There are plenty of books out there about the black experience. But something about Between the World and Me by Ta-nehisi Coates prompted over 1,000 reviews on Amazon, 13,000 ratings on goodreads.com and dozens of reaction articles since it was published in July of this year. Coates’ role as a National Correspondent at The Atlantic undoubtedly plays a role in its popularity, as he has written award-winning pieces for them on important topics like the black family, mass incarceration and “The Case for Reparations.” But that’s not enough to explain the cultural currency of this book, the book we ALL need to be talking about.
Events early on in his life, like many young black boys raised in urban environments, led up to feelings of hopelessness for Coates for which his writing and journalism acted as the only vehicle for salvation. The book is written as an open letter to his son with the fear that one day he will not be there to protect him and others will try to convince him that all of the things they spoke about (racism and discrimination) are an illusion. It became apparent while I was reading that Between the World and Me is not meant to make you feel good. Critics have criticized its lack of hope and its overall negativity. But Coates’ realness is what I appreciated the most. More importantly, it really hit home for me from an academic viewpoint, as I studied sociology in college. As I read, I noticed three (real or otherwise) major theories Coates touches on in the book.
The theory of race as a social construct
“Race is the child of racism, not the father….Racism is is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature.”
In school, I remember reading about Blumenbach and his theory on racial hierarchy stating that Earth’s original people were born out of the Caucasus Mountains. Blumenbach classified other racial categories based on their region of origin and physical traits but assigned a higher value to those originating in the Caucasus Mountains; thereby creating the blueprint for our racist society. Categorization by geography (ethnicity) is one thing but to assign a value to that person or group of people is another. Coates gets to the root of the issue and reminds people that racism is built into the very fabric of our “dividing.” This is probably not something people wanted to hear but racism is not the natural state of the world and it should not be accepted as such. it should be viewed with a critical eye at all times.
The theory of street etiquette as form of survival
“I recall learning these laws clearer than I recall learning my colors and shapes, because these laws were essential to the security of my body. I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.”
This particular part can be seen as a hybrid text for explaining the idea of double consciousness, attributed to Dubois. Perfecting the walk and talk of growing up in the hood is something most blacks have dealt with while growing up. While at the same time perfecting the talk of the rest of the world. Double consciousness is a lesson we learn early on as well. And the language around preservation of the black body is similar to the works of James Baldwin. In his recent interview with the hosts of the podcast Another Round, Coates mentions that he read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time many times before writing this book. And Toni Morrison notes that she wondered who would take Baldwin’s place in this space. The idea of using our own language and customs as a means of survival brings us face to face with the state of our world, again not a pretty picture.
The theory of general wokeness
“The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments.”
Have you ever read something that just blew your mind when you weren’t expecting it? It happens when the preacher says something that really hits home and all you can say is “HMM!” Or when a rapper raps something so genius that all you can do is make the stank face and rewind the track. When I read “The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments” *stank face*, I thought about all the time I spend looking over my back or being extra careful with my words and generally coping with the daily stress of being black. Blacks are often stressing at work about our tone, diction, dress and at school about whether you will be picked for something based on your skill or just based on your race. Hell, you might feel a certain way eating chicken in front of certain people or you could just be afraid to wear your natural hair out. These moments add up. When you hear something like that spoken so plainly, it REALLY sticks with you. Those moments add up to a lifetime. But we feel every second of it.
Those are the three (real or otherwise) theories I found in Between the World and Me. Now let’s see what the Blavity Team has to say:
“I think his point about pessimism in terms of the future is important — so not assuming history bends with an arc toward justice, when there is little to suggest the end of white supremacy. The expectation of failure really stood out to me as a radical idea, especially in the context of ‘hope,’ which is the framework of thought Obama used when running for president.” – Jasmine B
“[BTWAM] is not considered a ‘hopeful’ book, and it’s been unfairly criticized for that. The biggest lesson, for me, was that optimism — especially the “radical optimism” behind many of our American myths — has no place in American racial justice work. The hopeful narratives of racial harmony have resulted in… well, this. I think Coates wrote this book to be an unblinking stare into the grim reality of structural racism and white supremacy. He seems to believe racial progress will only be made once everyone, especially white people, can view this country’s history as *objectively* violent and oppressive and admit that racism exists by design. – Kem
In true academic fashion, here are a couple of discussion questions for those of you who have read the book. How does the book speak to a new generation of blacks? And did it accurately portray a familiar struggle? Join the conversation on Twitter @Blavity.