anyone it is himself, as he strips down his own illusions and defenses right along with the others he sees. He offers no prescription or manifesto. He promises no solution or even a clear path of activism. What he does is make a brave, honest and poignant attempt to prepare his fifteen-year-old son for the realities of racism that he will surely have to live with or die with. To prepare him to face the breach between the world and him by giving him the full power of the only tools his father has to give, words and knowledge, and love.
I have not followed the book’s reception in the political press. I haven’t even read any literary reviews. But I’m sure Coates has his critics. And I know some in my own circle of family and friends would be eager to dismiss the book because it questions some of the fundamental assumptions of their world view. It questions mine too. But I hope people will read it with “beginner’s heart” so to speak—not judging, not resisting, but listening closely.