Between the World and Me
A national correspondent for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about issues at the intersection of culture, politics, and social issues. He is also well-known for other works in addition to Between the World and Me, including The Beautiful Struggle and We Were Eight Years in Power. Fun fact: Coates is also the head writer of the new iterations of Black Panther comics!
Coates' thoughts on race and racism rest on the idea that identity in the United States is built on entrenched racist myths.
Between The World and Me
Coates explores several broad themes, including race, racism, and systemic oppression; fear; father-son relationships; the search for identity; education; and justice, among others.
A version of "The Fire Next Time" for a new generation
A narrative for young folks in this time of history, when many are struggling to make sense of how frequently black lives can be destroyed legally through police violence and mass incarceration.
Makes plain what is truly at stake in the struggle, remove prevailing myths that breed complacency, defeatism or inaction.
The importance of avoiding vagueness or generalization about critical aspects of black experience.
The title of the piece comes from a 1935 poem by Richard Wright (of the same name)
An important stance that Coates takes is that it's okay not to have answers to the difficult questions that are involved in discussions around race and racism. He encourages us to face our discomfort and to sit with our questions. The act of asking and seeking are what matter most.
Literary Inspirations and Style
Ranier Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet
Written in the form of a letter – purpose of letters as literary devices? Are they compelling due to their intimacy to the subject matter?
The virtue of both The Fire Next Time and Between the World and Me is that they are not addressed to white people or any other minorities: they are addressed to close family members. There is no dressing up or softening of facts that ultimately cause distortion of the Black experience.
Differences between Baldwin and Coates: While Baldwin doesn't deny the pain associated with the Black experience, he emphasizes the power of human beings to affect change even in extraordinary circumstances. Coates' argues for the opposite side of the same coin, in that he encourages acknowledging that racial injustice will continue to persist in America, and cautions against buying into the tale of the American Dream.
Is there anything in Coates' writing that resonates with your own experience?
What was a passage that stood out to you? What thoughts did it provoke in you?
What was an experience that opened your eyes to other beliefs, or made you question a belief or something you've been taught?
Race as the pretext for racism
Coates' letter to his teenage son is a moving personal account of what it's like to be black in America. It's also about:
The narrative of race in America and the self-identification of its people
Discrediting the idea of race as an immutable, unchangeable fact
“Race, is the child of racism, not the father.”
The idea of having hope for a better reality vs. accepting reality as the only hope
“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. . . . I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”
It is striking how much Coates' telling of American history diverges from the often celebratory accounts we've encountered (whether through school, literature, or movies/TV). This is not because Coates' framing is incorrect or wrong: much of what passes as history has been crafted to tell a proud national story (a mythology with heroes), and in doing so, glosses over (or even omits entirely) more difficult facts.
Coates opens his letter with his son's (Samori) reaction to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown (2014).
“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”
“The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include frisking, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”
He then talks about the string of deaths caused by police brutality to reject respectability politics:
"But the price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined."
The most important part of Coates' letter is the framework he presents to understand racism in its American context. He speaks about race as the mythology of American culture, and the idea of the black body as 'breakable' and 'in constant jeopardy'.
The American Dream (The Struggle and The Fear)
Arguably one of the most actionable and important themes in Between The World and Me is the idea that many living in America don't necessarily have a vivid picture of struggle in Black communities. Instead of appealing to readers through intellect or rationality, Coates paints an uncomfortable picture that forces readers to reckon with the idea that the 'American Dream' is not the reality of most Black communities. By creating this gap between the audience and the message, Coates invites readers to insert themselves to begin understanding the weight of the struggle that Black Americans face.
“Historians conjured the Dream,” Coates writes. “Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories”; Dreamers are the ones who continue to believe the lie, at black people’s expense. In what will almost certainly be the most widely quoted passage, Coates tells his son: “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”
“Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: To awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white . . . has done to the world. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness.”
“Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. . . . But do not struggle for the Dreamers. . . . Do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves.”
“Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets. But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day. And I was such a curious boy.”
The streets were not my only problem. If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later.