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Between the World and Me Hardcover – July 14, 2015
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Hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading,” a bold and personal literary exploration of America’s racial history by “the most important essayist in a generation and a writer who changed the national political conversation about race” (Rolling Stone)
NAMED ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL BOOKS OF THE DECADE BY CNN • NAMED ONE OF PASTE’S BEST MEMOIRS OF THE DECADE • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • O: The Oprah Magazine • The Washington Post • People • Entertainment Weekly • Vogue • Los Angeles Times • San Francisco Chronicle • Chicago Tribune • New York • Newsday • Library Journal • Publishers Weekly
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.
From the Publisher
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me, a finalist for the National Book Award. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow, Coates has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations.” He lives in New York with his wife and son.
|THE WATER DANCER||WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER||THE BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE||THE BEAUTIFU STRUGGLE (Adapted for Young Adults)|
|A boldly conjured debut novel about a magical gift, a devastating loss, and an underground war for freedom||A vital account of modern America, from one of the definitive voices of this historic moment; this collection includes the landmark essay “The Case for Reparations.”||An exceptional father-son story from the about the reality that tests us, the myths that sustain us, and the love that saves us||Adapted from the adult memoir, this father-son story explores how boys become men, and quite specifically, how Ta-Nehisi Coates became Ta-Nehisi Coates|
An Amazon Best Book of July 2015: Readers of his work in The Atlantic and elsewhere know Ta-Nehisi Coates for his thoughtful and influential writing on race in America. Written as a series of letters to his teenaged son, his new memoir, Between the World and Me, walks us through the course of his life, from the tough neighborhoods of Baltimore in his youth, to Howard University—which Coates dubs “The Mecca” for its revelatory community of black students and teachers—to the broader Meccas of New York and Paris. Coates describes his observations and the evolution of his thinking on race, from Malcolm X to his conclusion that race itself is a fabrication, elemental to the concept of American (white) exceptionalism. Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, and South Carolina are not bumps on the road of progress and harmony, but the results of a systemized, ubiquitous threat to “black bodies” in the form of slavery, police brutality, and mass incarceration. Coates is direct and, as usual, uncommonly insightful and original. There are no wasted words. This is a powerful and exceptional book.--Jon Foro
From School Library Journal
- Publisher : One World; 1st edition (July 14, 2015)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 176 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0812993543
- ISBN-13 : 978-0812993547
- Lexile measure : 1090L
- Item Weight : 9 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.13 x 0.77 x 7.5 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #5,547 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Reviewed in the United States on October 4, 2019
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The appearance of privacy is deceptive; we are not spectators, we are the subjects of the book. The lessons Coates shares with his son are meant for us. But for all of the beauty and power of the book, it is also profoundly troubling. The wound of racism is too fresh; the sharpness of the pain captures his senses and arrests his imagination. The worry is that if we follow along, we, too, shall be captured.
Consider two moments. The first moment comes after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.
"You stayed up till 11 pm that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it."
The second moment comes at the end of the first chapter, and serves as a summary of sorts of Coates’s assessment of our predicament:
"You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstances—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise."
I would love to write like this; I’m sure you would as well. But the beauty of these passages should not conceal their disquieting revelation. The reason Coates does not comfort his son is because there is no comfort to provide. Why is this the case?
Coates often rejects the hubris of the American mythos—the idea that racial progress is a necessary feature of American life. As he says at one point, “one cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.” American exceptionalism does not allow for the confession of fallibility. The mythos, as he cogently reveals, serves as a blinding light for those caught within it; Americans spin out “Dreams” of their greatness, of their moral purity, or more modestly of their long journey to redeem the past. One is reminded of Bill Bennett’s response to Anderson Cooper during the presidential election of 2008. “Does anyone know,” asked Anderson, “what this means in terms of change of race relations in the United States?” To which Bennett responded: “I will tell you one thing it means as the former secretary of education: You don’t take any excuses anymore from anybody.” The suggestion by Bennett was clear: the ascendency of Obama, an African-American, to the presidency settled the problem of race relations and racial discrimination. Obama was the fulfillment of the American promise, effectively allowing one to deny the residue of racial discrimination that otherwise continues to determine the life chances of black folk.
