I just finished the Between The World and Me authored by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The book is written to his son about what it means to be black in America. He takes his us on a journey from his childhood and ends when his son is 15. His story has a brutal honesty that clearly has been attained through a boatload of reflection and reading. He does not pull any punches nor sugarcoat the facts. His portrayal of himself is not in any way shape or form lionizing or heroic. His straightforward explanation of life as a black man leaves no room for argument nor interpretation. This book is his story told through his lens mixed in with a boatload of American and African history.
He begins with his journey of what it was like living and attending school in Baltimore during the 1980’s. This time in his life really shapes how he not only views the world but how it affected his every action and reaction long after he became an adult. Mr. Coates tells his son how he avoided certain streets based on his knowledge of who was there and what could happen if he ventured there. The story that stood out to me was when a young adolescent pulled a gun on him.
“I remember being 11 years old, standing out in the parking lot in front of the 7-Eleven, watching a crew of older boys standing near the street. I stood there, marveling at the older boys’ beautiful sense of fashion. They all wore ski jackets, the kind that mothers put on layaway in September, then piled up overtime hours so as to have the thing wrapped and ready for Christmas. A light-skinned boy with a long head and small eyes was scowling at another boy, who was standing close to me. It was just before three in the afternoon. I was in sixth grade. School had just let out, and it was not yet the fighting weather of early spring. What was the exact problem here? Who could know?
The boy with the small eyes reached into his ski jacket and pulled out a gun. I recall it in the slowest motion, as though in a dream. There the boy stood, with the gun brandished, which he slowly untucked, tucked, then untucked once more, and in his small eyes I saw a surging rage that could, in an instant, erase my body. That was 1986.” (link)
That idea that he had no control over his body was a theme that popped up over and over again. It was obviously a message he wanted his son and the reader to understand. Black people in America have had their bodies taken away from them since the inception of American settlements. This occurred through slavery, rape, beatings, lynchings, jail, or police brutality. If the reader didn’t understand why People of Color were upset not only with America but the whitewashed history of America he laid it out rather plainly.
Another large part of the book was his time spent at Howard University. It seemed to me that his time there he was able to let down his guard and live life with the light-heartedness that I thought everyone had. (yes I realize that is privilege) He speaks of Howard University and the feeling of being part of The Mecca.
“The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body. The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University, which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent.”(link)
Mr. Coates often refers back to his time and family ties to Howard University with such fondness and love that it makes the reader want to experience this oasis.
While at Howard University, a place where he met his wife, he speaks about a man named Prince Jones. Prince was only an acquaintance yet the reader was made to feel that he was a great man who people loved. A man of god and goodness. Prince Jones is later revealed to have been murdered by a police officer. His death shook Mr. Coates to the core.
“Prince Jones had made it through, and still they had taken him. And even though I already knew that I would never believe any account that justified this taking, I sat down to read the story. There were very few details. He had been shot by a PG County officer, not in PG County, not even in D.C., but somewhere in Northern Virginia. Prince had been driving to see his fiancÃ©e. He was killed yards from her home. The only witness to the killing of Prince Jones was the killer himself. The officer claimed that Prince had tried to run him over with his jeep, and I knew the prosecutors would believe him.” (link)
Prince’s death showed him that there was nothing he could do to shield his son from losing control of his body. As a father, I can only imagine the pain and helplessness he had and continues to feel. As a humanist, I am appalled that people feel that way. That feeling is why I continue to read about what I do not know. I can’t ever truly understand what it feels like to be an “other” in America with no escape, however reading this book gave me the slightest glimpse and understanding that I was unable to grasp before.
My final thoughts on the book is that it was written in such a style that only awareness could be gleaned from it. He does not glorify the streets nor condemn it. His views on school and life are honest and unapologetic. His message to his son is clear and consistent. He, “…fears that whatever positive values he gives his son, however hard he encourages him to work in school and do the right thing, out on the streets his body, the color of his skin, will make him vulnerable to state-sanctioned attack.” (link) Between the World and Me is a book that will stick with me forever. You should read it too.