Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates Between The World and Me

2015. Spiegel & Grau. Ebook. 176 pages.


I first read Between the World and Me over a week last September, alternating it with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I highlighted about 65 passages in Coates’ book, but didn’t know where to start with writing a review. At one point Coates says, “Poetry aims for an economy of truth . . . 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 would say that while it is not in the poetry genre, Between the World and Me is characterized by that economy and cold steel. The instinct of a reviewer to summarize and paraphrase is stymied by a feeling that doing so would inflict a terrible reduction on a work that is already so tight and focused. This book is a process for the reader. I could provide a quote from the end and it still might mean something, but it’s better if you’ve been put through the paces and understand what Coates means by the Dream, by the body, by the struggle, and that you know about West Baltimore, Howard University and the Mecca, PG County, New York City and Paris.

So. Today I picked up Between the World and Me and read it again, with little interruption, in one sitting. I highlighted a few more passages. I reached one of those quotes at the end, “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.” and just said “wow” out loud to myself. I finished the book, ate some dinner, fed the cat, and now I’m going to make this review happen.

Immersion is my best word for the experience – like slipping under the water and opening your eyes. Everything looks and sounds different once you get under the surface. This is not the narrative we’ve been told to accept. Instead, it’s the story of a little black boy who learns to resent the parade of nonviolent Civil Rights martyrs every February at school. Indeed, school partners with the streets as a form of damnation for the children of that boy’s city and other cities like it. And it’s an account of history where it’s understood that the American Civil War was a “mass slaughter”, not “a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor, and élan.” Under the surface, I see that a man can watch the smoke from the Twin Towers on 9/11 and not feel that some innocence was lost that day, because the news that still haunts him is that of a friend who was killed by a police officer a year before.

After the immersion, there’s a restlessness. There’s so much power in the words. I’m moved by them, but what do I do with them? It’s bracing, almost vindicating to read Coates’ instruction to his son not to spend his energies trying to make other people see their own participation in an unfair system. Life is too short. I know I’ve reached a point where actively trying to change other people’s minds on these issues just seems a ridiculous enterprise. So that leaves me with . . . me.

I hope you don’t mind a turn into the realm of personal anecdote: over ten years ago, I moved to a town in Prince George’s County, Maryland – or “PG County” as it’s also known. The day I moved into my apartment complex, I remember feeling embarrassed because my parents could sense the discomfort I felt in being in the minority for the first time in my life. Sure, there were other factors at play in my discomfort, namely being fresh out of college and trying to start the next phase in my life. But still, it was clear that my mind automatically saw my skin color as a barrier to belonging. And I felt bad, because I had failed to be color-blind, which I had implicitly understood was the goal for all white people. And I worked to dull that self-conscious awareness into a background white noise in my mind. I’m the only white person on this bus. Whatever. Who cares. I’m just a person on this bus.

While on this quest for color-blindness, I succeeded in learning very little about the experiences of my black neighbors. I lived in Prince George’s County for a number of years. No one ever warned me about PG County cops, the way Ta-Nehisi Coates was warned about them by his Howard University friends. One evening, I walked a few friends out of my apartment to find a swarm of police officers standing over a group of people sitting on the sidewalk with their hands on their heads. My friends razzed me about where I lived afterwards. And I never worried that I would someday be the one sitting on that sidewalk with my hands on my head. I didn’t worry that by walking nearby with my friends that I would be somehow associated with what was going on. I unconsciously rested in the knowledge that it was obvious that I didn’t belong in that scene, that I wasn’t part of it.

And that’s where Coates’ book comes in, and other writers like him, who show me that I am part of that scene. To be clear, my enlightenment is not his responsibility. This book wasn’t written for me. I’m grateful that he made this letter to his son available for all to read. For it is not a ridiculous enterprise to open my own mind, to enter into what Coates’ calls “the struggle”, which is – as I see it – the constant endeavor to create a true narrative of the world. I can tend to my own mind and actions, and not worry about others so much. I don’t mean that I will be silent on important matters and I hope that I will speak up and act when necessary. But I’m learning over and over that you can’t force open a closed mind.

Which means the people who really “need” to read this book, probably won’t. However, those who seek it out will be rewarded. I know that I will be thinking of this book for a long time.


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8 responses to “Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

  1. It is tough to know when to speak and when not. I try to frame it to myself this way: Even if I’m not changing hearts and minds (which I know that I am not), I am at least maybe showing the person that they will experience social consequences (even just minor ones, like being embarrassed for a minute) if they say their racist shit in public. Like if there’s any change I can effect (which I’m not assuming), it can be: They think these things quietly at home, rather than loudly in public.

  2. Yeah, I’m still figuring it out. I think your reasoning about social consequences is a good one and worthwhile.

  3. aartichapati

    I really valued this book, too. I am going to read Citizen in the next few weeks, too, so we will be book twins. If you haven’t read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, I think that is an excellent companion to this book, too.

    I would also say Coates is an excellent speaker, too. If you have time, I would watch this:

    • Thanks for the recommendations – both the Baldwin and the video! I was fortunate to see Claudia Rankine read from Citizen last year at the National Book Festival – her talk and the readings can be found here:

  4. I am sooooo glad of this review. You did an amazing job with it. This was one of the hardest books for me to review, and in the end I just did a mini because I didn’t think I could do it justice. Round of applause for you.

    • Thank you! It is a hard book to review – my months-long delay in writing it testifies to this. I remember your mini-review, and I think the way you framed it really underscored the high opinion you had of the book.

  5. I grew up in PG County and my family still lives there. Now I live in the Midwest in Whitopia (a la Rich Benjamin’s book of that name and Sundown Towns by James Loewen) and I feel absolutely bereft never seeing anything but white people. So your reaction to coming to PGC is very interesting to me! I think if one grows up in that mix, one doesn’t feel discomfort as an “other” but rather like that’s the way it should be. But PGC has some very southern whites too, and is not really a county of high income or education. D.C. is quite different in that respect with a population of many races not originally from Maryland and of very high education and income levels. I love seeing that in D.C.! But of course in D.C. there is Anacostia as well, and the whites in PGC, who happen to be closest to Anacostia, get some pretty negative impressions from that proximity.

    • I think that it’s true that it’s different if you grow up in diversity. I knew people who grew up in PG County that would probably say the same as you about your experience. I grew up in Maine and then went to a not very diverse small liberal arts college. I wished that I did not feel that discomfort upon being a minority and had wished to have taken it more in stride. That initial discomfort I felt upon moving to PG County eventually did simmer down, as I lived in a couple of towns in that county for years, and then also in Silver Spring for a while. Now I’m in a town in NoVa, which has a different demographic – still diverse, but in a different way.

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