The Dream seems to run so deep that it eludes those caught by it. Between the World and Me initially seems like a book that will reveal the illusion and in that moment open up the possibility for imagining the United States anew. Remember: “Nothing about the world is meant to be.” But the book does not move in that direction. Coates rejects the American mythos and the logic of certain progress it necessitates, but embraces the certainty of white supremacy and its inescapable constraints. White supremacy is not merely a historically emergent feature of the Western world generally, and the United States particularly; it is an ontology. By this I mean that for Coates white supremacy does not structure reality; it is reality.
There is, in this, a danger. When one conceptualizes white supremacy at the level of ontology, there is little room for one’s imagination to soar and one’s sense of agency is inescapably constrained. The meaning of action is tied fundamentally to what we imagine is possible for us. “The missing thing,” Coates writes, “was related to the plunder of our bodies, the fact that any claim to ourselves, to the hands that secured us, the spine that braced us, and the head that directed us, was contestable.” The body is one of the unifying themes of the book. It resonates well with our American ears because the hallmark of freedom is sovereign control over our bodies. This was the site on which slavery did its most destructive work: controlling the body to enslave the soul. We see the reconstitution of this logic in our present moment—the policing and imprisoning of black men and women. The reality of this colonizes not only the past and the present, but also the future. There can be no affirmative politics when race functions primarily as a wounded attachment—when our bodies are the visible reminders that we live at the arbitrary whim of another. But what of those young men and women in the streets of Ferguson, Chicago, New York, and Charleston—how ought we to read their efforts?
We come to understand Coates’s answer to this question in one of the pivotal and tragic moments of the book—the murder of a college friend, Prince Jones, at the hands of the police. As Coates says: “This entire episode took me from fear to a rage that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.” With his soul on fire, all his senses are directed to the pain white supremacy produces, the wounds it creates. This murder should not be read as a function of the actions of a police officer or even the logic of policing blacks in the United States. His account of this strikes a darker chord. What he tells us about the meaning of the death of Prince Jones, what we ought to understand, reveals the operating logic of the “universe”:
"She [referring to his mother] knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of ‘race,’ imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws."
But if we are all just helpless agents of physical laws, the question might emerge again: What does one do? Coates recommends interrogation and struggle. His love for books and his journey to Howard University, “Mecca,” as he calls it, serve as sites where he can question the world around him. But interrogation and struggle to what end? His answer is contained in his incessant preoccupation with natural disasters. We might say, at one time we thought the Gods were angry with us or that they were moving furniture around, thus causing earthquakes. Now we know earthquakes are the result of tectonic shifts. Okay, what do we do with that knowledge? Coates seems to say: Construct an early warning system—don’t misspend your energy trying to stop the earthquake itself.
There is a lesson in this: “Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen…And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory, but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” One’s response can be honorable because it emerges from a clear-sightedness that leaves one standing upright in the face of the truth of the matter—namely, that your white counterparts will never join you in raising your body to equality. “It is truly horrible,” Coates writes in one of the most disturbing sentences of the book, “to understand yourself as the essential below of your country.” Coates’s sentences are often pitched as frank speech; it is what it is. This produces a kind of sanity, he suggests, releasing one from a preoccupation with the world being other than what it is.
Herein lies the danger: Forget telling his son it will be okay. Coates cannot even muster a tentative response to his son; he cannot tell him that it may be okay. “The struggle is really all I have for you,” he tells his son, “because it is the only portion of this world under your control.” What a strange form of control. Black folks may control their place in the battle, but never with the possibility that they, and in turn the country to which they belong, may win.
Releasing the book at this moment—given all that is going on with black lives under public assault and black youth in particular attempting to imagine the world anew—seems the oddest thing to do. For all of the channeling of James Baldwin, Coates seems to have forgotten that black folks “can’t afford despair.” As Baldwin went on to say: “I can’t tell my nephew, my niece; you can’t tell the children there is no hope.” The reason why you can’t say this is not because you are living in a dream or selling a fantasy, but because there can be no certain knowledge of the future. Humility, borne out of our lack of knowledge of the future, justifies hope.
Much has been made of the comparison between Baldwin and Coates, owing largely to how the book is structured and because of Toni Morrison’s endorsement. But what this connection means seems to escape many commentators. In his 1955 non-fiction book titled Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin reflects on the wounds white supremacy left on his father: “I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.” Similar to Coates, Baldwin was wounded and so was Baldwin’s father. Yet Baldwin knew all too well that the wounded attachment if held on to would destroy not the plunderers of black life, but the ones who were plundered. “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” Baldwin’s father, as he understood him, was destroyed by hatred. Coates is less like Baldwin in this respect and, perhaps, more like Baldwin’s father. “I am wounded,” says Coates. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” The chains reach out to imprison not only his son, but you and I as well.
