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Hello, friends! Today, I’m sharing my review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me. Undoubtedly heartfelt and profoundly introspective, Coates attempts to answer the question: what does it mean to inhabit a Black body, and how does one reckon with all that that entails?
Before we get started, I want to add a content warning for one section of this review. In this section, I criticize Ta-Nehisi’s conclusion about domestic violence in Black families. If you would like to avoid this topic, please skip the “turns out, violence is sometimes the answer???” section.
Now, on to the review!
I read this book as part of my 2021 Reading Challenge. Check out all the books I’m reading for the challenge here.
What divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to [Black people] but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.
so, what is between the world and me about?
Between the World and Me is (in theory, more on this later) a collection of letters from author Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenage son. In the book, Coates attempts to address some pretty existential questions. Chiefly, he sets out to answer: “what does it mean to inhabit a Black body? And, how does one live with the burden(s) that come with living in that body?”
The book gets its title from Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me,” quoted in the book’s epigraph. The poem is clearly about reckoning with intergenerational pain and suffering. It particularly focuses on the pain and suffering uniquely experienced by Black Americans. It’s a hauntingly beautiful poem, full of rich imagery, and I recommend reading it, even if you don’t see yourself reading Coates’s book.
and one morning while in the woods, I stumbled suddenly upon the thing stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms and the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me.
This ties into the themes of Between the World and Me, as Coates attempts to answer his central question by looking at (among other things) the nature of intergenerational trauma and violence. It also ties into the book’s themes with the artifacts of ancestral suffering being an impediment (literally, in the case of the poem) between the narrator and his ability to live contentedly in the rest of the world.
what’s so great about between the world and me, anyway?
Before addressing my criticisms of Between the World and Me, I wanted to recognize the things I enjoyed. Firstly, I absolutely loved Coates’s discussion on how learning and introspection helped him understand his place in the world. Secondly, I found the book to be extremely well-written. Coates mentions his time studying and writing poetry, and this absolutely comes through in various passages throughout Between the World and Me.
the craft of writing as the art of thinking
One of my favorite aspects of Between the World and Me was Coates’s exploration of, as he calls it, “the craft of writing as the art of thinking”. By this, he means using studying, writing, and reflecting as tools for discovering the self and the world.
For Coates, this started out as a “punishment” his grandmother gave him for acting out in school. Then, it evolved into the pursuit of works written by prominent Black thinkers and activists of the Civil Rights era. By studying and creating his own poetry and writing, Coates dismantled his fear of his own Black body.
Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away, and I was left with the cold steel truths of life… I began to see discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear, as a kind of power. I was learning to live in the disquiet I felt in… the mess of my mind. The gnawing discomfort, the chaos, the intellectual vertigo was not an alarm. It was a beacon.
I can relate to this sentiment because, as an introspective and analytical person, I often use writing to learn about myself and the world around me. Now, this process almost always involves reading what others have written and merely writing my thoughts on those works, but it still counts… right? And, while I’m still learning how to — as Coates puts it — “live within the all of it,” reading about others trying to do the same has taught me more than muddling through life on my own ever would.
That’s why I read — and write about — books like this. I’m sure this part will age better when I have more than five posts on my blog.
Coates is a poet and he totally knows it
The other thing I really appreciated about Between the World and Me was Coates’s writing style. He writes in a straightforward and unpretentious manner, which is critical given the book’s audience. In theory (again, more on this later), he is writing to his then-fifteen-year-old son. In actuality, he is writing to a general audience looking for uncomplicated answers to some very existential questions. I think he addresses both beautifully.
Throughout the book, Coates talks about studying works written by figureheads of the Black community while he was at Howard University. This truly shines through in his writing. His casual and colloquial tone emphasizes the pragmatism and achievability of coming to terms with living in a Black body. On the other hand, his poetic style emphasizes the emotional nature of this internal journey.
My country was a galaxy… I obsessed over the distance between that other sector of space and my own... My portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not… I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between that other world and me. And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.
While Coates doesn’t share anything groundbreaking in Between the World and Me, his poetic sensibilities allow him to articulate familiar thoughts in a way that makes them feel fresh. He shines new light on tried-and-true arguments about and against systemic racism. Sometimes, these new perspectives feel like a call-out. Other times, it felt like a new voice validating the feelings I have always had.
so then, what’s not so great about between the world and me?
So, as you could probably tell by my three-star rating, I had some issues with Between the World and Me. First, I found that the book’s entire framing device (the letters from Coates to his son) often fell by the wayside in favor of extended tangents about Coates’s formative years. Then, at one point, Coates comes to a problematic conclusion regarding domestic violence in Black families. Lastly, the lack of a clear call to action left me wondering what the point of it all was.
to whom it may concern…
So, remember how I said Between the World and Me is, in theory, a collection of letters from Coates to his teenage son? Well, I say “in theory” because, firstly, the majority of this book is Coates discussing his personal experiences without even so much as relating them to those of his son. And, secondly, there are only three letters here, so the word “collection” is doing a lot of heavy-lifting.
