Between the World and Me

Review From User :

I'm not sure what compelled me to pick up this book, but that's true of many books I read. I simply felt like it was something I needed to read at that moment, and I'm very glad I did.

Between the World and Me is written as a letter/essay from Coates to his fifteen-year-old son, trying to come to terms with what it means to grow up as an African American male in 2015. I almost said "make sense of what it means," but Coates' story is not so much about making sense as it is about finding one's place in a nonsensical context. He does not believe there is an answer to race relations. He believes (as I interpret it) that racial conflict is in itself an artificial construct and part of the Dream that keeps one group in power over another.

This is not a book written to explain the African American experience to white people (or as Coates likes to say, people who believe they are white.) As a middle-aged white guy, I am in no way the intended audience for this book. Perhaps that's what made it such an enlightening read for me. There was no sugar-coating, no careful racial diplomacy, no worry about mediating opinions to cater to what white people might be able to hear. It was just a heartfelt, raw, painful and honest letter from a father to a son, laying plain Coates' worry, anger, frustration, and fear for his son's future in light of Coates' own past and the world his son will grow up in. (There again: I almost said 'the world he will inherit,' but Coates would be quick to point out that this is white thinking. We grow up believing we can inherit the future of our country, whereas African Americans grow up hearing a very different message.)

Coates' most powerful assertion: doing violence to the African American body is an American legacy and tradition. It is not a failure of the system. It is part of the system. As much as may have changed in the past decades, the past centuries, the basic fear of African American parents remains: that their children can be snatched away, brutalized, killed for the smallest of reasons or no reason at all, and too often this violence is never addressed as anything more than an unavoidable force of nature like a hurricane.

We all tend to gravitate toward books that reflect our own experience, toward characters who look and act the way we do. I believe many white readers, if they are honest with themselves, will think, If I'm a white person, why should I read a book about African Americans That doesn't have anything to do with me. Whites have the privilege of not thinking about race until some violence flares up on the news, and then we think of the issue as a fire to put out, not a sign of some endemic problem. This was true when I was growing up in Texas in the 70s and 80s. It was true when I taught in San Francisco in the 90s. It's still true here in Boston in the 2010s. African Americans don't have the luxury of thinking about race only when it suits them. It is an omnipresent fact of life and death. It makes their experience of American society fundamentally different and exponentially more complicated. That's exactly why I'd recommend this book to white readers. Our bubble can be pretty thick. It is important for us to step outside ourselves.

Coates offers no answers, easy or otherwise. He believes in no grand vision. But he offers his son an honest assessment of his own experience and his own evolving thoughts on America. That's what rang true to me: a father talking candidly and caringly with his son. That's common ground I share with the author, as different as our experiences may be. This is a short book, easily finished in a couple of sittings, but it packs a punch. These issues aren't going away. They are only going to become more pressing. Read the book!


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.
Expand text… 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.

Between the World and Me - Part 1

Between the World and Me - Part 2

Between the World and Me - Part 3