The Short Version: Taking the form of a letter to his teenage son, Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers an impassioned existentialist look at the realities of being black in America – both through the lens of history, his own and the country’s, and the lens of the present.
The Review: I loved this book with a rare kind of passion, but I grappled with not writing a review of it. As the author himself has pointed out on Twitter, this book is not for me, no matter how much I loved it. I am a member of nearly the most elite club in the world: I’m a straight white liberal male. The only thing I’m not is rich and, by a lot of people’s standards, that might not even be true. What does it matter that this book sent an electric thrill through my body? What does another young white New Yorker writing essentially a blog post matter?
But over the course of the last week, since finishing the book for the second time (true story: I finished it and immediately started reading it again) and since it was released to the general public, I’ve seen some of the most idiotic commentary imaginable hit my various feeds. And to paraphrase Howard Zinn, I don’t think it’s possible to be neutral right now because being neutral means that you’re accepting the status quo – the status quo that allows somebody like David Brooks, whose head is so far up his own ass that he just looks like a normal human, to write a column in the leading newspaper on the planet that completely misses the point of the book.
And it’s that status quo, the status quo of this country today, that Coates is addressing – and rejecting – in this book. I had a great Twitter conversation with friend and all-around brilliant human Will Chancellor where we talked about that as well as the juxtaposition of Dream and Body, and as I read through the book for the second time, I found myself thinking in these philosophical terms. And Between the World and Me strikes me as, at its core, a deeply existentialist text. Take this line here:
And godless though I am, the fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me.
You and me both, man. This line, for me as a young thinker, is right up there with “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” It takes a deeply personal thought, a personal matter, and makes it universal.
Remember when Toni Morrison was on Colbert? She said a brilliant thing: that race was a social construct. And Coates expands that here when he, in the early pages, speaks of people “who believe that they are white.” The thought that had started in my mind when I saw Morrison speak bloomed in that moment. The fundamental reality of black and white is a fiction, introduced not all that long ago – and it is a symptom of my own blindness that I never managed to think about it that way. As Coates points out, we used to identify based on religion and it wasn’t until Europe’s rise in the Late Middle Ages that people started to say “hey, clearly our collective dominant rule is because of our skin color” in any meaningful way. But as fictional as those constructs may have been when they were created, they have been entrenched now. There is a hope, sure, that we will transcend them someday – and progress, yes, has been made. There is the very real hope that maybe my children’s children will see human beings as human beings, full stop.
But we do not live in that world.
Coates is, as he says several times throughout the book, trying to consider “how do I live free in this black body” in a country that believes it is “traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.” Coates is not the first, nor will he be the last, to consider this question. Slavery is America’s original sin and the fact that some modicum of progress has been made towards ameliorating that sin is irrelevant. It was the thing that pissed me off about Kakutani’s NYT review: the fact that she wrote “After all, America has twice elected a black president” absolutely blew my mind. My first thought was of Claudia Rankine’s prose-poem about microaggressions in Citizen: An American Lyric.
But as Coates said on Twitter, she was still grappling with the right stuff. She knew who he was in dialogue with and she understood, to some extent, what he was trying to do. And to me, this is the other half (the physical half) of the existentialism in this book: the literal struggle for existence that the black body faces in this country today. I will never know what it is like to be under suspicion, to be treated rudely, to be outright ignored in the way that Samori (Coates’ son) or Coates himself have been and will be. What I can understand is the broader struggle: to prove that you have a right to exist. I do not face death at the hands of the people who are supposedly sworn to protect me; I only face death at my own hand.
This is a privileged position regarding mortal termination and I’m well aware of that. When the news recounts the story of another young person who did not have the choice, I am aware that my ability to choose is perhaps the greatest privilege that a person could have. I get to think about Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus as it relates purely and only to myself. Samori Coates doesn’t have that luxury because there are people in this world who believe – in the year 2015, for fuck’s sake – that they have a right to decide what happens to his life. “Racism is,” Coates says, “a visceral experience” in that it can destroy the body. How unnatural, that something else other than your own self or the great ravages of Time, could do that. How unnatural it is that we have come to believe that that’s okay.
Coates talks a lot in this book about the American Dream. It’s one of David Brooks’ big problems, actually – the puncturing of the myth of the American Dream. As somebody who has never believed that the American Dream was real, even as those around me in school and society all kept striving for and believing that it was, I found it refreshing to see someone speaking in such blunt terms about the ridiculousness of it, even if those terms were far from my own.
You see, dreams are all well and good. I have them, you have them. There are things that we want, things we will aim towards and hope that we can achieve. But a dream is an ethereal thing and a body is a physical one. The fire behind Coates’ book is the fact that far too many people speak about the ethereal when it is the physical that demands our attention first. There is an anecdote related here about a white woman who pushed a young Samori out of the way at a movie theater on the Upper West Side. “I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son,” Coates writes. This is a universal feeling of a parent wanting to protect their child – but when Coates confronts the woman about it, several other white Upper West Siders ride to her defense, one of them eventually shouting at Coates that he “could have you arrested!”
How can you embrace a Dream, even the pursuit of one, when such physical realities are present? Their lives were not lost that day, nothing physically bad happened to them – but it is impossible not to feel the thread between the two Coates men and Prince Jones, and Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner.
Coates also spends a decent chunk of this slim text relating his own tale, memoir wrapped up in the philosophy/commentary. He talks of his time at Howard University, of trips to Paris, of finding himself in these places and in the people there in a way that America at large does not necessarily allow. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to know that he’s moving to Paris for a year – but when I discussed that NYMag article with a colleague, he was quick to say, “Wow, he’s really taking that Baldwin analogy to its logical extent.” And I think that’s unfair. Yes, the parallels are obvious – but the book’s explanation of the freedom and relief that comes with being somewhere where your life is not constantly under threat… how could anybody want to stay in this country under those conditions?
How can this country accept that those are conditions under which any, let alone a significant portion, of its citizens live?
Coates ends the book with a broader warning about the American Dream. We did not stop at the subjugation of black people but we continued on. In California and the Southwest, we subjugated Latinos and Chicanos to provide labor. As our society and culture expanded, we subjugated people halfway around the world in the Middle East and Asia to make our products. As it expanded even further, we attempted – are still attempting to, perhaps – subjugate the Earth itself. Coates writes in the final pages of the book that “something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas.” He knows, in this moment, that there are multiple fronts on which the battle is being fought. And he knows, in an often heart-wrenching way, that the battle is already lost. But he implores Samori to not give up, to keep struggling. Not for the Dreamers but for himself.
And as the rain fell on Coates at the end of the book, I thought again of Camus: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Coates is talking about a different struggle, of course – a much more personal, more physical, more immediate one – but the ultimate message is the same: do not give up.
I can’t think of a more important thought for today – and for tomorrow, too. For that, for that fiery, brutal, scary, wonderful thought, I can only give this book the highest of marks. I will return to it as my life goes on, I will continue to grapple with it and with understanding. I will press it upon others in the hopes that it encourages the same in them. And I will return to the work still to be done. And maybe someday, on a planet much like this one, the future will arrive.
Rating: 6 out of 5.