There is a profound sense of disappointment here. Disappointment because given the power of the book, Coates seems unable to linger in the conditions that have given life to the Ta-Neisha Coates that now occupies the public stage. Coates’s own engagement with the world—his very agency—has received social support. Throughout the book he often comments on the rich diversity of black beauty and on the power of love. His father, William Paul Coates, is the founder of Black Classic Press—a press with the explicit focus of revealing the richness of black life. His mother, Cheryl Waters, helped to financially support the family and provided young Coates with direction. And yet he seems to stand at a distance from the condition of possibility suggested by just those examples. One ought not to read these moments above as expressive of the very “Dream” he means to reject. Rather, the point is that black life is at once informed by, but not reducible to, the pain exacted on our bodies by this country. This eludes Coates. The wound is so intense he cannot direct his senses beyond the pain.
I am a 30 something white male who Coates language believes that I am white and comes from the dream. The "belief in ones whiteness" and the "dream" are two fundamental themes of the book.
The "dream" is to live a free life. Its a life freedom from fear of physical vulnerability and pain, free from fear of the the system, and free from fear of economic want among other freedoms. The dreamers, according to Coates, also have a lack of consciousness about what sustains their life style.
Coates did not grow up living the dream. His story starts in his childhood in an inner city Baltimore neighborhood where he was always worried about his physical security when he was walking to school figuring out how many friends he was with and who was around him. In the Baltimore inner city, "might often made right" and if you were not aware of theses things, people would steal your bike, people would bully you, steal from you, and possible even kill you according to Coates. Coates once had another kid pull a gun on him when he was a pre-teen. Living the dream by contrast is walking down the street holding hands with your significant others oblivious to your surroundings while your children run up and down the street also oblivious to your surroundings. Living the dream is about having nice things and not questioning how those things came to be in your possession (cheap labor) By Coates's standard I am definitely somebody who grew up in the dream. I wasn't afraid growing up and had freedom to pursue my interests and hobbies growing up (reading history and playing sports). I grew up not too far from Coates in Maryland, both my parents were federal government workers. I felt I pretty understood Coates concept of living the dream--it meant having freedom--and I definitely had it. It meant having a lack of consciousness when it came to material wealth. Just like a lot of people become vegetarians after watching slaughtering houses if they never thought about the slaughter that went into creating their food, likewise dreamers have no consciousness of the the brutality that created their material wealth according to Coates. The dreamers lack of consciousness is mostly intentional according to Coates, though he really does not delve too deep into how much of the lack of consciousness is intentional vs. unintentional.
The death of a Howard student Prince Jones also plays a critical part of the book. Jones was a friend of Coates at Howard University (Coates calls Howard University the black community's "Mecca"). Jones was killed by the PG County Police when they mistook him for a petty criminal that they were looking to arrest and it ended in some type of altercation whose exact details will be hard to ascertain. Jones death was the result of bad police work. It also underlies why the African American community distrusts the police so much because incidents like this are typical of the police interaction with underprivileged communities. The Police don't fear consequences if they do sloppy police work in poor neighborhoods the way they do else. I had my own encounter with the PG County police. When I was a student at the University of Maryland I got arrested and punched in the face. I had participated in a riot after a Maryland-Duke where some of the students vandalized local businesses, but I had not participated in any vandalism myself. I tried to shield another student that the police were trying to arrest by blocking the officer's path. I got punched in the face and wrestled to the ground. I had enough blood on me that they took me to the hospital as a precaution though my injuries were not serious. Eventually I agreed not to sue the PG County police (I really didn't have any serious injuries) and the charges against me were dismissed. After reading Coates book I did wonder if I had been underprivileged and African American would I have been able to get the charges against myself dismissed as a potential law suit from a white middle class person who are already hired a well known lawyer probably seems more threatening than the threats the PG County police usually get. Also my attorney pressured the police department by telling them I would get expelled from the University of Maryland if I was convicted and they may have played a part in it too. The prosecutor brought the case but all the cops who were witnesses didn't show up (my attorney arranged that ahead of time and the case was dismissed). That said a huge gulf between African Americans and whites is how much African Americans distrust the police. After my incident I was a little more cynical about the police, but still trusted the PG County police to do the right thing as I called them for help a couple times thereafter (e.g. somebody threw a rock at my window and shattered it) and my car was broken into. I wasn't disillusioned with the PG County police by my incident like the underprivileged black community was. I still expected the PG County Police to treat me well (which they did).