Don’t get me wrong, I found all the (extended) anecdotes Coates includes in the book to be engaging and well-written. However, in a book this short, the lengthy, stream-of-consciousness digressions only serve to make the book feel unfocused. Additionally, the second and third letters are quite repetitive to the points addressed in the first letter. In a longer, more focused work, these repetitions might serve to underscore Coates’s main points. Here, though, they feel like they were added to remind Ta-Nehisi why he was still writing and remind us why we were still reading.
Coates has an extremely valid and urgent reason for writing these letters to his son when he did. Unfortunately, the amount of time he spends talking about his own formative experiences often left me wondering, “what does this have to do with your son?” That is to say, “what does this have to do with me, the reader?”
I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes… And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect… And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.
turns out, violence is sometimes the answer???
In Between the World and Me, Coates touches on how the fear of systemic violence trickles into the everyday lives of folks living in the hood. This had all the potential to be a great discussion. Instead, Coates tells a story, relates that experience to his new perspective, and jumps to a frightening conclusion.
First, Coates examines the pattern of family violence in communities of color and poses some interesting questions. He asks: is family violence a signal to young people to get out of the hood? Or, is family violence exactly what traps young people in the hood, locking them in a system of intergenerational trauma and violence? Both are excellent questions. Unfortunately, instead of addressing these questions, Coates uses his new perspective to justify a problematic point of view.
Coates reexamines his own experience as a victim of family violence. He says he understands, now that he is a parent of a Black child, the visceral fear that you might one day see your child fall victim to systemic violence. However, Coates doesn’t use his newfound perspective to promote a more productive way of teaching your child to be wary of the perpetrators of said violence. Instead, he says, “You know what? I get it.” And that just feels wrong to me.
Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra -- "Either I can beat him or the police."... Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. This is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.
so, what can I do about all this injustice, Ta-Nehisi?
Another issue I had with Between the World and Me is the so-called solutions Coates offers to the questions he raises in the text. Sometimes, he would say these questions have no answer. Other times, Coates gives seemingly conflicting solutions to the same problems. Once, he simply gave a nihilistic non-answer to his own big question.
To an extent, I can understand the unclear nature of his solutions to the existential questions related to living in a Black body. Not all existential questions have clear or correct answers. The problem is that each of the solutions he offers conflict with each other. At one point, he says, “struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be.” In other passages, he claims the pursuit of knowledge is what freed him from the terror of inhabiting a black body. Then, the final conclusions he leaves his son (and us) with is this:
But you cannot arrange your life around [White people] and the small chance of [them] coming into consciousness… Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live -- and there is so much out there to live for.
The “life’s too short to spend all your effort trying to change people who don’t want to change” message is fine. I might even agree with it. The problem is that this message is undeniably at odds with the other solutions Coates presents elsewhere in the book. And, perhaps most confusingly, if the answer is just “live your life, forget the haters,” then why did I read this book? Why read any book that promises to help me address systemic iniquities? Why, for that matter, write one?
who is between the world and me for?
This ultimate and final question is the hardest one for me to answer. On the one hand, Coates isn’t saying anything that anyone inhabiting a Black body doesn’t already know. On the other hand, he doesn’t present anything that anyone blessed with White privilege can do about it. But, on yet another hand, this book is (at least in part) a memoir; does he really need to call us to arms?
Reading about the Black experience (whether to validate your own struggles or educate yourself on people different from you) is valuable in and of itself. That said, it is frustrating when you pick up a book claiming to provide guidance for those struggling with life in their own Black bodies, only to find the answer is — in not so many words — “I read a lot. YMMV.”
I’ll close with this: I believe many people could benefit from and be affirmed by this book. However, for the reader who seeks an unequivocal call to action in these times of “what can I do about [insert social injustice here]?”, the clearest answer may not be found in Between the World and Me.
There are people whom we do not fully know, and yet they live in a warm place within us, and when they are plundered, when they lose their bodies, and the dark energy disperses, that place becomes a wound.
You can also read my reviews on Goodreads. Check this one out here.
now it’s your turn!
So, there you have it, my thoughts on Between the World and Me. Is this book on your Social Justice reading list? I have enjoyed all the social justice literature I’ve read so far this year. What other similar books would you recommend? As it turns out, this review is quite topical. About one week before publishing this, Coates was announced to be writing a new Superman reboot at Warner Brothers. Count me (tentatively) excited for that!
No matter what you want to talk about, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Sound off in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading!