notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
After devouring Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me in a single afternoon, I came away from my reading wholly impressed by the author’s brilliance, eloquence, and insightfulness. I did not always agree or identify with his point of view, but that hardly mattered to me at the time; the poetry of the book was so captivating that I found myself flipping back to underlined passages later in the day, trying to see how the sentences flowed. I was moved by the book’s beauty and humanity.
That night, I was worked up. I had trouble sleeping. I reached for the hardback on my nightstand, rereading quotes that inspired me, wrestling with passages about “the Dream” that puzzled me. Coates’ book left me feeling confused, inspired, guilty, frustrated, enlightened, and ignorant—and that’s not a bad thing. I couldn’t help but acknowledge “an old indistinct sadness well up in me” as he traced the plight of blacks throughout the history of America. That night, I, too, “felt myself drowning in the news reports of murder.”
The structure of his book is unique: it is part autobiography, part epistle, and part political and historical theory. It takes the form of a six-chapter letter addressed to his fifteen-year-old son, Samori, but it’s easy to forget that the “you” Coates is writing towards is not, in fact, you. By writing in the second person, the reader is immediately immersed in Coates’ world and invested in the timely events he describes: the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Prince Jones; the events in Ferguson and Charleston.
The narrative begins with Coates’ life growing up in a West Baltimore neighborhood plagued by drugs, gang violence, and police brutality, where “the law did not protect us” and he “learned the smell and feel of fighting weather.” He attends Howard University in Washington, D.C.—“chocolate city”—and is transformed by the forward-thinking people he meets and the revolutionary books he reads there. He admits that he “was bound by my ignorance, by the questions that I had not yet understood,” and this is ultimately what the book is about. In Between the World and Me, Coates attempts to explain to his son—and, in turn, to the reader—what it means to be black in America. While the book is addressed to a black teenager, it is white Americans living “the Dream” who most need to hear this message.
His call to action—for Americans of all races, social classes, and economic backgrounds to accept responsibility for events of the past and the present—is powerful and timely. What is required, he suggests, is “a new story, a new history told through the lens of our struggle.” But this call is often mired in repetitious emphasis on instances of incessant police violence, mass incarceration of black males, and blatant racial injustice. He seems to fail to acknowledge the progress that blacks in America have achieved; he often appears exceedingly pessimistic to the point of nearly alienating his reader: “I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay,” he informs his son. Coates does not believe that a sole individual can make a difference, yet he is writing this letter to Samori in order for him to hopefully, one day, effect and inspire change. Although Coates’ tone occasionally comes off as preachy, his true intent is to teach:
“When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) [my mother] would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions: Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher? Why did I not believe my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson? I have given you these same assignments. I gave them to you not because I thought they would curb your behavior—they certainly did not curb mine—but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself.”
The book poses numerous difficult and significant questions, and at times this feels overwhelming; however, it is an effective rhetorical strategy, and Coates does not shy away from appearing defiant and challenging the reader. His book is an attempt to make sense of how black lives are destroyed every day in our country, in ways many of us—mainly, white middle- and upper-class Americans who live behind the safe, suburban walls of gated communities—will never understand or witness. Between the World and Me is about struggle, and Coates struggles to answer (perhaps unanswerable) questions for his son and for his reader. This book isn’t meant to be an answer to comprehending hundreds of years of racial strife; it is the beginning of a broader conversation that is long overdue.
Coates explains that he wants Samori’s life to be different, and better, than his own—but he also wants all American lives to be better, more informed, and more historically conscious. “Never forget,” he reminds us, “that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.” He desires a world where his black son does not have to live in fear of his body. “I am afraid,” the author admits numerous times throughout his book—he was afraid in his youth, and he’s afraid for his son now that Coates has entered fatherhood.
Coates offers us the opportunity to witness a moving and powerful conversation that, as he makes clear, needs to occur; on every page of his book, there is a sense of urgency. This book isn’t just about racial prejudice; it is about the plight of our nation today. The “world” he refers to is not just the one he experienced as an inner-city kid in Baltimore, but one in which we all live and participate: a world that is beautiful, but crumbling. “No one is held responsible,” he writes, and the emphasis on personal accountability makes this a book that all Americans should read. He tells his son (and, of course, the reader), “What I want you to know is that this is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility.” Between the World and Me proves that in the fight for equality, struggling is inevitable, but change in America is possible. We need more writers like Coates: writers who are humble and defiant, aggressive and dignified, honest and brutal.