Between the World and Me
Usually I don’t let much get between a book and me. I’m quick to take a recommendation, rather than looking around to see what others think, and I’m not interested in the thoughts of critics before I’ve had time to form my own opinions. Between short spurts of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, however, I looked to see what the critics have said and then waited until after our book club meeting to write about my view of the book.
If I’d read Between the World and Me on my own, without anyone to discuss it with, I would have been both edified and irritated. The book isn’t written for me. It does not invite me in. It keeps using a phrase I had to look up, “those Americans who believe that they are white.” Although I’ve read James Baldwin (including his letter to his nephew, The Fire Next Time, which is Coates’ literary model for this book addressed to his son), I hadn’t read his essay “On Being ‘White’…And Other Lies,” which explains Coates’ use of the phrase more completely than any of Baldwin’s other writings. And I hadn’t read Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me.”
Meeting on the night after Alton Sterling’s murder and only a few hours before Philando Castile would be shot to death by the police, my book group talked about fear. Mothers all, we talked about our fears for our children, especially the two that appear “black.” We talked about the fear that Coates describes as driving the beatings many desperate African-American parents give their children, to keep them from repeating a behavior that could get them killed. We talked about the fears of the police, and whether the “Dreamers,” as Coates calls anyone who still believes in the American Dream, fear that if we prosecute too many police for shooting black people, we could start to run out of the kind of people willing to enforce the law in our cities and have to begin gating more communities, hiring more security, and living with more lawlessness.
So many fears, especially of the unknown. We talked about Coates’ story of an adult stranger pushing his four-year-old son out of the way, and agreed that all of us and any of our children are in that situation anytime we travel outside of our small town, but most of us don’t have to worry that, instead of the adult apologizing, other adults will gather and threaten us.
We talked about the poetic way Coates’ book is written, making the points where a reader wants most to despair and put the book down almost bearable, for the universality of the image. For example: “Our parents resorted to the lash the way flagellants in the plague years resorted to the scourge.” Or “perhaps being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.”
As I think more about the experience of reading this book, I find that even though it isn’t addressed to me, it does address the oversimplifications that most thoughtful people object to: “black blood wasn’t black; black skin wasn’t even black.” If we could make forms less black and white (and perhaps less gendered too, while we’re at it) perhaps people would think less of the category “white” as “normal” and more about where their ancestors might have come from.
The book group repeatedly came back to the idea that readers can’t argue with Coates, because he has not set up any arguments. He has observed. He has provided some of his most intimate thoughts—from a father to a child—for us to overhear. And what he says to his own little boy is that “the killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, were created by the policy of Dreamers, but their weight, their shame, rests solely upon those who are dying in them. There is a great deception in this. To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.”
If you have a little boy, or if you’re fond of any child and concerned about the world that we’re creating for our next generation, there are things in this book that you might want to overhear, so you can feel what it’s like. So you can know more and fear less.