Sunday, August 23, 2015

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

If you follow my blog regularly, you know I read for entertainment, no matter what I'm reading. But, I picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me because it appeared on a bookstore's list for the subject "Black Lives Matter." This forthright book is a letter from a journalist to his fifteen-year-old black son. It discusses racism, history, his own life, his fear, and his fear for his son.

Coates breaks the letter into three parts. First he defines those who think they've found the "Dream", found their aspirations to live a safe, secure life in what they think of as a "white" world. He contrasts that with his own life growing up in Baltimore, where he struggled daily to balance between the streets where boys confronted each other, sometimes with guns, and his school and family life. But, he said a black boy learns early that life is about survival and safety. And, he talks about America, built on the bodies of black people, built so that white people can live a dream, and blacks live in fear. And, even as he discusses that, he admits that the Irish, the Italians, the Catholics, the Jews were not always the "white people" living the Dream. But, unlike the black person, they weren't slaves in this country.

The second part of the book describes Coates' escape into the sheltered world of Howard University, where he met blacks of every hue and nationality. Even there, he was not meant for the prescribed courses of study, classroom work. Instead, he was the type of young man who questioned everything, and searched for books to assist with his quest, saying "I was made for the library, not the classroom." But, even that sheltered environment led young men and women to the world where police would accost them on the streets, in their cars, and not face punishment for their actions. It was the killing of a college friend that tore Coates apart. His friend, raised to believe in the Dream, was tracked through three cities and shot down. Even the college-educated, dreaming young people have to walk the streets in fear.

In the short final chapter, Coates discovers a world without fear, but it's in Paris. When he follows his wife there, he discovers a world where he can walk the streets without worrying about survival, and he takes his son there to share it with him. But, even then, he knows it's too late for him to live a life without fear. And, every day, he fears for his son, a young black man in America.

I'm the wrong person to write a criticism of Between the World and Me. I grew up with that Dream, in an all white community where everyone aspired to college and a solid middle-class life. And, I only know the fear of walking on a street at night as a woman. I don't know the all-consuming walk of survival, the fear of saying the wrong thing or making the wrong move. Ta-Nehisi Coates' letter to his son is a powerful indictment of a country living in fear, people fearing each other because of the color of their skin, or because of the power over them because of the color of their skin. It's sad, and tragic, that Coates and others cannot feel safe and at peace in this country.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Spiegal & Grau. 2015. ISBN 9780812993547 (hardcover), 152p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book


Kaye Barley said...

this is a lovely, lovely piece.
I'm reading this now.
I started it several days ago and read quite a bit until I just needed to walk away for awhile, but will get back to it, for sure.
You and I share feelings on a lot of things, this subject included, certainly.
I would like to place this book in the hands of many people with the hopes that they would read it, take it to heart and learn.

Lesa said...

Unfortunately, Kaye, I don't know that those we give it to will understand. I think it's those of us who come to it with an open mind who are more willing to learn. Like you, I took a break,and walked away after part of it. But, I knew it was something I "should" read.

Kaye Barley said...

Yes, i think you're more than likely right about that - sadly.

Lesa said...

Probably so, but don't let that stop you from passing the book along to others.

Clea Simon said...

I've only read excerpts of Coates' book (in Harper's, I think, or maybe the Atlantic) and have heard him speak on NPR, but I know I'll be reading this soon. I'm thinking it should be required reading in high school -- for all 15-year-olds in America.

Lesa said...

I think you're right, Clea. And 15 year olds are so into their own lives, they wouldn't ever think about other people.