The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates had a 2015 that most writers would die for. Following the success of his long-form cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” he published Between the World and Me last July, which became a #1 New York Times bestseller and won the National Book award for non-fiction.
Coates has since become a leading figure in national discourse. He won the Mac Arthur Foundation’s ‘Genius’ Grant, and has been fawned over as a must-read author among well-educated, liberal audiences. Much of Coates’ success and rise to national prominence, it seems to me, stemmed from the gripping tour de force contained in the svelte 152 pages of Between the World and Me.
To begin with, let’s establish that this is not a hopeful, uplifting opus. You won’t walk away after reading this book with a positive perspective on the United States’ past.. You will more likely feel as though you’ve been hit squarely in the stomach, knocked to the ground and made to perceive every atom in your body quaking with fear.
Between the World and Me is part memoir, part letter and part meditation on the United States’ dark history with African-Americans. Coates provides a narration of his youth in a Baltimore that is plagued with gang violence, his (trans)formative years at Howard University and the general struggle of inhabiting a black, male body in America. The story is narrated as a letter to the author’s teenage son, and is interspersed with piercing insights into a society that Coates claims has been built on the plunder of black bodies and property. He urges his son to:
“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 that knew nothing but chains.
“You must struggle to 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.” (70)
Throughout the text, Coates devotes ample time to ruminations on what he calls “the Dream,” which I think differs little contextually from that mortally wounded chimera, “the American Dream:”
“When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” (11)
One of Coates’ central contentions is that this Dream has come about precisely as a result of America’s long-standing exploitation of black people. From the invention of the cotton gin to the discriminatory housing policies in Chicago, white America has always found a way to profit from the disadvantage of blacks, and to further establish their hopes and dreams with this rapacity as a foundation, Coates claims.
Both Coates and the reader must consider the narrator among the “lucky ones.” The speaker of this story didn’t join a gang or fall victim to the brute violence of Baltimore in the late 20th century, even as he recounts standing outside a 7-Eleven at 11-years-old and having an older boy point a gun at him. By fate or circumstance, our narrator did not fall through the merciless cracks of society. And yet he knows many who did.
The most poignant example is Coates’ college friend, Prince Jones, whose death at the hands of a Prince George’s County police officer also played a formidable role in shaping the tone and outlook of this book.
“Prince Jones was the superlative of all my fears. And if he, good Christian, scion of a striving class, patron saint of the twice as good, could be forever bound, who then could not?” (81)
In certain ways, reviewing this book is beyond me. I am not acquainted with the unique realities of inhabiting a black body in this country that Coates knows all too well, and which form the underlying crux of this work. My experiences differ drastically from the author’s—that’s to be expected.
If I can make one experientially-neutral critique of this book, I take issue with its materialist metaphysics.
“I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.” (79)
This materialist view suffices as an explanation of phenomena: it’s enough to explain that there are neurons in my brain firing electrical signals which allow my ideas to circulate. It doesn’t explain how I became acquainted with those ideas in the first place, what those ideas are, substantially and whether they arose from within me, or came from somewhere else.
Coates’ materialism underpins his belief in the sanctity of the human body. By extension, it accentuates the perils and tragedies of inhabiting a black body in the United States.
On the front cover of Between the World and Me, there’s a blurb by Toni Morrison. “This is required reading,” she succinctly declares.
I don’t disagree.
Coates has composed a formidable book wrought with pathos and cogitation in its brief 152 pages. Between the World and Me is an elegy for the black lived experience in America.
Coates’ memoir is dark and forceful. While racial equality in this country remains a fleeting ideal, while there remains a space between ourselves and the outside world, I suspect we’ll continue talking about this book.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.