Over the weekend, I ventured out to Barnes & Noble in Atlanta to pick up a couple books. I bought March, a graphic novel that is a first-hand account of Congressman John Lewis’ life and struggle for civil rights. I did so with the intent of reading (and interpreting) the stories and pictures of daddy’s first boss to my near 4-year-old superhero-loving boy, a little each night at bedtime.
I also picked up a copy of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the award-winning author whose cover story for The Atlantic magazine titled “The Case for Reparations” was widely discussed in 2014. The back of the book’s jacket cover caught my attention with its endorsement from Toni Morrison, the beloved Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist.
“I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual voice that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading,” Morrison said.
At the check-out line, the African-American clerk saw the book as he was ringing it up, stopped and said: “It’s good. I’m half-way through, but he’s cynical. Super cynical.”
Between the World and Me is definitely required reading. The prose is powerful — at times, it’s poetic. Beautiful writing for sure — and yes, it is cynical too. Coates’ masterful work is short, at just over 150 pages it’s a quick read.
But it’s a real read — the first book that I’ve read cover-to-cover without putting down in a very long time.
Between the World and Me is a letter from a father to his son. Coates writes to his 15-year-old son, Samori, named after Samori Touré, an African warrior who fought the French colonizers in Guinea in the late 19th century. The book is a reflection on fatherhood, and the love Coates has for his son is poured out on page after page. The book is also a reflection on what it means to be Black in America. The two are inextricably linked throughout the letter.
“I write to you in your fifteenth year,” Coates writes. “I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect.”
Throughout the book, Coates rails against what he calls The Dream — entrenched in white supremacy and symbolized by American suburbia with its “perfect houses with nice lawns,” Memorial Day cookouts and treehouses.
“The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And, for so long I’ve wanted to escape into The Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket,” Coates tells his son. “But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”
Coates is at heart a lyricist who never holds back. While he doesn’t condemn the American experiment, he’s struggling with it, simply wanting to survive in it — and desperately wants his son to survive (and thrive) as well, being comfortable with who he is.
“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know,” Coates instructs his son. “Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful — the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. …You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”
Coates tells his son he will make mistakes along the way. And, that’s okay, he says.
“Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson — not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson. 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.”
Later in the letter, Coates assures his son — who, upon hearing that the Ferguson grand jury had voted not to indict Michael Brown’s killer last November, retreated to his room to cry, telling his father simply “I’ve got to go” — that it’s not necessary to believe that the officer who choked to death Eric Garner “set out that day to destroy a body.”
“All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black,” Coates says.
As a 32-year-old white man with a family, Between the World and Me is tough to read for many reasons. Unlike Coates’ son, Samori, I get to go to sleep at night not worried about my son’s body. I don’t fear profiling, frisks, random detention, cuffs and chokeholds in the future for Oliver.
It’s a tough to read, and certainly not a book above criticism — Coates’ explicit atheism (which he seems uncomfortable with at times) surely leaves Christian readers longing for him to experience the hope of Christ, an eschatological hope that was the engine driving much of the Civil Rights Movement.
But, it is a book that we should read and consider, and it couldn’t be timelier.