I struggled a lot more to understand Coates concept of "believing oneself to be white". It seems to mean having a sense of entitlement. Coates doesn't believe a sense of entitlement is exclusive for whites. As mentioned in the preceding paragraph he invokes the middle class African Americans of PG County multiple times as having a sense of entitlement and being callous to the suffering of others. Going back to the concept of "believing oneself to be white" Coates seems to think its about equals and unequals. He quotes John Calhoun as saying the biggest stratification in Ante-Bellum southern society is not between rich and poor but between whites and blacks. You are either one of the entitled or one of the people that the entitled class exploits. Coates doesn't think the entitled class (the ones who believe themselves to be white) is strictly based on ones skin color though there is a strong correlation. He mentions that other races including African Americans can be exploiters and that segments of the white population can be the exploited (he used the example of hostility towards Irish immigrants, but he just as easily could have used a more modern example of the current hostility towards Mexican and Central America immigrants who are genetically pmostly of European ancestry with a significant though minority strand of Native American ancestry.
I found Coates interesting, but his analysis a bit narrow. I found his concept of the dream more convincing than some of the other narratives and themes he explored, though his understanding of the dream was perhaps a bit shallow. As somebody who grew up and is permeated in Coates "Dream" I feel like Coates analysis of the people in the "Dream" is shallow. Coates feels like people who live in the dream are implicitly okay with the exploitation of the underprivileged as long as that exploitation is not brought too close to their senses. I think there is truth in that, I live a solid middle class lifestyle and certainly benefit from cheap labor in the sense that it lowers costs of the goods that provide me a middle class lifestyle and that I will cite things like economic mobility and the land of opportunity if people draw my attention to the wealth inequality and the life of the working poor. At the same time, people living in the "Dream" are not living in a vacuum and most of our attention is on other people living in the "Dream". That means my priorities are beating out peers to get into good schools, get good jobs, and beating out other guys for my dream woman. That is where 95% of my energy is. John Calhoun almost certainly lied, a lot of southern planters in the ante-bellum south almost definitely looked on poor whites with disdain considering them dirty, uneducated hillabilities. Further while people raised in the dream have a head start on leading a happy fulfilling life on those not raised in the dreams, there are a lot of miserable people "who believe themselves to be white" because they made poor personal choices. If Coates wants to better understand white people he'll need to understand the role the concept of "personal responsibility" plays in the dream and how it both legitimately explains results (my father was born poor in a house with no electricity in a rural school with one classroom for grades K-5, who ate fried flour cause there was no other food in the house and went to school without shoes when he destroyed his only pair of shoes, but he joined the military, worked a second job when he had two young children one of which had a medical condition not covered by insurance to pay for treatment) and gave his children a middle class life in the Dream and also how the concept of personal responsibility is used as a crutch by haves to justify their exploitation of the have nots.
I think to transcend racial understandings, you would have to address the concept of personal responsibility which is maybe the most central belief of the dreamers. Personal responsibility is not a rigid concept for dreamers it means slightly different things to different people. Ultimately the concept breaks down to the idea that people have to live with their decisions. I don't think the concept is as simple as the idea that honest people will always finish ahead of cheats. I think even dreamers recognize that external factors (even if it only be luck) play a role in ones outcomes. But it does emphasize the role that our own decisions play in our life and minimizes the role of external factors. Coates talks about personal responsibility here and there talking about Prince Jones mother or his grandmother working as a maid and going to night school, but in his world view external factors are the primary driver of success and failure. Coates focuses on external factors and as such he won't resonate with a lot of white readers cause he is starting with a premise that they only begrudgingly accept. If you couldn't tell from my own aside about my factor, I more or less buy into the concept of personal responsibility and was annoyed by Coates focus on the external. And yes, of course, I am aware that external factors play a significant role in outcomes. I think Coates was surprised when Prince Jones's mother said she was treated with respect by well to do whites, but I think that illustrates Coates lack of understanding of the significance of the concept of personality responsibility in dreamers world vview.
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For anyone with the courage to take the red pill and wake from their ignorance.
Most importantly, though, Coates’ perspective as a Black man growing up in America is just so essential. I went to a very white university not far from where Coates grew up. And yet, my experience and vision of Baltimore is worlds away from his home. We all need to explore why that is. Where this separation originates and how we can dismantle it. The first step is listening to accounts like this one.