Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
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Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Non-fiction

In the 150 years since the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, the story of race and America has remained a brutally simple one, written on flesh: it is the story of the black body, exploited to create the country’s foundational wealth, violently segregated to unite a nation after a civil war, and, today, still disproportionately threatened, locked up and killed in the streets. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can America reckon with its fraught racial history?

Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates' attempt to answer those questions, presented in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son-and readers-the story of his own awakening to the truth about history and race through a series of revelatory experiences: immersion in nationalist mythology as a child; engagement with history, poetry and love at Howard University; travels to Civil War battlefields and the South Side of Chicago; a journey to France that reorients his sense of the world; and pilgrimages to the homes of mothers whose children’s lives have been taken as American plunder. Taken together, these stories map a winding path towards a kind of liberation-a journey from fear and confusion, to a full and honest understanding of the world as it is.

Masterfully woven from lyrical personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me offers a powerful new framework for understanding America’s history and current crisis, and a transcendent vision for a way forward.

Review

Described as required reading by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ searing missive to his 15-year-old son Samori is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Through anecdotes and reflections, and analysis of history and language, Coates describes what it means to inhabit a black body in America today and, ultimately, provides a compelling argument for why the past is inseparable from our present. Coates writes to Samori: ‘Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”

The open letter is often misused, but it fits perfectly as the framing device for Between the World and Me, allowing Coates to be both personal and universal in his scope. Time and time again, he returns to fear and the realities of living with this emotion on a daily basis. And while Coates fears for the black body in a broad sense, this book is very much about fear for his son’s body, which he knows he cannot protect. Undoubtedly, this same fear is what propelled Cormac McCarthy to write The Road, but Coates does not need to create a fictional dystopia to raise the stakes in telling of his fear. Between the World and Me is about what is happening right now.

A national correspondent for the Atlantic and award-winning journalist, Coates has been lauded as one of America’s most important writers on the subject of race. I simply can’t imagine the person who could possibly remain unmoved by this book. Within the first few pages, I was swept up by Coates’ fierce intellect and raging passion as though I’d stepped into a fast-moving current. I read with my heart in my throat and for the final 50 or so pages I cried without stopping. Between the World and Me attests to the power of literature. It would be foolish (and insensitive) for me to claim I now completely understand Coates’ life and position as a black father in America. Rather, this book revealed something true to me, and it showed me what that might be like.


Bronte Coates is the digital content coordinator for Readings. She is a co-founder of literary project, Stilts.

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