One of the fundamental questions raised by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me is, “How do I live in this black body?” The question is not an idle one. Coates was born and raised in innercity West Baltimore, on precarious streets where a young black boy had to be on guard every waking moment. The predominant vibe of those streets was fear, Coates writes, and whether from street-corner thugs or the police, one had to learn how to secure his body from threats that could easily turn lethal.
Much like James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Between the World and Me is constructed as a missive from a father to his son, but because father and son are black and live in America — where the stain of racism is never completely washed clean and the legacy of slavery is never that far in the rearview mirror of history — the message is by turns cautionary, defiant, plaintive, and hopeful. White suburban parents living on quiet cul de sacs are not obligated to admonish their progeny to work twice as hard and be twice as good as other children, nor must they explain to their children that bodily harm, even death, can as easily be visited upon them by the police as by criminals. Caucasian fathers are not obligated to tell their sons, as Coates does, “I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.”
Caucasian readers of Between the World and Me might be inclined to think that Coates is too pessimistic, that he doesn’t appreciate the racial progress that has been made in the United States, but one only has to be aware of recent history — the names Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, or the disproportionate incarceration rate of black men — to be persuaded that Coates isn’t exaggerating the scale of the problem. In fact, when African-Americans must create a movement in order to remind the nation that their lives matter as much as anyone else’s, there can be little doubt that racism is as vexing a problem as ever.
Struggle — for freedom, for equal access to education, housing, transportation and jobs, for basic respect — is a staple of the African-American experience. Coates writes, “Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be.”
Between the World and Me is an important book and it appears at an important moment in American history. Along with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Between the World and Me deserves a prominent seat at the table of any discussion of race in America.