Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates read by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.
If Toni Morrison telling you it’s required reading on the cover doesn’t convince you to check it out, there’s probably very little I can say to persuade you. But I’ll try. Because you really do need to read, or listen, to this book.
There is nothing extreme in this statement.
The central tenet of the book, that black bodies are a commodity consumed by America, was sort of already familiar. One of my mentors’ theses investigated the use of black bodies in advertising. My first words to my children after expressions of love were a concise lecture about privilege.
Even so, I know nothing. In this epistolic memoir, Coates discusses the condition of living with a black body, in a place dedicated to its destruction, with his son. We’re allowed to listen in, to intercept the letter, and reflect.
Coates is an incredible writer, direct and poetic at the same time. And he’s a compelling speaker, passionate and composed. But I think the real success of the book is that he’s not trying to convince the reader, or his son. He’s telling is story. Leaving it open to question and interpretation. We can respond, but we can’t interrupt.
He says he’s given up on trying to change the dreamers, white folks committed to the imaginary American ideal. They have to change themselves. He advocates instead for Samori’s, for our, conscious awareness of the reality of the situation. Without filters, without illusions.
This is a relatively short book, whether you read its one hundred and seventy six pages or listen for a little over three and a half hours. It’s a small time commitment, but occasionally an overwhelming emotional one. There are moments where I had to pause, literally, and take a step back.
It’s full of revelations about education, grief, and fatherhood. One of the most complicated involves an adult white woman shoving his young son outside a movie theater. Parents react viscerally to that sort of thing even by proxy. Coates’ frank relation of his options incrementally collapsing is heartbreaking. I’m still struggling with it.
I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay.
Take whatever opportunity you can to engage with this book. Listen to it if at all possible. The author’s strong yet soft voice says as much as the words themselves. The recording is clear and balanced. You can listen to it on your device’s onboard speaker amid moderate noise without distraction.
Recommended for fans of Notes of a Native Son, Teaching to Transgress, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.