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Between the World and Me

July 7, 2016

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2016 3:07 pm

    This book is brilliant and hard to read and so, so necessary. It made me look at my own “white” son and think about the kinds of warnings I don’t have to give him simply because of his skin color. That made me feel ashamed but also, to be honest, relieved. And that also makes me feel guilty. But now I also realize that I have to do the work of talking with him about race and prejudice and privilege, in developmentally appropriate ways over the years, of course. It’s a daunting task but it must be done.

    I’m glad you reviewed this, and I appreciate your thoughts.

    • July 8, 2016 10:22 am

      The other thing that I realized a few years ago is that we have to talk to our sons about how important it is to protect their black friends when they’re out together, including holding back from activities that could be dangerous to boys more vulnerable than they are.

  2. Jenny permalink
    July 8, 2016 2:29 pm

    I so much appreciate your thoughts on this, and particularly on the ways we can overhear this conversation through poetry and listen in order to learn. This book has been on my list for about a year, and I’ve been (I think) putting it off because it never seems like quite the right time. Would you suggest reading the Baldwin before reading the Coates, or will I be just as well off reading it on its own?

    • July 9, 2016 9:26 am

      I would suggest reading the Coates on its own, although I also recommend you click on the link and read the Baldwin essay to understand “those who think they are white.”
      This does seem like the right time to get around to this book.

  3. July 8, 2016 6:35 pm

    I like the way you describe the book as an overheard conversation, rather than an argument. That makes a lot of sense, given the part that I have read, and makes me feel more encouraged about going back to it soon.

    • July 9, 2016 9:33 am

      It’s a very clever rhetorical technique, making your reader an over-hearer.

  4. July 12, 2016 3:38 pm

    Very much enjoyed your perspective on this book. And how wonderful it must have been having a thoughtful group to discuss it with.

    • July 12, 2016 3:57 pm

      Yes–I actually helped form the group so we’d have a place to discuss books like this. We’re making our way through “10 Books I Wish My White Teachers Had Read.”


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